There is reason for tiger enthusiasts to celebrate: India's wild tiger population has grown 12 per cent in the last four years.
According to the 2010 tiger census, whose results were declared on Monday, there are approximately 1,706 of the big cats in the country, which includes about 70 in the marshes of the Sunderbans, which have never been scientifically surveyed before. The 2006 census had estimated that there were 1,411 tigers, without including any from the Sunderbans.
Thirty per cent of the tiger population lives in areas outside the government's reserves, giving conservationists a new challenge in the effort to protect them.
The celebrations, however, were muted by the decrease in land area where tigers can thrive. “Tiger occupancy areas shrunk from 9 million hectares to less than 7.5 million hectares over the last four years,” said Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh. “This means that tiger corridors are under severe threat, especially in central India…in Madhya Pradesh and northern Andhra Pradesh.”
Not surprisingly, these are the two States that have fared the worst in the census, with tiger populations falling to 213 in Madhya Pradesh and 65 in Andhra Pradesh.
The largest number of tigers lives in Karnataka – about 280 – and conservation efforts have been successful in the entire Western Ghats area, with Tamil Nadu and Kerala also seeing good results. The Terai belt of grasslands at the Himalayan foothills in Uttarakhand have also done surprisingly well in nurturing their tiger populations.
While Kaziranga in Assam has 100 tigers, the largest in a single reserve, there are worrying signs from the North Eastern area. These forested hills are capable of supporting far more than the number of tigers that were found in the area, but poaching and the pressure of developmental activities have kept the numbers low.
Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Water Resources Minister Salman Khursheed flanked Mr. Ramesh as he announced the census results.
“We can deal with the threat of poachers, of the real estate and mining mafias, but it's much harder to deal with the developmental dynamic,” said Mr. Ramesh, pointing to energy projects — whether coal, hydel or nuclear — irrigation schemes, and highway proposals as among the developments endangering tigers and their ecosystem.
“A country of 1.4 billion cannot survive on solar, wind and biogas alone, so we do need commercial sources of energy, but we also need to conserve these forests,” he told Mr. Ahluwalia. “We must decide whether we can afford a 9 per cent growth agenda which would destroy our forests and the cultures and livelihoods that depend on them.” He added that river linking, hydel and irrigation projects could destroy the Panna, Buxa and Valmiki tiger reserves.