Efforts behind India’s tiger numbers hold real promise

The recent news that India’s wild tiger populations have rebounded is indeed a testament to the diligent conservation work done over the years.

The partnership of the Wildlife Trust of India and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (WTI-IFAW) and its support to several state governments can and should take credit for helping tigers recover in India—home to most of the world’s remaining wild tigers.

We have saved dozens of individual tigers from conflict situations in Assam and Uttar Pradesh, trained more than 10,000 front-line field staff in anti-poaching techniques, identified and secured key linkages and tiger habitat in central India and assisted countless enforcement operations around the country for nabbing criminals.

Community work in central India and Manas has lowered the utilisation of resources from tiger reserves and the anti snare walk is a pioneering technique in conserving tigers.

RELATED: India announces its tiger population is flourishing

But I implore conservationists and government officials bent on counting tigers—and alternately moaning or gloating over the statistics—to instead look beyond the numbers and understand more important concerns: the health of tigers and the ecosystem in which they reside.

After all, what I read in the Status of Tigers in India 2014 is only a mathematical snapshot of a complex truth.

Have tiger numbers increased? Probably. Have they increased by 30 percent? Perhaps.

To understand the numbers in the context of history, let us go to 2005, a full decade ago.

At that time, India was still counting tigers by the pug mark technique, even though a group of scientists had criticized it roundly only two years prior. After the Prime Minister declared a National Tiger Crisis, the government also adopted new science to count tigers. Gone were plaster casts and visual determinations; the age had dawned of camera traps and computer analysis.

We somehow arrived at a wild tiger population of 1411 in 2006. Nobody appeared to notice that this figure did not really have the true totals from the Sundarbans region and was missing most of the north east estimates. But it was widely understood to be much more accurate than the previous population estimate of 3500.

Four years later we arrived at a population total of 1706. This time the eastern sector was more accurately measured. So was it a true increase or just that areas not previously covered were now represented?

Today our wild tiger population in India is 2226, and we celebrate once more, but the most respected tiger scientist in India has cautioned that the science being used now is out-dated.

So where does that leave us?

As an animal welfare organization, we propose that we look beyond simple numbers and understand individual tiger health and overall well-being.

We must expand our data sets to more rigorously measure and determine animal and population health. Just because a big cat is caught on camera, is it healthy? Is it eating well? Is it breeding? Does it have the space to roam so it may find food and a mate? Does the breeding process ensure that the strongest genes are being passed along?

These are all legitimate questions and data for capture, and our tiger population status studies do not currently address all this adequately. Similarly even if forest cover is increasing as per satellite mapping are we looking at the health of the forests and the linkages or only at crown cover.

Finally, we must train ourselves to look beyond the tiger to other species that also positively affect the ecosystem.  At WTI-IFAW, we celebrate:

  • translocating the swamp deer to Manas without any mortality,
  • convincing Nagas not to kill Amur falcons,
  • securing  four elephant corridors, or
  • eradicating the practice of bear dancing in our country.

We must continue these smaller efforts for animals and promote as many more as possible, not just those for a single, mega-charismatic animal.

Having said this, it is wonderful to start a new year with good news.

If the magnificent tiger survives into the next century, it is because of the cooperative work done in India by the government, its forest department, media, and conservation agencies, all with the support of the great tolerant populace that we have. At IFAW and WTI we cheer this fact, for there is now so much more promise for the country’s tigers and wildlife in the long run.

But we must stay diligent.

--VM

For more information about WTI-IFAW efforts for tigers, visit our campaign page.

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