The Current Status of Tigers in India
India holds over half the world's tiger population. Though referred to by experts as a "guesstimate", the last all-India census in 1993 estimated a total of 3,750 tigers. The figure was a sharp decline from the previous census four years earlier. Of these only 1,266 (34%) of the total were found within the boundaries of the then 19 (there are now 25, covering an area of over 33,000 sq km) Project Tiger Reserves. The current estimate of the number of tigers in India is from 3,000 to 3,500 tigers. Many of the tiger populations, particularly those outside protected reserves, are fragmented, suffer from intense poaching pressure, a dwindling prey base and over-used habitat.
The strategy for tiger conservation in India revolves around Project Tiger and the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Between the mid 1970's and mid-1980's, many protected areas (66 national parks and 421 wildlife sanctuaries) were set aside, including large tracts of tiger habitat. This resulted in an increase in tiger densities at many locations. Tragically, these conservation successes were short lived. Rampant poaching for the trade in tiger parts - all destined for markets outside India's borders - now threatens the tiger's very existence.
Prevailing conservation efforts and Project Tiger are not geared towards, nor have they adequately addressed, the new threats with new protection strategies ie. better law enforcement, training and support. Excellent new tiger protection measures (such as the recommendations of the (Subramanian Committee for the Prevention of Illegal Trade in Wildlife, 1994 ) have been proposed but not implemented and little effective action has been taken in the field. Few of the tiger reserves have an established intelligence network and nearly 80% of our tiger reserves do not have an armed strike force or basic infrastructure and equipment to combat poaching. The forest guards are often out-gunned and out-manned by poachers. In December 1998, three forest staff were murdered in Manas Tiger Reserve and in the past one year there have been over ten serious assaults on forest guards by poachers in Simlipal Tiger Reserve. The country's highest wildlife conservation policy planning body, the Indian Board for Wildlife which is under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister, has met only once in the past ten years. Large development projects, such as mining and hydroelectric dams, are also taking their toll on the tiger's habitat. In the past five years thousands of square kilometers of forest land have been diverted and destroyed to facilitate such projects. Though mostly outside the protected network, the loss of this vital habitat will have serious repercussions on tiger conservation in India.
State and Central Governments do not collate information on tiger poaching cases. Since 1994, WPSI has made a concerted effort to gather accurate information on tiger poaching and unnatural deaths of tigers throughout India. A total of 395 tigers are known to have been killed from 1994 to 1998. WPSIs extensive database of tigers poached has detailed information on poaching figures collected by us. These figures, however, are fragmentary and represent only a fraction of the actual poaching activity in India.
Despite all these problems, India still holds the best chance for saving the tiger in the wild. Tigers occur in 18 States within the Republic of India, with 10 States reportedly having populations in excess of 100 tigers. There are still areas with relatively large tiger populations and extensive tracts of protected habitat. Adequate funding and international pressure will help. But probably the most effective way to implement tiger conservation action in India today is to enhance NGO participation. There are a number of dedicated organisations that are effectively involved in hands-on tiger conservation. They keep the issue energized on a national level and tenaciously try to increase politicial will to secure the tiger's future. The Indian conservation and scientific community is now a proven force. It needs to be strengthened.