Wild Tigers – ‘Cautious optimism’ as numbers rise again

The tiger. Without doubt one of the most iconic and best-loved animals on Planet Earth. And, with a deadly mix of habitat loss, poaching and other human pressures, one of the most endangered. Wild tiger numbers have crashed by a staggering 97% in the last century. But the last few years have seen tentative but welcome signs of hope for the giant striped cat.

The best known increase is in the numbers of the Siberian tiger, with strict conservation measures imposed by the Russian government leading to a near doubling of the population. Less well-known, but equally noteworthy and welcome, is the marked uptick in the number of wild tigers in India.

The All India Tiger Estimation–2018 report, released on July 29, reckoned the population of the country’s national animal at 2,967. In releasing the report, prime minister Narendra Modi remarked that it is possible to strike a healthy balance between development and environment.

The Tiger Estimation Report, released every four years, pegs the population of wild tigers in the country at 2,967 for 2018, marking an increase of about 30% compared to the 2014 tiger estimation report, when their population was estimated at 2,226. In 2010, the tiger population was pegged at 1,706 while in 2006 it was 1,411.

Among the states, the report revealed an increase in tiger occupancy in Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, and a loss in occupancy in the northeast states due to poor sampling.

The highest tiger population was recorded in Madhya Pradesh (526), closely followed by Karnataka (524) and Uttarakhand (442).

For the 2018 report, the fourth cycle of national tiger status assessment since 2006, 26,838 camera traps were deployed and a total of “2,461 individual tigers (more than one year of age)” were photo-captured. The study used a spatially explicit capture-mark-recapture (SECR) framework to arrive at the tiger population which estimates tigers directly within camera trapped areas and extrapolates it to areas with tigers, but not camera trapped, based on joint distribution of covariates such as tiger sign intensity, prey abundance, human disturbance and habitat characteristics.

The 2018 study saw an increase in camera traps density (26,838 at 141 sites) for recording the tigers, compared to 2014 (9,735 camera traps in 51 sites) and field data was gathered using a mobile application. The latest study also covered 381,400 square km of forests, an increase from the 378,118 sq km of forests covered in 2014. The report notes that this cycle is the “most accurate survey conducted.”

India has a long history of tiger conservation and is home to over 60% of the global wild tiger population. In 1973, it launched Project Tiger, with nine tiger reserves, to control the dwindling population and since then the efforts have only strengthened. At present, India has 50 tiger reserves in 18 states accounting for nearly 2.21% of the country’s total geographical area.

India’s neighbouring countries have also improved their tiger conservation work. For instance, Nepal has nearly doubled its tiger population from 121 in 2009 to 235 in 2018, while Bangladesh and Bhutan have recorded 114 and 103 tigers respectively.

Rajesh Gopal, secretary-general of the Global Tiger Forum (GTF), explained that broadly put, the status of the tiger in south Asia range improved from sub-optimal to optimal. But it is much better in comparison to wild tiger status in southeast Asian tiger range countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

In south Asia, we have reached a good level while in southeast Asia there is a scope for the revival of the tiger population. In India, I feel we have now almost reached a level where we can consolidate. It is at a stable level. Now we have to look beyond. The focus needs to be now on the strategy to effectively manage the present population,” said Gopal, a retired Indian forest service officer, who also served as the member secretary of India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority(NTCA) for several years.

As far as India’s neighbours are concerned, the report stated that ensuring the functionality of habitat corridor connectivity between source populations in India as well as with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar tiger populations is essential for the long-term viability of tiger populations within India and the region.

These habitat corridors are often threatened by the development of linear infrastructure. Careful spatial planning to avoid traversing critical habitats and their linkages, along with appropriate mitigation through wildlife passageways will ensure that tigers and biodiversity conservation is not compromised by modern development,” the report added.

Among places in India where the news is less good is Chhattisgargh. The estimation report notes that the “poor and continuing decline in tiger status in the states of Chhattisgarh and Odisha is a matter of concern.”

In Chhattisgarh, the number of tigers recorded has plummeted from 46 in 2014 to 19 in 2018. Buxa, Dampa and Palamau tiger reserves recorded no tigers but the report clarified that these reserves had poor tiger status in earlier assessments as well.

YV Jhala of the Wildlife Institute of India, explained that there are several places where the tiger population has saturated but there are options to increase their population in areas like Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand.

There is a scope for increasing tigers in the eastern ghats landscape including Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Even in the states like Madhya Pradesh, there are areas where there is a potential for tiger population—like the Nauradehi wildlife sanctuary. There are many such areas,” said Jhala. WII is closely involved in tiger estimation work.

States like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, parts of southern Bengal and the adjoining parts of the northern Andhra Pradesh have some of India’s highest quality tiger habitats. But still, all these states have failed to manage these landscapes including the protected areas that are there in them. If this landscape is properly managed, the tiger population in this region can increase significantly,” Odisha-based wildlife conservationist Aditya Panda said.

Panda explained that in this landscape most of the tiger reserves are not doing well and the wildlife sanctuaries are in a bad condition too.

The reason for low tiger density in these areas is that these parts of the country is especially prone to rampant poaching of prey species like deer and wild pigs. In these areas, there are vast tracts of forests that do not have enough prey base and when that happens the carnivorous animals can’t survive,” said Panda, who also criticised Odisha for remaining in denial mode over the poor number of tigers.

The decrease in numbers in states with large habitat patches is a cause of concern. States such as Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and northeast region haven’t seen much improvement or have shown declines. They have large habitat and a marginal increase in densities would show great results of which there is no evidence,” Milind Pariwakam, a wildlife biologist at the Wildlife Conservation Trust and a member of the IUCN Connectivity Conservation Specialist Group, said.

Not surprisingly, the ever-popular tiger has a large number of excellent charities all working in various ways to protect these beautiful creatures. We salute all of them and, if you are one of their supporters, we salute you as well! The tiger isn’t “out of the woods” by any means yet, but what looked like near certain extinction just a few years ago has changed to a worldwide very of cautious optimism. Well done to all concerned – and keep at it!