New Tiger Population Found Outside Indian Reserve

Paroma Basu in New Delhi, India
for National Geographic News
September 14, 2007
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.

Tiger Drop

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.

Not So Fast?

But Pariwakam and others question Sawarkar's claim that 20 tigers may be living in Sahyadri.

"The absurd pug-mark [paw print] census method that was used in the past to come up with specific tiger numbers like this now stands discredited," said K. Ullas Karanth, a tiger expert and director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's India branch.

(Related news: "Faulty Counts May Have Hurt India Tigers, Experts Say" [August 7, 2003].)

"I don't see any data in support of this number," Karanth added.

Yet Sawarkar is confident that an ongoing state-of-the-art tiger census, conducted by WII, will officially confirm his estimate.

The WII census—the results of which should be released by late 2007—is unprecedented in its use of new tiger-tallying techniques.

For example, scientists are using strategically placed cameras fitted with motion sensors to count passing tigers.

Preliminary estimates based on the census suggest that India's wild tiger population numbers between 1,300 and 1,500, less than half of what it was in 2002.

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