At one time “tigerland” comprised virtually the whole of Indian subcontinent. Today while the great cat is facing danger of becoming extinct, India is quite rich, as far as the numbers are concerned. The tiger population has jumped in India from 1,706 in 2010 to 2,226 in 2014. The latest tiger census, released by Indian environment minister Prakash Javadekar, on 20 January 2015, shows that India — which has 70 per cent of the world’s tigers — has registered an increase of 30 per cent in country’s tiger population in the past three years.
“While the tiger population is falling in the world, it is rising in India. It is a great news”, said Javadekar. Referring to the census exercise, he said, “Never before such an exercise has been undertaken in that massive scale where we have unique photographs of 80 per cent of the country’s tigers”.
If one look at the 2006 tiger census figures (made public on February 12, 2008), the current increase is simply phenomenal. India’s tiger population was mere 1,411 in 2006. The census is carried out after a gap of every four years by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in the country.
According to the 2010 tiger census report (presented on 28 March 2011), the tiger population estimated was 1,706 (i.e. ranging between a minimum of 1,571 to a maximum of 1,875). The results included figures from 17 states of the country having tiger population.
The latest figures show that Karnataka has the highest number of tigers in the age group of 1.5 years and more. The state has 408 tigers in that age group followed by 340 in Uttarakhand, 308 in Madhya Pradesh, 229 in Tamil Nadu, 190 in Maharashtra, 167 in Assam, 136 in Kerala and 117 in Uttar Pradesh.
In 2006 the tiger population was 1411. In 1972, a year before Project Tiger was launched there were 1,827 tigers in the country. In 1997 the Tiger Census showed that there were 3,507 tigers.
The Census report in 2006 had classified the tiger occupied forests in India into 6 landscape — (a) Shivalik-Gangetic Plains, (b) Central Indian Landscape Complex (c) Eastern Ghats, (d) Western Ghats, (e) North-Eastern Hills and Bhramaputra Plains, and (f) Sunderbans.
For 2014 census at least 9,735 cameras were used and around 3.78 lakh sq. km. forest area having tigers was monitored for the estimation. India’s Project Tiger was launched in 1973 to check dwindling population of tigers in country. The country at present has 47 tiger reserves.
Tiger population in various years
Year Tiger population
2014 2,226 (census by camera trap)
2010 1706 (First nationwide census by camera trap)
2006 1411 (1165 – 1657 min-max) (Nationwide census)
2005 2,000 (based on pugmark method; considered to be flawed)
2001-02 3,642 (pugmark method) (source: – Project Tiger India)
1997 3,508 (pugmark method) (source: – Project Tiger India)
1993 3,750 (pugmark method) (source: – Project Tiger India)
1989 4,334 (pugmark method) (source: – Project Tiger India)
1984 4,005 (pugmark method) (source: – Project Tiger India)
1979 3,015 (pugmark method) (source: – Project Tiger India)
1972 1,827 (pugmark method) (source: – Project Tiger India)
Tigers lose 41% turf in India, world’s maximum
India has lost nearly 41 per cent of its tiger habitat. As per the latest report (2015) of the International Union of Conservation Network (IUCN), India suffered the most range contraction among the tiger-range countries.
Tiger-range countries, where tigers still roam free, are Bhutan, China, Nepal, Thailand, Russia, to name a few. The report pointed out that range decline is considered a strong indicator of population decline. It said that since an average of 55 per cent of Tiger Conservation Landscapes consist of non-tiger habitat, the decline in population and area of occupancy is greater than the estimated 41 per cent.
As per the report, the extent of occupied area in the country is at present estimated at less than 1,184,911 sq km in comparison to 1997. Biologists consider the primary cause behind this to be decline due to poaching and habitat loss, the report said.
The report warned that a similar reduction could be expected over the next three tiger generations (20-30 years) unless conservation efforts become more effective. The survey has also found a decrease in tiger range to the extent of 12.6 per cent in connecting habitat corridors from 2006-2010.
Though the report has not given a State-wise breakup of decline in tiger habitats, according to experts in the Environment Ministry, Madhya Pradesh, which at 3,000, has one of the highest populations of tigers, has seen the maximum decline in forest cover during the last two years.
The State, which has the largest forest cover in the country, has recorded a considerable decrease in its green area including very dense forest and moderately dense forest, said sources in the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF).
As per the records of MoEF and Forest Survey of India, 77,700 km (11.24 per cent) of the total 6, 90, 899 km of forest land in the country is in the State. The decrease in dense forest cover has been particularly reported from Sidhi, Mandla, Satna, Umaria, Jabalpur, Jhabua, East Nimar, Dewas, Chhindwara, Chhatarpur and Balaghat districts, which support the tiger population.
In contrast, Nepal is adding to its tiger habitat with the Government giving its approval for extension of Parsa Wildlife Reserve in the country. This will add a further 2,500 sq km of prime habitat for the big cats, which conservationists hope will increase the protected region’s tiger capacity to more than 40 adults.
The new addition, called Bara Forest, was previously operating under a medium level of protection. In India, on the other hand, the proposed Ken-Betwa river interlinking project that cuts through Panna Tiger Reserve has raised much concern about loss of tiger habitat.
