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The Government Insists India’s Tiger Count has Doubled in 12 Years. Wildlife Experts Aren’t So Sure

Today on International Tiger Day, environment minister Prakash Javadekar restated that India has 70 percent of the world’s tiger population. But not everyone’s convinced.
30 July 2020, 1:00am
tiger india national park
Photo courtesy of Syna Tiger Resort / Unsplash

A decade ago, 13 tiger range countries, including India, had come together to acknowledge the rapidly declining numbers of this endangered big cat. They signed an agreement with the global goal to double the number of wild tigers by the year 2022, and July 29 was set as the International Tiger Day. Now, on the same day in 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) has brought back a report published last year that announced that the tiger populations in India had doubled four years before the deadline.

The 'Status of Tigers, Co-predators and Prey in India Report for 2018’ shows that there are now 2,967 tigers in India. It also states that India is now home to 70 percent of the world’s population of tigers and that one-third of the Royal Bengal Tigers—or Panthera tigris tigris as the Indian sub-species is called—exist beyond reserves in the wild. The Tiger Census was also recently included in the Guinness World Records for having laid over 25,000 camera traps and taking more than 35 million pictures. Sounds exciting for us all, except experts have repeatedly raised concerns about the authenticity of these numbers.

An Indian Express investigation of the tiger numbers first published in September 2019 revealed that the counting of tiger numbers in India was faulty. The counting was mainly done through photo sightings, but their investigation revealed that one in seven tigers could have been a “paper tiger”—the same tigers were photographed twice and even thrice in some cases. Additionally, photos of the same tigers were also repeated and counted as different tigers in the database.

A study released last year in November also criticised the survey methodology developed for the counting of the tigers. The researchers in the study accused that India’s claims of increasing tiger numbers could be the consequence of an underlying ‘political population’—agencies responsible may exaggerate population trends without adequate scientific evidence, in favour of state policies. “The criticisms levelled so far have ranged from fundamental mathematical flaws, design deficiencies and manipulation of photographic data, and a total lack of transparency in data-sharing with independent scientists capable of reliably reviewing the analyses and results,” said the release.

Ullas Karanth, director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru and one of the authors of the study, told Nature that the surveys were collected by ill-trained workers who didn’t know how to do accurate counts. “When I walked with forest guards doing surveys in a reserve in May, they said they felt pressured by local officials to record positive tiger signs,” he said. The result is that there is little consensus on India’s tiger population between scientists and the government officials. For now, scientists can say only that the animals might be thriving in some places, but are doing poorly elsewhere.

Moreover, moving beyond the uncertainty of these high tiger numbers, the reality of existing tigers in India appears dark as well. The animals are increasingly becoming isolated in small reserves—the 50 reserves the ministry takes pride in— for they prioritise tourism and what authorities often label as development. Historically, tigers here have moved unhindered through forest corridors in search of territory. But these forest corridors are decreasing rapidly due to heavy industrialisation. So if they leave these parks and reserves, they risk encountering humans and infrastructure, which is tragic for both, the animals and humans.

“This [the increase in tiger numbers] is because of the Indian ethos of treating nature as part of life, in sync with human existence,” said the Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar—ironically also the Minister of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises—in a column in The Times of India. The dangerous Environment Impact Assessment 2020 draft that the MOEFCC is pushing does little to support his claims as well.

Javadekar also credits the success in the rise of numbers to increased vigilance. “Almost all organised poaching rackets have been dismantled; a good example is the central Indian landscapes where organised poaching by traditional gangs has been minimised considerably in the last six years,” he said in the same column.

However, a recently released United Nations World Wildlife Crime Report contradicts his statement. It states that India is among the main source countries for illegal tiger products—India and Thailand were the top two countries where they could trace the illegal tiger shipments to. Additionally, out of the 155 cases where the nationality of the trafficker was identified, 14 percent of them were Indian.

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