After continuing bad news on the environment front and pitched battles with different ministries and state governments, environment minister Jairam Ramesh can breathe easy for a while. Tigers have regained some lost ground even though many big cat watchers had given up all hope after the dismal count in 2007. The latest round of tiger census, which was released on Monday at an international seminar, shows that the population is now estimated at 1,706, up from 1,411 recorded in 2007. This figure includes 70 tigers in the Sunderbans that had not been counted the last time. In the latest round, the counting was done in 39 tiger reserves and unlike earlier tiger estimates when pugmarks of tigers were counted, this time hidden cameras and DNA tests were used to arrive at this figure.
Though some experts are sceptical of the methods used to arrive at this figure, since not much has been revealed by the ministry, these findings are important for two reasons: first, it shows that we are still in the game, and second, conservation methods, higher awareness and civil society pressure have borne fruit. Yet, this is just a small victory. There is no doubt that tiger habitats are under tremendous pressure from human as well as economic activities. In the years to come, this will only increase as India ferrets for more resources that lie below the ground of these tiger territories to feed the country’s gigantic economic appetite. In fact, a government survey itself says that the degraded forests of India can only hold 1,000-1,200 tigers. The core tiger area has shrunk from 1 lakh sq kms in the 1970s when Project Tiger was launched to 31,207 sq kms. India, with more than 45,000 sq km of forest area under 39 designated tiger reserves, had 100,000 tigers at the turn of the last century. However, the threats are not only from the dwindling habitat: it is also from poachers and sophisticated international smuggling networks.
All these issues cannot be resolved in a day; they need to be tackled without interruption every single day. The tigers have done better in areas where they are groomed to grow in numbers like in Karnataka. But what about other areas and their long term ‘genetic viability’ (a realistic chance of avoiding the problems of inbreeding)? While it is time to raise a toast to the fact that India is one of the lucky countries that can still proudly boast of a tiger population, this census is a powerful reminder that the work has just begun and there’s a long way to go.