Date:November 26, 2020

India Announced That Its Tiger Population Has Doubled in The Past 12 Years. Wildlife Experts Aren’t So Sure

On International Tiger Day this year, 29th of July, the environment minister Prakash Javadekar restated that India has 70 percent of the world’s tiger population. But not everyone’s convinced.

The ‘Status of Tigers, Co-predators and Prey in India Report for 2018’ shows that there are now 2,967 tigers in India. It also states that India is now home to 70 percent of the world’s population of tigers and that one-third of the Royal Bengal Tigers—or Panthera Tigris Tigris as the Indian sub-species is called—exist beyond reserves in the wild. The Tiger Census was also recently included in the Guinness World Records for having laid over 25,000 camera traps and taking more than 35 million pictures. Sounds exciting for us all, except experts, have repeatedly raised concerns about the authenticity of these numbers.

An Indian Express investigation of the tiger numbers first published in September 2019 revealed that the counting of tiger numbers in India was faulty. The counting was mainly done through photo sightings, but their investigation revealed that one in seven tigers could have been a “paper tiger”—the same tigers were photographed twice and even thrice in some cases. Additionally, photos of the same tigers were also repeated and counted as different tigers in the database.

Credit: / Satya deep

India’s beautiful, fearsome icons have had a tragic history there. It’s been estimated that in the 50-year span between 1875 and 1925, more than 80,000 tigers in India were killed, the BBC reported.

Their numbers dwindled further until a strict wildlife protection law came into effect in 1972, followed by some serious conservation efforts. But, at its low point, the world’s tiger population was just 3,200, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

In 1973, the nation had just nine tiger reserves. Now, the nation is home to 50 tiger reserves. However, the reserves have faced some controversy in the past.

Back in 2004, India’s tiger re-population efforts faced a significant scandal when one tiger reserve with an estimated population of 26 tigers was instead found to have zero. On the heels of that scandal, India’s conservation experts re-examined how they count tigers and instituted a new policy of taking a tiger census every four years, starting in 2006.

Photo: Stock Photos from kyslynskahal/Shutterstock

Once, the job was done by counting tiger footprints and estimating from there. Now, experts employ more than 40,000 to actually trek the 193,000 square miles (about 500,000 square km) of territory dedicated to tigers, as well as using thousands of camera traps to count individual tigers.

The survey costs the nation about $1.4 million every four years and is considered one of the world’s largest wildlife surveys, The Washington Post reported.

In fact, India and the other 12 nations in which tigers naturally range formed a pact in 2010, pledging to double their tiger populations by 2022, which is the next Year of the Tiger.

India’s latest tiger census in 2018 showed that the country had achieved its goal four years ahead of schedule, with the tiger population doubling in a period of 12 years. In that first census back in 2006, the nation had just 1,411 tigers. In 2018, the nation announced conservationists had reached their doubling goal, with a total population of 2,967 tigers.

As wonderful as that news is, tigers do still face significant troubles in India.

Despite those strict wildlife protection laws, poaching remains a huge problem, and tigers are still competing with India’s 1.3 billion citizens for habitat, which occasionally brings them into conflict.

However, there’s reason to believe that things can still get much better for India’s tigers. One expert told Yale Environment 360 that India could support up to 15,000 tigers if the land and prey base are protected.

Photo: Stock Photos from Anuradha Marwah/Shutterstock

A study released last year in November also criticized the survey methodology developed for the counting of the tigers. The researchers in the study accused that India’s claims of increasing tiger numbers could be the consequence of an underlying ‘political population’—agencies responsible may exaggerate population trends without adequate scientific evidence, in favor of state policies. “The criticisms leveled so far have ranged from fundamental mathematical flaws, design deficiencies and manipulation of photographic data, and a total lack of transparency in data-sharing with independent scientists capable of reliably reviewing the analyses and results,” said the release.

Ullas Karanth, director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru and one of the authors of the study, told Nature that the surveys were collected by ill-trained workers who didn’t know how to do accurate counts. “When I walked with forest guards doing surveys in a reserve in May, they said they felt pressured by local officials to record positive tiger signs,” he said. The result is that there is little consensus on India’s tiger population between scientists and government officials. For now, scientists can say only that the animals might be thriving in some places but are doing poorly elsewhere.

Unsplash | Frida Bredesen

Moreover, moving beyond the uncertainty of these high tiger numbers, the reality of existing tigers in India appears dark as well. The animals are increasingly becoming isolated in small reserves—the 50 reserves the ministry takes pride in— for they prioritize tourism and what authorities often label as development. Historically, tigers here have moved unhindered through forest corridors in search of territory. But these forest corridors are decreasing rapidly due to heavy industrialization. So if they leave these parks and reserves, they risk encountering humans and infrastructure, which is tragic for both, the animals and humans.

“This [the increase in tiger numbers] is because of the Indian ethos of treating nature as part of life, in sync with human existence,” said the Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar—ironically also the Minister of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises—in a column in The Times of India. The dangerous Environment Impact Assessment 2020 draft that the MOEFCC is pushing does little to support his claims as well.

Javadekar also credits the success in the rise of numbers to increased vigilance. “Almost all organized poaching rackets have been dismantled; a good example is the central Indian landscapes where organized poaching by traditional gangs has been minimized considerably in the last six years,” he said in the same column.

Unsplash | Waldemar Brandt

However, a recently released United Nations World Wildlife Crime Report contradicts his statement. It states that India is among the main source countries for illegal tiger products—India and Thailand were the top two countries where they could trace the illegal tiger shipments to.

Additionally, out of the 155 cases where the nationality of the trafficker was identified, 14 percent of them were Indian.