Although there are no precise estimates of the tiger population in the world, their population is thought to have plummeted by over 95 per cent since the turn of the 20th century. It is believed that in 1900 there were about 100,000 tigers in the world of which possibly as few as 3,890 individuals are surviving today in the wild, according to 2016 report of World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Three subspecies – Bali, Javan and Caspian tigers – were extinct by the 1980s.
Shikar (hunting for sport) was introduced in India by Mughals who ruled the country for more than three hundred years (1526-1857). It was generally the sport of royal families and it used to be a highly organised and tiring affair, in which one outing could last even for fifteen days. Despite this, Shikar did not do much damage to the wildlife because swords and arrows were the only weapons that were used to kill. Emperor Akbar is reported to have killed a tiger with a sword. In such situation animals stood a fair chance to survive. Besides, kings, emperors and potentates also guarded the animals jealously as royal game. Almost all the Mughal Emperors were sensitive to the conservation of nature and wildlife in their own ways. Emperor Nur-ud-din Salim Jahangir or simply Jehangir, son of Akbar, was special among all of them. He not only kept tigers in his menagerie, but also recorded their behaviour in his memoirs as was his wont. He also used to keep detailed notes of other wildlife that he saw. With the coming of gunpowder and the steady, deadly improvement of guns, the tiger was in full retreat.
Annihilation during British Raj
With the coming of British in India, came also the traders’ accuracy of observations and records. Numerous travellers, officers, and tax collectors of the Hon’ble John Company and the British Raj, recorded the tiger’s tale in numerous reports. What becomes evident is the fact that in the 19th century tigers were plentiful virtually throughout the subcontinent in all the forested areas from the Himalayan foot hills to Cape Comorin. Yet, reading the impressions of British hunters, forest officers and travellers, one finds constant statements about the fact that striped cats were no longer as plentiful as they were earlier. A clear testimony of the decline of the animal.
A.A. Dunbar Brander once wrote, “At one time in parts of India at the beginning of the last (19th) century they were numerous. It seemed to be a question as to whether man or tiger would survive.” Ultimately man survived at the cost of tigers.
Europeans, who came to India in 18th century with new technology, were the real plunderers of wildlife in the country. They came with new weaponry in the form of guns and explosives and with them came industrialisation, which erased the respect that people had for nature. Under the foreign rule the Indian subcontinent saw in 1852 (a year before Commodore Parry “opened” Japan with cannon shot), the introduction of telegraph and the following year, the railways. While these were essential they made more areas accessible to more people than ever before. With accessibility came more trade, industry and the destruction of habitat.
Europeans, especially the British that came as traders soon became masters. Hunting was their favourite past time, which soon became a prestigious sport. This is where the real decline of big cats started. The local Maharajas, who were always in search of an opportunity to please their white masters, played especial role by organising shikars and playing host to their British patrons.
A British officer Captain A. Mundy wrote in 1833 in his book ‘Pen and Pencil Sketches, being the Journal of a Tour of India‘, ‘Thus in the space of about two hours, and within sight of the camp, we found and slew three tigers, a piece of good fortune rarely to be met with in these modern times, when the spread of cultivation and the zeal of the English sportsman have almost exterminated the breed of these animals.’
Until about 1964, gunshots rang out in and around Nagarahole National Park regularly as bounty hunters pursued the big cat. “There was bounty on killing tigers from the 1800s during the reign of Kodagu Kings almost up to 1964. There used to be a villager called Changappa who shot 26 tigers for such bounty from 1948 to 1964, just around his village on the edges of Nagarahole,” recalled Dr. Ullas Karanth, a well-known wildlife biologist and Director of Wildlife Conservation Society’s India Programme.
No one really knows how many tigers were there in the 19th century or what the rate of decline in their numbers was. In 1950 Jim Corbett had opined that there were no more than 18,000 tigers surviving in India. The late E.P. Gee made an intelligent guesstimate that there were 40,000 of them at the beginning of the 20th century. This figure has since been sanctified by monotonous repetition, but no one has yet done a detailed analysis of tiger population density, habitat cover and its shrinkage, tiger mortality rate and suchlike. There is yet another estimate or guesstimate of 30,000 tigers in 1939. This may well be true and if so, the number could not have been markedly different at the dawn of our independence in 1947 for the intervening years were taken up by World War II and the political thereafter.
