In a world facing tremendous pressure on space and resources, a rise in the number of wild tigers is cause for cheer. The big cats are shy and react negatively to human presence. Any credible estimate of growth in their population indicates that a good conservation policy has been at work. According to the latest count released by the World Wildlife Fund and the Global Tiger Forum, >over 600 tigers have been added to the global number of some 3,200 in 2010. Yet, determining the health of an elusive species across countries using absolute numbers is a flawed approach, because it risks shifting the focus away from the health of core populations that persist in a small area of individual countries. India made terrible counting mistakes in the past and failed to undertake intensive scientific censusing of tigers across the country. It came as no surprise when tigers were wiped out of Sariska, and a chastened government corrected its methodologies. Using relatively better techniques, including photographic capture and recapture, the national assessment by the Ministry of Environment and Forests came up with the estimate of 2,226 tigers in 2014, representing an increase from the previous count of 1,706 in 2010, and well above the dismal figure of 1,411 four years previously. Now that India is hosting the Third Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation with successes to show, it should commit itself to scientific methods even more.
In the future, wild tigers will survive if countries can maintain inviolate core habitats for breeding populations, ensure habitat connectivity for genetic exchange and crack down on poaching of both tigers and prey. There are wildlife reserves in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Assam, West Bengal and Jharkhand where the Environment Ministry wants to improve conditions for tiger breeding. As part of this exercise, Rs.380 crore has been made available to Project Tiger this year. What is conspicuous, however, is the lack of political will to remove industrial pressures on forests. The proposal to widen National Highway 7 in Central India, for instance, has become controversial because of the dreadful impact it would have on tigers in the Kanha-Pench and Kanha-Nagzira corridors in Maharashtra. It is contradictory to talk of protecting source populations which occupy only 6 per cent of the habitat on the one hand, and simultaneously engage in destructive activities in the same forests. Mitigating the damage through benign alternatives is vital. Such green leadership would also make India’s collaboration with other countries in the Global Tiger Forum meaningful, demonstrating to them the unique experience of a populous nation conserving forests and wildlife and providing life-sustaining ecosystem services to all. The Environment Ministry must also view independent scientific organisations as partners, and stop putting up bureaucratic hurdles to research in protected areas. Effective conservation demands transparency.