Tiger conservation in India has come a long way since the inception of Project Tiger in 1973. This ambitious initiative, launched by the Government of India, aimed at safeguarding the nation’s tiger population and preserving biodiversity. Over the past fifty years, Project Tiger has achieved commendable success, making significant strides in tiger conservation. Initially covering nine tiger reserves spanning 18,278 sq.km, the project has flourished into a remarkable accomplishment with 53 reserves spread across 75,796 sq.km, effectively covering 2.3% of India’s total land area. India currently harbors almost 75% of the world’s wild tiger population.
Project Tiger’s Evolution:The first phase of tiger conservation in the 1970s focused on enacting the Wildlife Protection Act and establishing protected areas for tigers and tropical forests. However, the 1980s saw a decline due to extensive poaching. In response, the government initiated the second phase in 2005, adopting a landscape-level approach, community involvement and support, implementing strict law enforcement, and using modern technology for scientific monitoring to ensure tiger conservation. This approach not only led to an increase in the tiger population, but also had several critical outcomes that included the designation of inviolate critical core and buffer areas, the identification of new tiger reserves, and the recognition of tiger landscapes and corridors.
Image: The increasing population of tigers in various states (Source: Corbett National Park)
The monitoring exercise inculcated scientific thinking amongst forest staff and the employment of technology ensures transparency of data collection and analysis. India categorized tiger habitats into five major landscapes based on biogeography and interconnectivity, enabling effective ecological and management-based strategies. So, with significant changes in the spatial patterns of tiger occurrence and an increase in unique tiger sightings from 2461 in 2018 to 3080 in 2022, now more than 3/4th of the tiger population is found within protected areas.
Current Status of Tiger Population:
On April 9, 2022, during the celebration of 50 years of the Project Tiger at Mysore, Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi declared the minimum tiger population of 3167, which is the population estimate from the camera-trapped area. Now, further analysis of data, done by the Wildlife Institute of India, from both camera-trapped and non-camera-trapped tiger presence areas, the upper limit of the tiger population is estimated to be 3925 and the average number is 3682 tigers, reflecting a commendable annual growth rate of 6.1% per annum.
Different states have faced unique challenges and successes in tiger conservation. For instance, Central India, Shivalik Hills, and Gangetic Plains witnessed a notable increase in tiger population, particularly in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Maharashtra. However, certain regions, such as the Western Ghats, experienced localized declines, necessitating targeted monitoring and conservation efforts.
Image: Tiger population in India (Source: PTI)
Some states, including Mizoram, Nagaland, Jharkhand, Goa, Chhattisgarh, and Arunachal Pradesh, have reported disturbing trends with small tiger populations. The largest tiger population of 785 is in Madhya Pradesh, followed by Karnataka (563), Uttarakhand (560), and Maharashtra (444).
The tiger abundance within the Tiger Reserve is highest in Corbett (260), followed by Bandipur (150), Nagarhole (141), Bandhavgarh (135), Dudhwa (135), Mudumalai (114), Kanha (105), Kaziranga (104), Sundarbans (100), Tadoba (97), Sathyamangalam (85), and Pench-MP (77).
Challenges and Mitigation Efforts:
The reduction in tiger population can be attributed to various factors, including hunting, poaching, deforestation, human-wildlife conflict, illegal trade, etc. To address these challenges, it is imperative to:
Preserve ecological integrity: There is a need to strongly continue the eco-friendly development agenda, minimize mining impacts, and rehabilitate mining sites.
Additionally, fortifying protected area management, intensifying anti-poaching measures, employing scientific thinking and technology-driven data collection, and addressing human-wildlife conflict are vital steps to protect the country’s tiger population.
Curtail Poaching: India’s Project Tiger has made tremendous progress in tiger conservation over the past five decades, but challenges like poaching are still a threat to tiger conservation. Thus, tiger poaching needs to be curtailed.
Continue the efforts to protect tiger habitats and corridors, which are crucial for securing the future of India’s tigers and their ecosystems for generations to come.
While various tiger reserves have shown remarkable growth, approximately 35% of them urgently require enhanced protection measures, habitat restoration, ungulate augmentation, and subsequent tiger reintroduction. The journey of tiger conservation in India has been one of commendable progress, yet there is still work to be done. With continued dedication and strategic efforts, we can ensure a thriving future for India’s tiger population and the rich ecosystems they inhabit.