Problem of plenty
The main growth in tiger numbers between the last three census exercises (1411 tigers in 2006, 1706 in 2010 and now 2,226 in 2014) has taken place around well-protected tiger reserves which are close to their holding limit for the large predators. This means striped cats are increasingly moving closer to human populations, increasing the chances of conflict and harm to all concerned—the tigers, humans and the livestock.
There are numerous examples of tiger boom in protected pockets of forests. For instance, Corbett National Park reported a rise of 50 in 2010 from 164 in 2006. Qamar Qureshi, wildlife biologist at the wildlife Institute of India, says “During this period, the tiger density within Corbett has remained the same. The growth has basically come in areas surrounding the national park. We found tigers moving up and down, looking for new territories and moving closer to habitations like Ramnagar.”
In Ranthambore, Kaziranga and few other reserves too situation is not different and the contiguous forests of Bandipur-Nagarhole-Mudumalai-Wayanad, which the latest count (year 2010) shows is the single biggest tiger habitat in the world and contains an estimated 382 tigers. Interestingly, all these national parks are nearing there holding capacities.
Census of 2010 has revealed another disturbing fact. On one hand tiger population has increased but the tiger habitat has registered a steep decline of about 20,000 sq km—from 93,600 sq km in 2006 to 72,800 in 2010. The losses registered are in the areas that are outside protected forests. The loss of habitat means tigers are increasing but the space is shrinking. This situation poses a very big question where these tigers will go? If some major steps are not taken, like increasing the habitat, removing encroachments from the forest lands and creating forest corridors at the earliest, they will be forced to head for forests categorized as multiple-use areas around national parks and this will ultimately lead to man-animal conflict.
Data available from 1986 to 2003 shows a total of 186 tigers strayed into villages situated on the fringes of the Indian side of the Sunderban.
Unique Identification (UID) number for Tigers
The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) issued a guideline on 3 Dec. 2012, proposing to assign a Unique Identification (UID) number to each tiger captured on camera traps. Cats living in Sunderbans, for instance, will have the prefix ‘Su’ before a number while those in the hills of Northeastern states will have ‘NE’. Tigers are identified on the basis of stripe patterns obtained through the images. The objective is to create a national repository of camera-trap photographs of tigers, and the UIDs will help cut out duplication and give the big cats an exact headcount.
World’s first tiger census
In 1932, the world’s first tiger census was carried out in the forests of Palamau (now a district in the Indian state of Jharkhand). It was based on a pug mark count. For the pug mark count, staff and volunteers are usually supplied with a kit bag containing data sheets, a pug mark tracing board and sheets, a measuring scale, marker pens, adhesive tape, plaster of Paris, and a map showing their pre-determined route.
Pug marks are commonly located near riverbeds, bodies of water, and well-travelled paths. They are followed until a clear imprint is spotted, then traced. If the pug mark is well-defined liquid plaster of Paris is used to take an impression. Up to 18 parameters may be used to determine the individuality of a pug mark.
Staff and volunteers involved in the job of counting need to know the sex, age, ratio and density. Using these figures, and the figures from a count of the prey base, staff can calculate how many carnivores a given area can sustain.
Not all parks carry out census duties at the same time of year. Many of them do this during height of the summer; this is because when the waterholes dry up animals would congregate around the remaining water pockets. Experts of this system claim this simplifies the task of counting as tigers would follow prey to the water source. The system is now considered flawed as it depends upon a couple of false premises:
- That a tiger visits only one waterhole per night.
- That he does so only once in a 24 hour period.
Neither of them is correct. Especially in summer animals visit water holes more than once in a day. Though a few places still use this technique it is increasingly being replaced by taking the census at a time of the year when the cat is most active; this is during winter.
The practice of taking a regular census count is well-established within India. For counts of other tiger subspecies it is less often done, though Amur tigers were being counted using the pug mark method over two decades ago. The Hornocker Wildlife Institute also carried out a much needed census of Amur tigers in 1995-1996. It showed somewhere between 330 and 371 cats.
Different counting methods are applied to different animals. For large animals like elephant and rhino the Direct Count method is utilized, while the Specific Sampling method is applied to small and medium-sized herbivores.
While counting on the basis of pug marks the following information is noted:
Length of stride, Details of walk speed, Surface and texture of the ground (hard or soft),
Information on the surrounding area, Scratch marks, Visual sightings, Time/Date/Signature and Anything else considered being of importance – roars, fresh droppings, and a nearby kill.
A back-up method to pug mark tracing involves the use of infrared cameras. These are traps placed late in the evening on trails known to be used by tigers. They are usually removed each morning for examination and to prevent damage.
At the end of the census period reports are sent for collation and a final figure arrived at. The documents may then be analyzed by a committee and will go on to be used for developing wildlife management strategies in the area.
How accurate is a census count?
The enumeration system attempts to count all subjects of the population found in a given area. Accuracy of a census depends upon many factors, but with the tiger being such a secretive and night-active animal none can ever be considered more than a rough estimate. The important thing is that they should, as much as possible, be based on facts and not guesswork.
