“Tigers are a major indicator of the health of the environment, certainly the health of the forest that they inhabit. But they are the water gods, if you like. They are indicators of how well we are doing to conserve forests that provide water for millions of people and mitigate climate change.” - Debbie Banks, Head of The Tiger Campaign at the Environemental Investigative Agency.
If we’re to take Banks’ quotation as gospel, news of a 30% spike in India’s tiger population as per the 3rd scientific census in the country is fantastic news for more reasons than just the most obvious one, though the fact that we’re moving further away from the big cats’ extinction was more than enough fodder to get our spirits soaring.
When India’s first scientific census was conducted in 2006, the future of tigers seemed particularly bleak. Currently estimated to be home to 70% of the world’s tiger population, it dwindled to a low of just 1411 eight years ago making the debilitating effects of deforestation, prey depletion, abysmal management of India’s 47 tiger reserves and wide-spread development leading to encroachment seem impossible to combat. Add to that a 2010 BBC report that stated “fewer than 3500 tigers existed in the wild , with more than half found in India where the population is spread over more than 100,000 sq km of forest,” or headlines that warned about the killings of over 1000 tigers in a decade, and the predictive forecasts were even more pessimistic. However, nine years into the struggle, estimates counting as many as 2226 tigers roaming forest reserves across the country has washed a wave of jubilation across conservationists the world over. Warranted as the mood may be, experts in the field have been quick to warn people against complacency.
Though Debbie Banks (head of the Tiger Campaign at the Environmental Investigation Agency) welcomed the great news, she admitted that in spite of it, she didn’t feel anyone was ‘sitting back and thinking ‘we’ve won.’ Citing one of their major challenges as the “sophistication of the tiger trade,” she told CNN that tiger traders have begun to transport the animal’s body parts via unofficial borders such as mountain passes and are constantly ‘changing their practice’ making it difficult to put any kind of enforcements in place. And as long as the demand for decorative skins and bones (for tiger bone wine) from China exist, the struggle cannot cease to exist.
Former member of the National Board for Wildlife (Prerna Bindra) gave a similar statement to The Hindustan Times, agreeing that the spike was ‘excellent news’ but reminding people that it was “strong policy and legal framework which enabled the big cat to survive.”
Union environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, was in a less prudent mood however, labelling the census results as a ‘huge success’ telling journalists in New Delhi that “Never before has such an exercise been taken on such a massive scale where we have unique photographs of 80% of India’s tigers.”
[Read more details on the advanced technologies used in this study to assess the numbers of tigers remaining here.]
He believes that the conservation practices proved successful in India can actually be adopted elsewhere now and has implied a willingness to donate tiger cubs to the international community, thereby playing a major role in global tiger conservation as well.
State-wise segregation of the statistics tell a more complex story still. Madhya Pradesh, traditional home of the tiger went up from 257 tigers in 2010 to 308 in 2014 but remained far below the volumes in Karnataka (406) and Uttarakhand (340). Similar disappointing news came from Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand where experts believe the lessened stabilising of populations was due to poor management in these habitats, especially “Maoist-affected areas.”
See the image below for a complete state-wise break up of tiger populations in the country:
All in all, the message is a loud enough roar to be heeded. Government conservation efforts over the past four years seem to be paying off and are certainly to be commended as far as India setting a global benchmark for tiger conservation is concerned, but we’ve only won a battle. The fate of the war is yet to be decided.
Words: Mandovi Menon