The welcome increase in the number of tigers in India as seen in the latest census released on Monday could be also due to new areas being included in the survey, wildlife experts feel.
The census, released at the International Tiger conference Monday, said that 1,706 tigers are in the forests across the country, about 295 more than four years ago.
Noted tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar maintains the population of tigers has gone up only by 132, and not 295 as indicated, as new new areas have been included like the Sundarbans and Maoist-affected areas.
"Unlike the previous census this time new areas have been associated, that may be one of the reasons for the increase. Sunderbans for example was not included in the last census. This time they have counted around 70 tigers there. Some Naxal areas were also left last time, which have now been included," Thapar told IANS.
He also said the latest census is more scientific and the whole exercise is a genuine effort. "But that is not enough, the new census figures are neither great nor terrible," he said.
Wildlife conservationists used hidden cameras and DNA tests to count the cats in 17 Indian states where tigers live in the wild.
Thapar also informed that the central government can only give orders to sanction money but it is the job of the state governments to implement new measures and protect the tiger population, which is not being done.
"Most of the central government's allotment for the protection of the big cats never reaches. What happened to the tiger protection force, which was allotted Rs 50 crore in the union budget 2008-09 when P Chidambaram was the finance minister, it is nowhere."
In the union budget 2008-09 Chidambaram had announced a special grant of Rs 50 crore to the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
"The state government and the forest department which have to take new measures to protect the tiger are defunct," Thapar told IANS.
Tito Joseph, of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), speaking in the same vein said that inclusion of new areas in the census may have led to increase in the numbers.
Joseph also informed that though tiger protection laws are good enough, implementation is missing. "What is needed now is protecting this source population. There are enough provisions, good laws, everything in favour of tigers. What is lacking is implementation and governing to see if everything is in place," he said.
"If tiger numbers are good in a forest you can assume that it is a good forest area and other species are also doing good," he added.
The census included 70 tigers in the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve, which had not been counted in the last census in 2006.
The experts also claimed that shrinking habitats have brought the wild cats into conflict with poachers who kill them for body parts which are highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine. Even villagers living near tiger reserves kill the animals fearing for their safety.
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 a rise in numbers is happy news, but the shrinking of tiger corridors is what the state governments should concentrate on.
"The state governments should pitch in, particularly in north and central India, like Madhya Pradesh. Securing the remaining population and the corridors should be taken up as a priority," he said.
Most of the wildlife experts who conducted the census said the tiger corridors or the routes used by tigers to move from one reserve to another were declining sharply as large scale power projects, mining and roads cut into their habitats.
The latest census indicates that the Shivalik-Gangetic plains have 353 tigers, central India and Eastern Ghats have 601 tigers, Western Ghats 534, the northeast hills and Brahmaputra floodplains 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.
This time, the upper limit for the tiger numbers has been set at 1,875 and the lower limit at 1,571. The average figure comes to 1,706.
The three-day International Tiger Conference held here is hosted by Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh.
The conference is a follow-up to the St. Petersburg meet held last year in Russia. It will discuss challenges, plans and priorities for implementing the Global Tiger Recovery Programme (GTRP), which aims to double the wild tiger population by 2022.
It is being organised in collaboration with the Global Tiger Forum (GTF), an inter-governmental body that also has membership of the national and international NGOs and the World Bank's Global Tiger Initiative (GTI).