Some factors which lead to incorrect results are:
Pug mark imprints alter depending upon ground conditions, slope, speed, and if the tiger is carrying a weight such as large prey. This results in distortion and duplication as one tiger can appear to be several. On leafy or stony ground marks don’t register at all meaning tigers can be missed. In the 1995 census not one pug mark was located on the Kendua or Kende islands of the Sunderbans In 1997 only nine pug marks were sighted, yet the natives state many more tigers live in this area. Much of the Sundarbans is difficult to count due to the tidal flows which eliminate or change the appearance of pug marks.
Survey teams usually include one or two volunteers inexperienced in the counting process, along with one member of staff. In total, 10,000 people are involved and the census covers an area of 2.5 million square kilometres. This raises the chance of errors being made.
The tiger travels a lot and it has been known for one cat to cross the area of three counting groups, so being registered multiple times and making three tigers out of one.
Results may be deliberately falsified if staff feels their jobs are more secure when there are plenty of tigers to protect. This happened in the early golden years of Project Tiger. It wasn’t until after Indira Gandhi’s death that suspicion was raised about the accuracy of the claimed increase in tiger numbers. On top of this, people involved with tiger shikar (hunting) always had a vested interest in inflating tiger numbers.
People sometimes question about the confusion arising between the pug marks of leopards and tiger cubs. This does not usually occur; the impressions of a 6-month-old tiger cub are already much larger than those of an adult leopard.
Counting tigers using pug marks is an age old technique. Expert trackers and Shikarees (hunters), during the period of rajas, maharajas, nawabs and the British Raj, could identify sex, age, size and weight of the animal just by looking at few pug marks. They used to be especially employed for the job. This ability was their family secret passed down through the generations from father to son. Now the tradition of tiger tracking has almost died out with the passage of time.
Countrywide Tiger Census in 1972
Kailash Sankhala (1925–1994), a renowned naturalist and conservationist of India wrote in his book Return of the Tiger that he started his search in 1969 and his estimate of tiger numbers in the country was about 2,500. Widely known as ‘Tiger Man of India’, Sankhala was the director of Delhi Zoological Park and Chief Wildlife Warden of Rajasthan. According to him his search served the purpose; within six months the government had placed a ban on tiger hunting throughout the country. The alarming situation in India also helped the tigers of Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, as well as the few left in Java, Sumatra and Indo-China, to find a place in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red Data Book as animals in need of protection.
Sankhala, who later became the founding director of the Project Tiger in 1973, wrote in 1972 a massive census operation was launched by the government. Under this programme nearly 5,000 men went out to count tigers during two weeks in April in the eastern sector and in May in the rest of the country. Their instructions were to collect any possible information indicating the presence of tigers — footprints (pugmarks), droppings, their kills, roars and occasional encounters. Outcome of this exercise was the total population reported as 1,827.
The ‘Tiger Man’, who established the ‘Tiger Trust’ in 1989 to continue his commitment to tiger conservation, says “the 1972 tiger census, if not 100 per cent reliable, was at least based on the best available facts rather than on guesswork, as in all previous estimates.”
Prior to the census of 1972 all estimates are worthless; the only instance of tigers actually being counted is that of the Maharaja of Bundi (75 tigers in 1941). In Gwalior’s dry deciduous forests, Ellison’s 1925 estimate of 400-500 can be compared to 26 of 1972, a loss of 93 per cent. Sankhala says, “We may take it, then, that the overall loss of tigers throughout India was no less than it was in Bundi or Gwalior, about 93 per cent by 1972. E.P. Gee’s estimate of 40,000 tigers early in this (20th) century was therefore not far wrong.”
Census done in 1972 was a big shocker. It revealed reduction in tiger numbers throughout the country:
In the areas under Coimbatore, where 93 tigers were poisoned in 1874, only four could be found. For the famous forests of Rewa, where 1924 record showed 162 tigers only 21 were located.
Even in the Sundarbans, where habitat destruction was lowest, experts were able to see only about 180 cats. While earlier the tiger population there was considered as “abundant”.
Maharajah of Bundi had carried out a count of wild tigers within his state in 1941. The area was small, only about 300 square miles, but it had 75 cats. This area registered a loss of about 94% and only 6 tigers were found. This was a very bad news because the forests here were ideal tiger habitat.
The list went on and on, showing the animal in dire need of protection. That year a total of 2,741 tigers (1,827 in India alone) were counted. This included Bengal tigers living in Nepal, Bhutan, and perhaps overly-generous allowance for Bangladesh.
What does a census show?
Among other things a census shows experts the following:
The number of tigers in a given area. In Orissa, tiger numbers came down to 226 from 243 in just four years (1989 to 1993). During the same period leopard numbers rose from 226 to 378.
Number of males to females. A recent Corbett Tiger Reserve census showed that their tiger population is made up of 51 males, 75 females and the rest are cubs.
Age and size.
Available prey as compared to carnivore requirements.
What a census shows over time
More important is what trends can be read over time from a number of census results. It is these which show what actions can, and should, be taken to help preserve a species. Then they show how successful the action taken was in producing stability or expansion among a given group.