Has the Supreme Court erred by claiming that Indian tiger population has fallen from 13,000 to 1,200? Probably, yes.
A Bench of Justices AK Patnaik and Swatanter Kumar pulled up the government for failing to doing enough to save tigers. “What do you mean by the Tiger project? What are you going to do to save tigers? Earlier, it [tiger population] was 13,000, now it has come down to 1,200.
You are more worried about commercial activities than saving the tiger population,” the court observed.
Data available with the government shows that the population of tigers in India had never fallen to 1,200. The closest to this figure was 1,411 the tiger estimation of 2006. Now, the tiger estimate is 1,706.
As per the statistics available with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the tiger population in wilderness, prior to 2006, had fallen to all time low of 1,800 in 1972, when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided to set up a specialized unit for tiger protection --- Project Tiger, now called NTCA.
That was primarily because of tiger losing their habitats because of developing major irrigation and hydro-electric projects, heavy industries, new railway tracks, defence establishments and hunting. Before that, when around 30-40 % of India was under forest cover in 1947, there were around 40,000 tigers believed to be in the wild.
Since creation of project tiger, the first tiger estimation was conducted in nine tiger reserves. Subsequent years witnessed a steady increase in numbers with 3,750 tigers reported in the wild by 1993.
The estimation methodology has its limitations as there was no way to cross check the claim of the local forest department.
India witnessed its second tiger crises in mid 1990s --- as fall-out of industrialization --- with a tiger death reported almost every day from areas especially outside the notified tiger reserves. Despite the claims, the state forest departments and the environment ministry insisted that tigers were safe and reported around 3,700 tigers in the wild. In actual, it was believed, the number was half of the estimate.
Tigers going missing from Sariska in Rajasthan in 2004 blew the lid and the government opted for a more scientific method of population estimation using camera trap and DNA-scat analysis in addition to pugmarks. In 2006, the NTCA estimated that there were 1,411 tigers in wild in India. Four years later, India recorded an over 20 % increase in tiger population reporting 1,706 tigers even though NTCA has pictures of only 670 tigers.
Tiger experts admit that never since independence tiger population has been recorded as lowest as 1,200 as stated by the Supreme Court was, in fact, on the rise. Most of them agree with SC’s observation that the core tiger areas in 41 reserves in India should be inviolate (free) from human interference. The Wildlife Protection Act amended after Sariska incident makes declaration of inviolate areas must but it has not happened.
The court on Wednesday is expected to talk a call on NTCA’s plea to review its interim order banning tourism in core tiger areas on the ground that its need to conduct consultation with states before finalizing the guidelines. What the NTCA has failed to tell the court is that the eco-tourism guidelines were first recommended by Tiger Task Force in 2005 and it had taken almost seven years to finalise them.