We have added at least 200 tigers since 2018—which is excellent news for the project to save the endangered species. But the rising numbers also pose a tricky challenge: Where will we put all these big cats?
Editor’s note: Part two of our series on the science of skincare will be published tomorrow—unless of course something more pressing and newsworthy intervenes:) ICYMI: Here’s the very popular part one—which dropped on Friday.
Researched by: Rachel John
Tell me the good news first…
The government revealed the interim results of the tiger census on Sunday—and they look good. We now have at least 3,167 tigers—a provisional count that is expected to be higher once the census is complete. That’s a healthy increase from 2,226 in 2014 and 2,967 in 2018. According to scientists involved in tracking the tigers, the population has grown by 6% each year since 2006. FYI, India is home to more than 70% of the world’s tigers.
About the census: The tiger census is touted as the world’s largest wildlife survey. Every four years, forest officials and scientists trek across 6,41,449 km to count the number of tigers. We can never know the exact number of tigers. The total instead represents the mean of an estimated range. Example, the 2018 number of 2,967, is the mean of a range of 2,603 to 3,346. And the tigers are counted across five “landscapes:
- Central Indian Landscape and Eastern Ghats: Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan
- Western Ghats: Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu
- Shivalik Hills and Gangetic Plains: Bihar, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh
- North-East Hills and Brahmaputra Plains: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland, Northern West Bengal
- The Sundarbans
Ok, how do we count all these tigers?
The old methodology: Until 2006, conservationists conducted a ‘pugmark census’ to count tigers. Invented in 1966, it involved sending out thousands of trackers over a two-week period to look for tracks—and make a plaster cast of the left hind pugmark. These were used to identify individual tigers. But in 2003, leading conservationists debunked this method since it required covering the entire habitat of tigers across the country—and securing all four pugmarks to ensure accuracy.
The new methodology: Today, scientists use a two-step method. They use camera traps to capture images of individual tigers. For this census, over 32,500 cameras were placed across 53 tiger reserves—which captured 97,000 photographs. Next, they conduct what is called a ‘sign survey’—where they walk on foot, “collecting sightings of tiger tracks, scat and signs of prey and human disturbance.” The results released on Sunday do not include estimates from this part of the survey. Those numbers are expected in the next three months.
The final results: All the data is sent to the government-run Wildlife Institute of India—where scientists do the following:
[They] identify individual tigers in photos from their unique stripe patterns and then estimate local tiger densities in reserves. They create a calibration model that links the tiger densities to the collected signs, then input the sign-survey data into this model to derive nationwide numbers. ‘Unless you know what you have and where you have it, you can’t manage it,’ says [leading scientist] Yadvendradev Jhala.
Challenging the numbers: Government estimates have been challenged by conservationists in the past. While camera traps are more reliable than pugmark surveys, the quality of the data is often suspect. For instance, the 2019 survey “counted under-age cubs, methods used to identify the uniqueness of an individual animal were given short shrift and the problem of duplication resurfaced.”
A 2019 Indian Express investigation of 2015 data found that one in seven images of individual animals captured by these cameras could be “a paper tiger photographed twice; in some cases even thrice; photos repeated, and photos repeated but shown as that of different tigers in the data set.”
Other problems: include pressure on workers to record positive tiger signs, varying the area covered from one census to another—and the models used to calculate the final estimate. The government’s refusal to release raw data only increases suspicions.
But we do have more tigers, yes?
Yes. No one disputes the plain fact that tiger numbers are on the rise. But the grand total can be misleading in other ways.
An uneven growth: The numbers have risen mostly in the north—in the Shivalik hills and Gangetic Plains. The Western Ghat numbers—spanning Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa—have actually gone down from 981 tigers in 2018 to 824. Even here the decline is not even. Tigers are thriving in nature reserves like Bandipur in Karnataka—but struggling on the outside due to habitat loss.
