New Delhi: The tiger appears to be on a comeback trail in India, home to the world`s largest population of the big cat. The animal that once appeared doomed to extinction has seen a significant rise - of 295 - in its numbers.
The latest tiger census released Monday put the number of tigers in the wild at 1,706, marking an increase of 295. However, India`s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh and wildlife experts said the worrying fact is that the tiger habitat is shrinking.
The Sundarbans mangrove forests in West Bengal, included for the first time in the census, reported 70 tigers. The rest of the country now has 1,636 tigers, marking an increase of 12 percent over the 2006 figure of 1,411 tigers. The tiger population in the world is 3,000.
Tiger Estimate 2010, carried out by the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, along with several other government and private partners, was released by Ramesh at the March 28-30 International Tiger Conference in Vigyan Bhavan.
The report says that tiger habitat has shrunk 22 percent from 936,000 hectares to 728,000 in the last four years, with a major decrease in northern Andhra Pradesh - East Godavari, Karimnagar, Vishakhapatnam - due to poaching and development.
"We have a mixed bag as the tiger numbers have increased from 1,411 to 1,636, but there is decrease in tiger occupancy which shows that tiger corridors are under biggest threat," Ramesh told a packed hall.
The interesting part of the census is that close to 30 percent of estimated tiger population is outside the 39 tiger reserves and India does not have a strategy to protect the big cats in these areas, he said.
The latest census indicates that the Shivalik-Gangetic plains (Uttarakhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh) have 353 tigers, central India and Eastern Ghats (Maharashtra, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh) have 601 tigers, Western Ghats (Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka) 534, the northeast hills and Brahmaputra floodplains (Assam, Mizoram, West Bengal) 148, and the Sunderbans 70.
The last census in 2006 had shown a sharp fall in tiger numbers, at 1,411 tigers in the wild. India was home to about 3,000 tigers around two decades ago.
The tiger estimation this time was done using more scientific methods of camera trapping and genetic analysis from faecal samples rather than usual pug mark count.
"In camera trapping tigers walk across a sensor and take self-photographs and each tiger has a unique stripe pattern like finger printing, which avoids duplication. The authorities have taken 615 pictures of adult tigers as the sample size, based on which the estimation of the total figure was done," said YV Jhala, who headed the tiger census team.
For the first time in this census, partnerships with civil society organisations and local communities were involved in data collection.
The whole exercise was carried out in three phases between December 2009 and December 2010 by over 476,000 forest personnel at a cost of Rs 9.1 crore (USD ).
According to the census, tiger loss has been quite significant in northern Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh while Maharashtra and the Terai regions (Himalayas) have shown a significant increase in the big cat population.
Karnataka has reported highest number of 300 tigers followed by 257 in Madhya Pradesh and 227 in Uttarakhand.
The Nagarhole-Mudumalai-Bandipur-Wayanad reserve forests that straddle three states in the Nilgiris has the single largest population of the tiger in the world while the Sunderbans have the highest tiger density in the world.
The census found that the man-animal conflict has been increasing in Corbett, Ranthambore, Tadoba, Bor and Bandhavgarh national parks.
Reacting to the tiger census, Ramesh called for finding a way of balancing imperative high growth with imperative preserving the ecosystem.
"We have many challenges to ensure that balance is maintained between development and environmental ecology. Tiger has become a national symbol, so we need to save the tiger. Development and environment have to go together," said Water Resources Minister Salman Khursheed.
The wildlife experts attributed the increase in tiger number to inclusion of new areas like Sunderbans in census this time and appreciated the scientific exercise carried out to count the big cats.
"Unlike the previous census this time new areas have been associated, that may be one of the reasons for the increase. Sunderbans for example were not included in last census, this time they were counted and showed around 70 tigers. Some naxal areas were also left last time," Valmik Thapar, tiger conservationist, told a news agency.
Thapar emphasised on the need for an active role to be played by the 17 tiger states in the country for protection of India`s national animal.
"Central government can only issue the money but it is the state governments that have to implement laws on the ground," he said.
Raghu Chandhawat, an independent scientist who carried out an extensive tiger radio-collaring project in Panna and who repeatedly warned of their falling numbers welcomed the census and said that rise in numbers is a happy news, but the shrinking of tiger corridors is what the state governments should concentrate on he pointed.