India has at least 3,167 tigers, according to estimates from the latest tiger census made public on Sunday. While this is ostensibly an increase since the last census of 2018, the numbers are not strictly comparable, as a key calculation to compute the maximum and minimum range of the tiger population is yet to be done.
There were 2,967 tigers recorded in 2018, and 2,226 in 2014. Sunday’s figures were provisional and could be revised further, an official involved with the census told The Hindu.
The tiger population numbers were made public by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Mysuru on Sunday, at an event to mark the International Big Cat Alliance conference as well as the 50th anniversary of Project Tiger.
Western Ghats decline
The tiger population has grown the most in the Shivalik hills and Gangetic flood plains, followed by central India, the north eastern hills, the Brahmaputra flood plains, and the Sundarbans. There was a decline in the Western Ghats numbers, though “major populations” were said to be stable.
The tiger numbers are estimated by adding animals caught in camera traps, as well as those that may not have been captured in this way. The latter are estimated by statistical techniques. “We’ve found 3,080 unique tigers in camera traps this time. In the last census, it was 2,603. However, for the latest census, we haven’t finished computing the estimates of tigers outside such traps as well as the State-wise break-up of tigers, so the numbers may differ. We expect it to be done within three months,” said Qamar Qureshi of the Wildlife Institute of India, one of the scientists involved in the census exercise.
In their four-year estimates, the scientists provide a range of the estimated tiger population, and the mean value is highlighted as the latest tiger population.
For instance, in 2018, the tiger population was a minimum of 2,603 and a maximum 3,346 with a mean value of 2,967.
The current estimate also does not give numbers on the proportion of tigers outside protected areas, which are a growing number and a key marker of the environmental threats as well as man-animal conflicts. However, the authors of the census report warn that nearly all of the five major tiger-zones face challenges to the growth of the tiger population due to the increasing demands from infrastructure development.
“With tigers increasing outside Tiger Reserves in the landscape (Shivalik hills and Gangetic plains), Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh need to invest in mitigating conflict with tigers and mega herbivores… The wildlife habitats (Protected Areas and corridors) within this region (Central Indian highlands and Eastern Ghats) face a range of threats, including habitat encroachment, illegal hunting of both tigers and their prey, conflicts between humans and wildlife, unregulated and illicit cattle grazing, excessive harvesting of non-timber forest produce, human induced forest fires, mining, and ever-expanding linear infrastructure. This region is also having several mines of important minerals, hence mitigation measures like lower mining impact techniques and rehabilitation of mining sites should be done on priority,”says the section of the report highlighting challenges to the tiger population.
New reserves needed
Since 1973, when Project Tiger was established, the number of dedicated tiger reserves has grown from nine reserves covering 18,278 square km to 53 reserves spanning 75,796 square km, which is roughly 2.3% of India’s land area.
India hosts close to 75% of the world’s tiger population, and its conservation success — evidenced by increasing tiger numbers from 1,411 in 2006 to at least 3,167 presently — without relying on fenced reserves is seen as a global model worth emulating. However, experts have said that most of the country’s tigers are focussed within a handful of reserves which are fast approaching their peak carrying capacity, and unless new regions are developed as reserves, it may be a challenge to ensure further growth in numbers.
Following the translocation of cheetahs from Africa, India is now looking at international initiatives to translocate tigers into other locations. It is in talks with Cambodia, where the tiger has gone extinct due to poaching, to create a suitable habitat there and ship a few tigers from India to revive the big cat’s population in that country.