East vs West: According to conservationist Raza Kazmi, the two parts of the country offer a stark contrast:
Tigers over the past 50 years have increased both in numbers, and even in some cases areas occupied by them, in the western half of the country while their numbers, and occupancy, have collapsed entirely in the eastern half save for a couple of exceptions. This is in glaring contrast to the situation in 1972 when the tigers (numbering 1827 according to the 1972 census) were more-or-less evenly distributed across the length and breadth of India.
Other than some islands of conservation, populations in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have almost collapsed. And the tiger is “locally extinct” in at least 15 of the 53 tiger reserves.
The problem of space: In order to survive, tigers need space—lots of it. Lack of territory leads to infighting—and inevitably, deaths. According to Rakesh Shukla, multiple studies have now established a reliable measure of a tiger’s requirement:
This rule of thumb suggests ensuring an inviolate core or critical tiger habitat (CTH) of around 1,000 square km, with around 100 tigers of either sex and of different ages. This population should, however, contain around 20 breeding females to ensure viability in the foreseeable future.
But, but, but: Around 70% of our tigers live in reserves—which are on average 1,500 square km in size. That’s small compared to say the Yellowstone National Park that is spread across 8,992 square km. As Hindustan Times notes:
The 53 reserves may have around 75,000 sq km, but most of these human-drawn regions are either small or comprise fragmented forest patches, surrounded by a sea of humanity. Tiger reserves are imagined to be inviolate spaces for tigers and wildlife, but there are village settlements (with thousands of people and livestock) in many of them, along with roads and railway lines.
More worryingly, one in three “homeless” tigers live outside these protected areas—vulnerable to urbanisation and human conflict.
The inbred gene pool: The other great danger is that the corridors connecting these nature reserves are disappearing—lost to development projects. We therefore risk increasing the numbers of inbred tigers:
Without roaming tigers, none of India’s small reserve populations would be demographically viable in the long run, says Aditya Joshi, head of conservation research at the Wildlife Conservation Trust. Uma Ramakrishnan, an ecologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru, says that if infrastructure development in rural areas continues unabated, the genetic diversity of small populations could fall within a century. The government might then have to shuttle tigers between reserves to maintain the gene flow necessary for a population to stay healthy. “That will be pretty much like a zoo,” she says.
For example, a Ranthambore study shows that 31 of the tigers are descended from a single female—which strongly suggests inbreeding. So more tigers aren’t necessarily a good thing.
But whose land? PM Modi released the census numbers in Mysore—just hours from Karnataka’s tiger reserves in Bandipur/Nagarahole. But the tribal communities who were evicted from those forests were not celebrating:
“Nagarahole was one of the first forests to be brought under Project Tiger and our parents and grandparents were probably among the first to be forced out of the forests in the name of conservation,” said J. A. Shivu, 27, who belongs to the Jenu Kuruba tribe. “We have lost all rights to visit our lands, temples or even collect honey from the forests. How can we continue living like this?”
As of 2020, 18,493 families in 215 villages have been displaced since the beginning of Project Tiger in 1973. And that’s just the government figure.
‘Nail house’ adivasis: The communities that cannot be evicted from the forests due to the law are isolated instead—cut off from all traditional sources of livelihood:
The term nail house derives from nails that are left in the wood and cannot be removed. This is exactly what the Adivasis have become for the conservation state: thorns in the conservation flesh that the state and tiger conservationists are desperately trying to wrench out. The state’s suppression of their livelihood practices such as hunting, swidden agriculture, and the use of fires to manage the forest has led to a series of changes in their lives as well as that of the forest.
The bottomline: Everyone is delighted that the number of tigers is growing—and may they continue to do so. But simply chalking up ever increasing totals does no service either to the animals or the humans who live alongside them.
The Hindu has the latest numbers—and the Western Ghats anomaly. Indian Express and Nature have great analysis of the last census—but both are behind a paywall. Scroll and Down To Earth have good pieces on the displacement of Adivasis. Miami Herald reports on the response of the Kurubas to the census. Frontline looks at the land crunch.