India's Tigers Number Half as Many as Thought

Paroma Basu in New Delhi, India
for National Geographic News
August 7, 2007
India's wild tiger population is now between 1,300 and 1,500—less than half of what it was in 2002—according to preliminary estimates from an ongoing government census.

The new numbers—announced at a gathering of conservationists in New Delhi last week—are a shocking drop from the previous population estimate of about 3,600.

The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) has been conducting the new tiger census as part of a government-funded effort that has been appointed the equivalent of ten million U.S. dollars.

In addition to reviewing India's tiger numbers, the program will appraise the factors influencing the cat's long-term survival, said WII director Priya Ranjan Sinha.

So far the survey has found that "tigers appear to be doing well inside the country's tiger reserves, but not outside [protected] forest areas," Sinha said.

That means that most of the roughly 1,500 tigers in Indian parks and sanctuaries are more or less safe.

Conservationists say it is now critical to refocus conservation efforts on migratory and resident tiger populations in unprotected areas, such as the Hoshangabad region south of Bhopal in the central state of Madhya Pradesh (India map).

"Indian tigers are not entirely down and out," said Sujoy Banerjee, head of the species conservation program at the Indian branch of the international conservation organization WWF.

"But if we don't wake up now, the only tigers we will see will be at the zoo."

Encouraging Signs

Experts note that the ongoing census uses a host of new tools, so there can't be a direct comparison to past surveys.

Those surveys primarily relied on the analysis and tally of tiger paw prints.

The new census incorporates a range of additional assessment tools, including habitat evaluation, estimates based on available prey, and strategic placement of cameras fitted with motion sensors.

"The new survey is a unique effort that has never been attempted anywhere in the world both in terms of scale and effort," WII's Sinha said.

The important message of the new census, conservationists say, is that tigers are still dwindling in the wild and actions need to be taken to prevent their disappearance.

The majority of the world's tigers roam the jungles of India, and scientists there fear that the predator is hurtling towards extinction.

Poaching, habitat destruction, and the commercial demand for tiger parts have contributed to the tigers' decline.

(Related: "China Tiger Farms Lobby to Sell Animal Parts to Aid Conservation" [December 22, 2006].)

The Tiger Task Force, an expert group appointed by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, recommended the latest census, which launched in 2005.

WWF's Banerjee said that the government-led effort to understand the real status of India's tigers is a very encouraging sign.

"It is commendable that the government is stepping up for an independent scientific enquiry and that it is ready to accept the figures, however low they are," Banerjee said.

"Earlier, the census was carried out by the government itself. The problem with that was that [the government] would not want to report that the number of tigers had gone down, maintaining a sizable population where there was none."

In a statement last week Prime Minister Singh called for the "priority recruitment of frontline staff" to fill long-vacant forest guard positions to protect tigers.

Singh also recommended the creation of new development agencies within each reserve to stimulate local participation in tiger management.

Singh and other experts and regulators are expected to convene in September to discuss the preliminary results of the independent investigation.

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