Amidst frequent heartbreaking stories about disappearing tigers, today there is some great news. India’s latest census has counted 2,226 tigers, a whopping 30 percent jump from the 1,706 documented in 2011. Nearly 10,000 “camera traps” were set up in known tiger territories; the resulting photographs definitively identified individuals because their stripes are unique, like a human fingerprint.
At least 20 of those “new” tigers were found in areas not included in prior counts. Most of those gains came from within a few of the best-protected reserves, illustrating what we know about tigers. They are a prolific, adaptable species. They thrive with just the basics: food, water and a large enough place to live. When you add boots-on-the-ground protection, strong laws, enforcement and careful monitoring, they bounce back. On the flip side, not a single tiger was photographed in West Bengal’s 290-square-mile Buxa Tiger Reserve.
One reserve that has made a phenomenal comeback is Panna, in central India, which received an award today for excellent management. Given the park’s history, it’s quite remarkable. In 2009, Panna’s last tiger disappeared, poached out from under the noses of those supposedly protecting them. The tigers that were later translocated from other reserves have since bred successfully; today about 23 tigers live there.
While headlines proclaimed the news, an Oxford University-led study questioned the method used to extrapolate these numbers, which yielded what authors called “irreproducible and inaccurate results.” Study authors and the Indian government stand by their report. However, every scientific study—including this one—needs outside peer review.
There are more tigers in India, but disturbing news hangs over reports of rebounding numbers: It comes at a time when conservation is under serious attack and poaching remains a pervasive threat.
The country was at a similar juncture a few decades back. In 1971, only 1,800 tigers remained. Two years later, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched “Project Tiger” which remains the world’s most comprehensive tiger conservation initiative. At the time of her assassination in 1984, tiger numbers topped 4,000. “Tigers flourished beyond our wildest dreams,” said Wright.
But then, during the 1990s, tigers vanished from across the Indian subcontinent in alarming numbers. The seizure of 2,200 pounds of tiger bone (from about 80 tigers) in Delhi in August 1993 made it obvious what was happening: Poaching for the Chinese medicinal trade (that used tigers parts as prime ingredients) had hit the subcontinent.
But it was worse than that. This hunting bonanza coincided with a period of unbridled development after Indira’s son, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was voted out of office in 1991. “The plunder of India’s forests was in full swing,” remembers Valmik Thapar, one of the country’s premier tiger experts. “Laws, or no laws…it was all about greed.” Forests were razed, degraded and submerged beneath dam floodwaters, pillaged by mining projects and converted for industry and agriculture. Over the past two decades, the country lost a quarter of its wild lands.
Then, in 2008, the Wildlife Institute of India’s grim report shocked the nation and the world with its findings: Only 1,411 tigers were left despite a $400 million investment over 34 years to save them under Project Tiger. When compared with figures from 2002, most states in tiger range had lost half of their cats and overall, there was a stunning 60 percent drop from just six years before. Some of that difference was due to better census methods—but there were still far fewer tigers walking the Indian landscape.
History could repeat itself in what has become the tiger’s last real stronghold—and possibly their last best hope for long-term survival: India is home to 70 percent of the entire wild population. There are some disturbing parallels between the 1990s and today. A lucrative market for tiger skins and bones in China is now driving a new spike in poaching. And although substantially fewer tigers are dying now compared with the carnage that wiped out so many of them two decades ago, if proposed government initiatives move forward, ransacking of the country’s remaining wilderness could break previous records.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new government, development has become the top priority. The election of Modi’s right wing National Democratic Alliance coalition last May sparked unparalleled action to dismantle the entire legal framework that protects land, forests, water and wildlife. There are also moves to do away with oversight that could hamper their efforts. “As of now, the dominant influence in the Prime Minister’s office seems to be that of large project promoters working in the sectors of mining, dams and roads,” says wildlife expert Bittu Sahgal. “They are currently and very directly influencing the government decisions to loosen existing laws, policies and guidelines, to facilitate industrial-scale project clearances at an unprecedented pace.”
It’s the culmination of a debate that has been framed as environment versus progress—just as it is in the U.S. and elsewhere. Powerful industry lobbies and politicians have stoked the myth that “green hurdles”—environmental laws—are strangling the country’s growth, says wildlife conservationist Prerna Bindra. But the rhetoric just isn’t true. In recent years, more than 95 percent of development projects have been green lit. This is simply a land war, fueled by corporate profit—and the needs of 1.3 billion people. India’s last remaining protected lands that provide homes for endangered wildlife cover about 4.5 percent of the country; just 1.2 percent are tiger landscapes. In contrast, 27 percent of US lands are protected.
Many of the proposed changes will hit tigers hard—and globally, wild tigers are already in peril. Perhaps 3,000 remain, scattered across 11 countries, often in small, disconnected populations. A century ago, there were about 97,000 more tigers roaming 30 Asian nations. Wild tigers are almost gone—and in all but a handful of circumstances, those raised in captivity can’t be released into nature.
So the hope is that this celebration of India’s a growing tiger population is not short-lived. “The fact that India has conserved tigers rests on the foundation of a strong legal and policy framework,” says Bindra. “If we meddle with that framework, diluting laws, then it will create serious trouble for wildlife.”
Although the previous administration did not prioritize conservation, there was careful scrutiny of projects that could harm wildlife. Now the fight to oppose big projects like dams and mines is getting harder and harder, says Harshawardhan Dhanwatey, co-founder with his wife Poonam of the Tiger Research and Conservation Trust. “These are some of the only places tigers are found. So we’ll fight to the end.”
One proposed infrastructure project, a canal scheme that would carry water 137 miles through central India from the Ken River to the Betwa Basin, would inundate about one-third of Panna Tiger Reserve. It’s particularly disturbing after a huge investment of time and money to bring them back from local extinction. Back in 2011, then-environment minister Jairam Ramesh called Ken-Betwa a “disastrous” idea. In theory, India’s tiger reserves are supposed to be “inviolate.”
This proposed large-scale, country-wide development threatens the corridors that are wildlife lifelines. Experts note the critical need to maintain the forested connections between tiger reserves that allow young, dispersing tigers to find their own territory—and spread their genes to avoid inbreeding. “Hopefully the new tiger figures and the prestige it brings to India will encourage the powers that be to show a lot more caution about approving development projects in tiger landscapes,” said Belinda Wright, director of the Delhi-based Wildlife Protection Society of India.
But for now, let’s take a moment to celebrate the tiger, one of the most magnificent of our planet’s creatures, and to acknowledge the bravery, commitment and hard work of so many men and women that protect them, especially the park guards and forest officers working on the ground. Many of them work one-, two-, three-month shifts in the forest, living amidst dangerous animals, away from their families, often outfitted with with inadequate clothing or gear, fighting heavily-armed, dangerous poachers—for relatively little money. Given the many threats that face tigers, their efforts and this current triumph is truly remarkable.
Follow Sharon Guynup on Twitter: @sguynup
Next up: In part 11 of the Talking Tigers series, I’ll look at changes to India’s environmental regulations that are threatening the environment—and tigers.