India is unique in having a significant number of tigers in the wild, in spite of growing population and resource extraction pressures on their habitat. The latest estimate of tigers in various landscapes published by the Ministry of Environment and Forests claims an appreciable rise in numbers of the big cat. That there could be as many as 2,226 tigers in the country — up from 1,706 four years ago — in nature reserves ranging from the hills in the Northeast to central Indian forests and the Western Ghats, besides the mangrove-rich Sundarbans delta, gives India a special place on the global conservation map. Clearly, some States deserve credit for strengthening the protection of wild tigers since the notorious wipeout in Sariska a decade ago. Such conservation measures, notably the extension of protected area boundaries, must continue. Yet, as credentialed scientists are pointing out, the numbers available from the latest count may merely indicate the presence of tigers in a given area, rather than serve as the conclusions of a definitive census. What they highlight is the need to improve those aspects of the ecology that lead to a rise in numbers — voluntary relocation of forest-dwellers from core forests, a severe crackdown on the hunting of prey animals, improved patrols against poaching, safeguards against harmful land-use changes and constant monitoring using scientific methods.
The science of conserving tigers, arguably the most charismatic animals on the planet, is increasingly focussed on saving ‘source populations’ of the cat. These are defined in the literature as sites where more than 25 breeding females can be hosted, in turn embedded in a larger landscape that can potentially have more than 50 female tigers and which enjoy protection. By some accounts, 70 per cent of the world’s tigers are to be found in such sites; in India, 90 per cent of the population is part of 30 or 40 major source populations. As the Wildlife Conservation Society has pointed out, conservation of this stock holds the key to achieving a significant rise in their numbers in the coming years — potentially, India could have several thousand more if it provides them the requisite space and the connected landscapes that facilitate dispersal. In the current counting exercise, the Centre has done well to include non-governmental experts and rely on improved methods such as camera trapping, although it is yet to move to continuous monitoring and annual assessments. The government must be open to the idea of more intensive research within forests to protect the tiger and other endangered species, and adopt a liberal approach to permit bona fide independent scientists to work in protected areas. The encouraging status report on tigers awaits refinement and confirmation in March.