There’s rarely any good environmental news as storms and heat waves wreak havoc across the globe, but India says it has broken that trend with a big increase in its tiger population, reporting on July 29 that the total has risen by a third from 2,226 of the cats in 2014 to 2,967 in 2018.
This is significant because it means that India, which is home to 75 percent of the world’s wild tigers, is well on its way to meeting an international pledge to double the world’s tiger population by 2022.
As is usual in such a census, the 2,967 figure is an average of findings that ranged from 2,603 to 3,346. The 2,226 in 2014, and a 1,411 figure in 2006, were also averages, although the population may have been underestimated in those years because census techniques have improved and the area covered has been enlarged in the latest census.
Always keen to claim credit for what is achieved, Narendra Modi, the prime minister, personally announced the figures and said India is “now one of the biggest and most secure habitats of the tiger.” He is also boosting his image by appearing in the Man vs Wild wilderness survival TV series, filmed in a tiger reserve.
His government however has done little to improve the protection of the tiger and other wildlife such as elephants and leopards since it came to power in 2014. Instead, it has done the opposite by whittling down the power of various environmental agencies and by easing the way for statutory environmental procedures to be avoided by infrastructure and other projects.
Two days ago it was reported that the environment ministry has exempted 13 railway projects costing the equivalent of US$2.8 billion spread over 800 hectares of land in four states from the process of seeking environmental forest permits. At least four of the projects will damage sensitive areas including a national park, a tiger reserve, a tiger corridor and wildlife sanctuaries.
So it is not all good news, as the savage beating to death of a tiger in Uttar Pradesh by angry villagers shouting “maar, maar” (beat it, beat it) three days ago also showed. The tigress was apparently involved in attacks on humans and the incident graphically illustrated a growing problem of human-animal conflict as development eats into tiger country.
“Rural communities in India have always shared their space with large predators such as tigers & leopards with occasional conflict, but in recent times as India’s the population has increased massively, forests and other wildlife habitats have shrunk and become fragmented, so there is huge pressure on them from surrounding villages,” says Belinda Wright, founder director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).
“When the government or large companies want to extract minerals, create a dam, lay a new railway line, canal or highway, it is almost invariably in wildlife habitat. It is no longer a case of animals sharing space, but rather how to survive. In many areas, there just are not enough prey species and water for the big cats to survive, so they increasingly prey on livestock.”
The new survey covered a wider area of 380,000 sq kms (147,000 sq miles), 20,000 sq kms more than in 2014. There were a total of 15,000 camera traps, up from 9,700 in 2014, which photographed 83 percent of the tigers recorded.
Tigers’ unique stripe patterns were compared to avoid double-counting and this was combined with extensive on-ground information recording tracks and data sampling of prey species, vegetation and human involvement.
Yesterday’s is the biggest increase since the current method of combining camera traps with marking animals began in 2006. That replaced a more easily falsified and less accurate method of making plaster casts of tigers’ pug marks.
There is no doubt that the results are impressive, and there has been an increase in some state-level efforts to curb poaching. In the large western state of Maharashtra, the tiger numbers have gone up from 190 to 312.
Poaching gangs curbed
Nitin Desai of WPSI, who is based in the state, says that there has been no instances of organized poaching by traditional gangs in central India since 2013, when the Maharashtra Forest Department carried out a big operation against poachers from the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh, virtually putting an end to their reign.
That doesn’t mean that tiger deaths haven’t happened, nor that parts of tigers killed in other ways, for example by trucks on highways and electrocution by low-hanging cables, has not led to the animal parts and skins being sold.
Tigers are getting killed, as are leopards in large numbers – India lost at least 218 leopards over the first four months of 2019, more than 40 percent of the previous year’s death toll of 500.
The main message from yesterday’s news is that India has far more tigers than had been thought. That is good, though the government needs to release more detailed figures so that they can be analyzed by experts.
The cause of tiger conservation however is not served by a prime minister who uses the news to make unjustified claims. Modi said in his statement: “We have to create a healthy balance between sustainability and development. More roads and cleaner rivers, more homes for citizens and, at the same time, quality habitat for animals are necessary for a strong, inclusive India.”
No one can argue about that. The problem is that his government is not creating or protecting “quality habitat for animals”. If it was, it would not be exempting the railway projects mentioned above from environmental tests and regulations.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant .