India’s tiger population has jumped to an estimated 2,967, a rise by 33% over 2,226 reported in 2014. This is also an incredible 210% rise from 1,411 recorded in 2006, according to the all-India estimation — ‘Status of Tigers, Co-predators, Prey and their Habitat, 2018’ — released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday.
Behind the big headline, hidden in fine print is a discrepancy in methodology: In 2014, tigers aged 1.5 years or older were counted. The current report has the cut-off age as 1 year.
Principal scientists with Wildlife Institute of India did not respond to queries on how the data are comparable, how many tigers are in the 12-18 month age group in the population of 2,967, and how the estimation determines the age of a tiger.
“Tiger cubs don’t grow very fast beyond 3 months. Hence, 1 and 1.5 year are synonymous in the context as the difference is not occularly discernible,” said a senior official of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
Releasing the report, the Prime Minister said: “It was decided in St Petersburg that target of doubling tiger population would be 2022, we achieved it 4 years in advance… I feel it is possible to strike a healthy balance between development and environment. In our policies, in our economics, we have to change the conversation about conservation.”
One significant aspect of the latest estimation is the capture of 2,461 individual tigers — 83% of the total estimated 2,967 — in camera-traps. This limits the scope of extrapolation and potential bias or flaws in the process. In comparison, only 1,540 unique tigers — 69% of the total estimated population of 2,226 — were camera-trapped in the 2014 estimation.
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The increase in tiger photos is due to the much wider deployment of camera-traps during the present estimation exercise. For the 2014 estimate, only 9,735 camera-trap points were used. This time, the coverage increased by 275% to 26,838 camera-trap points.
A worrying aspect of the report is the continuing loss of tiger-occupied areas. While net occupancy remains stable at 88,000-89,000 sq km, tigers relinquished over 40,000 sq km since 2014. Since they also colonised over 25,000 sq km in that period, the report computes the net loss in tiger-occupied area to be 17,881 sq km or 20% of the tiger habitat in four years. This explains the shrinking presence of tigers outside tiger reserves.
Tech big help in big cat count
The impressive rise in numbers gains credibility from the fact that 2,461 individual tigers — 83% of the total estimated 2,967 — were recorded in camera-trap. This limits the scope of extrapolation and potential bias or flaws in the estimation process. On the flip side, tigers relinquished 20% of their 2014 habitat though the overall occupancy remained stable due to dispersal to new areas.
In fact, there is bad news from tiger reserves as well. Against the 33% jump in the national tiger population, the report recorded potential extirpation of tigers in three reserves. No tiger was recorded in Buxa (West Bengal), Dampa (Mizoram) and Palamu (Jharkhand) tiger reserves.
None of these reserves, however, was rated ‘poor’ in the Management Effectiveness Evaluation (MEE) report also released Monday. While Dampa and Palamu have been rated ‘fair’, Buxa scored an impressive 63.84% which returned a ‘good’ rating.
Based on the report of the Tiger Task Force appointed by the then Prime Minister in 2005 following the extirpation of tigers in Rajasthan’s Sariska, the Environment Ministry moved on from pugmark-based census to a scientific camera-based model developed by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII).
The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), in collaboration with the State Forest Departments, Conservation NGOs and coordinated by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), has been conducting a national assessment for the “Status of Tigers, Co-predators, Prey and their Habitat” every four years since 2006.
Dr Rajesh Gopal, Secretary General of Global Tiger Form, the inter-governmental international body said, “The scale and magnitude of the assessment is unparalleled globally. The outcome demonstrates ongoing concerted efforts from the federal, state governments and collaborators.”
Asked about the Budget allocation of Rs 350 crore for Project Tiger, Dr Dipankar Ghose, Director, Species and Landscapes Programme, World Wildlife Fund India, said, “The current fiscal’s allocation remain unchanged compared to last year. What we need is a cross-sectoral approach towards conservation. Conservation of natural resources including biodiversity needs to be mainstreamed and all line departments need to be part of the process. The Central government has means and tools for calculating budgets for ministries, it is up to the ministries to collaborate and converge on certain actions like conserving the national animal.”