The Indian government’s latest figures, that were released to mark the opening of the International Tiger Conservation Conference in Delhi, show that wild tiger numbers across the country are now calculated to be 1,706 (i.e. ranging between a minimum of 1,571 to a maximum of 1,875), an increase of almost 300 the last tiger census in 2007. The question is if this figure should give us hope for the future of Indian tigers, and what is more, hope for global tiger population as it is estimated that around half the world’s tiger population can be found in India.
The numbers sound promising, but there are some issues that must be taken into account while assessing these numbers. Firstly, the updated figures incorporate a number of areas not previously surveyed. For example, the Sundarbans region (home to 70 tigers) was included in the count this time. Secondly, some areas outside of national parks have been surveyed more intensively than before, such as the Moyar Valley and Sigur Plateau in Southwest India’s Western Ghats Complex, and the Ramnagar Forest Reserve outside Corbett National Park. Thirdly, despite an overall increase some populations have decreased. And last but not least the wildlife experts who conducted the census said tiger habitats and corridors, which are the routes frequently used by the big cats to move from one reserve to another, had declined sharply, by 22 per cent, as huge power projects, mining and roads cut into their habitats. With a steady increase of the human population on the Indian subcontinent this is not likely to improve, and it is expected to increase tiger-human conflicts.
Considering these issues questions have been raised, such as where did the 200-odd tigers of Sunderbans vanish (70 tigers according the latest survey)? As the West Bengal Government kept claiming a steady figure of 275 tigers over the last decade. Such concrete proof of loss of tiger numbers, should raise eyebrows. The reliability of the census and the government’s ability to further protect tiger habitats is questioned by several renown tiger scientists/conservationists like Ullas Karanth, Belinda Wright and Valmik Thapar.
The techniques used to establish the number of tigers via modelling and extrapolation using the actually camera trapped animals, other tiger signs, prey species, and human presence are questionable, as it always will be a dubious exercise in a large country like India. Another technique used during the survey, the DNA analysis of tiger faeces for individual identification, has also raised questions. The analytical consistency and replicability in multiple locations that is needed, together with collector’s bias makes such a technique difficult to use for a nation-wide study such as an annual all-India Tiger census. Valmik Thapar challenges the government’s inefficiency in establishing the Tiger Task Force which has received a sanction of over Rs 350 crore (about 5 million Euros) in 2005 to rehabilitate villages outside tiger reserves and consolidate the tiger’s future.
Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh called the increase good news but cautioned against any complacency in efforts to save the iconic animal from extinction. He confessed that protecting India’s forests and its creatures is going to be challenging, because of the 9 per cent population’s growth rate. The energy demands of the burgeoning human population are huge, which lead to habitat-threatening projects such as the interlinking of rivers for hydro-power plant construction.