The 2014 tiger census results released on Tuesday show a remarkable 30 per cent rebound in the animals’ population, in just four years. The country now has 2,226 tigers, as against 1,706 in 2010. It is reassuring news, reflecting the success of the government’s efforts to check rampant poaching by creating a special tiger protection force and curbing the lucrative trade in tiger skin and body parts. Improvements in the management of wildlife sanctuaries, triggered by the panic created by the sharp dip in the tiger count to just 1,411 in 2006, seem to have also contributed to this resurgence. Barring four tiger reserves – Bandhavgarh, Bhadra, Anshi and Kaziranga – all other sanctuaries have shown an increased tiger count.
The latest numbers, gathered by relatively more reliable techniques like camera traps and DNA testing, should be of interest to conservationists around the world. They come at a time when the tiger population in most other countries continues to dwindle, creating fears that they will be extinct in many parts of the globe soon. India, which accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the world’s tigers, is now in an enviable position – it can even donate tiger cubs to other countries, such as Cambodia and Laos, which are keen to conserve these majestic carnivores.
The big question now is the sustainability of this tiger boom. The answer cannot, indeed, be categorical, especially in view of the unabated degradation of forest corridors and the buffer zones around them – and, more importantly, the perceptible spurt in man-animal conflicts. The noteworthy point is that tiger reserves account for just five per cent of the country’s total forests. Nearly half of the big cats are estimated to be outside the protected areas, where forest conservation efforts are hampered due to the prevalence of insurgent groups there. The increase in man-animal clashes, on the other hand, is evident from the fact that seven deaths attributed to attacks by tigers have already come to light in the current month.
Though it is generally believed that tiger numbers can be allowed to swell to around 5,000, the conveniently manageable population is supposed to be only between 3,000 and 3,500. Moreover, in view of the growing claims on forest lands for mining, infrastructure and other developmental purposes, there isn’t much scope for further expansion of protected forest zones. The area around the Western Ghats, spanning six states and accounting for a sizable share of the tiger population, has already seen formidable resistance from the local people and the state governments against the declaration of more areas as no-go forest zones. The situation in other predominantly forested states is no different. The government will, therefore, have to evolve a fresh strategy focused more at sustaining the high tiger population than at increasing it further. For this, the vegetative cover in the reserved forests and their vicinity would need to be improved to ward off any decline in the availability of prey. At the same time, the forest corridors will have to be managed better to ensure free inter-forest migration of tigers which is essential for promoting genetic diversity among tiger populations. The widespread inbreeding that is going on now does not bode well for their long-term survival.