for National Geographic News
Up to 20 Bengal tigers may be roaming a hilly forest range in western India—a region where tigers haven't been spotted for at least three decades, according to a wildlife expert. Yet others question whether there is enough evidence to suggest a real population exists.
Vishwas Sawarkar, former head of the government-run Wildlife Institute of India (WII), spotted fresh tiger paw prints during recent excursions to unprotected forests in the Sahyadri mountain range along the western coast of the state of Maharashtra.
"My educated guess is that there could be at least 20 tigers in Sahyadri," Sawarkar said. "We have seen clear evidence in the form of [tracks]."
Sawarkar has wandered through the region—which was once prime tiger territory—several times over the past 30 years without seeing any sign of tigers.
If confirmed, the find would be encouraging at a time when Indian tiger numbers—particularly in unprotected forest areas—have plummeted, mostly due to widespread poaching and habitat destruction.
Tigers living in the Sahyadri area are not entirely unexpected, Sawarkar said, since parts of Maharashtra and the neighboring state of Karnataka harbor protected tigers.
Young tigers from these protected areas may have ventured into Sahyadri in search of new territory.
"These tigers are claiming their original range again, which is an excellent thing," Sawarkar said.
Milind Pariwakam is a scientist at the Wildlife Trust of India.
"Tigers living outside protected areas is definitely a good sign and would ideally indicate healthy populations in nearby protected areas," Pariwakam said.
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