Kailash Sankhala wrote in his Return of the Tiger, “The hunting situation in 30-year interval had also changed. In 1938 hunting was a pastime; few forests were open; movement was slow and the guns and gunpowder used were medieval. By 1967 hunting had become a commercial enterprise and most of the forests were accessible by jeep. The hunter was equipped with deadly, accurate rifles with telescopic sight, powerful ammunition and spotlights. Even so, the 1967 records show that 1,730 permits were issued in that year and only 265 tigers shot throughout the country, a ‘success’ of only about 10 per cent, compared with almost 100 per cent in the nineteenth century.
….Those concerned with tiger shikar (with the exception of Corbett and the celebrated naturalist E.P. Gee) always inflated the estimated figures of the population in order to enjoy unrestricted hunting.”
Tigers in India face extinction ‘due to lack of genetic diversity’
A first-of-its-kind research published (15 May 2013) in the Proceedings of The Royal Society B journal has also confirmed that the Indian tiger as a subspecies has suffered a massive loss during the British Raj. It says, tigers in India, with around 60% of the world’s total population, are threatened with extinction because of the downfall in the variety of their mating partners, which has resulted in lack of genetic diversity.
Even in India the genetic diversity is declining fast making tigers increasingly vulnerable to extinction. Scientists have come to this conclusion after comparing the genetic data from modern tigers with those shot during the British Raj (1858-1947: period of British rule in India) in order to gain a historical perspective of genetic diversity.
The astonishing part of the study was that researchers identified a very high number of DNA variants in tigers killed during the British Raj – 93% of which were not found in the Indian tigers of today.
“We found that genetic diversity has been lost dramatically compared to the Raj tigers and what diversity remains has become much more subdivided into the small (20-120 individual) populations that exist today,” says one of the lead authors, Professor Mike Bruford from the Cardiff School of Biosciences.
“This is due to loss of habitat and habitat fragmentation, meaning lower population sizes, and the prevention of tigers from dispersing as they once would have, which means their gene pool is no longer mixing across the subcontinent.
“This is important because tigers, like all other species, need genetic diversity to survive – especially under climate change – so what diversity remains needs to be managed properly so that the Indian tiger does not become inbred, and retains its capacity to adapt,” said Bruford.
The study points out that the size of the tiger population in India were brought to near collapse during the British Raj, the main impetus for this was mechanised trophy hunting that reduced their numbers from 40,000 to less than 1,800 in a mere 100 years.
“Both conservationists and the Indian Government must appreciate that the number of tigers alone is not enough to ensure the species’ survival,” added Bruford.
“They need to protect the whole spread of forest reserves because many reserves now have their own unique gene combinations, which might be useful for future breeding programmes.
“This study shows that genetic diversity can be lost and a new genetic structure can arise very quickly, if the effects of population collapse and habitat fragmentation are strong enough, so quick action is needed to stymie further demographic loss,” Bruford said.
The territory occupied by the tiger has declined more than 50 per cent during the last three generations and today mating only occurs in 7 per cent of its historical territory, researchers said.
According to the records for the year 1877 tigers killed 16,137 cattle and 819 human beings, while man killed 1,579 tigers, some in retaliation and other for sports. In his book ‘Tiger – Portrait of A Predator’, Valmik Thapar wrote, “In the course of my research, I reviewed the accounts of more than 10,000 successful tiger hunts over a 100-year period. The highest known individual score is the 1,100 tigers shot by the Maharaja of Surguja.”
From mid 19th to early 20th century it was like a hell broke out on striped cats. To name a few, George Yule, a hunter and a member of the Bengal Civil Service stopped counting after killing 400 tigers. In 1872 Gordon Cumming killed 73 tigers along the Narmda River. In Nepal, during the 11-day state visit in 1911 by King George V, 39 tigers were shot and between 1933-40, guests of the Neplese Prime Minister dispatched another 433 tigers. General Wardrop shot seven in seven days in 1921. Montague Gerard accounted for 227 in central India and Hyderabad in 1903. William Rice shot 158 tigers in Rajasthan in four years in the mid-nineteenth century. Forsyth killed 39 tigers in eleven days in the year 1911. Colonel Nightingale was responsible for killing more than 300 striped cats in Hyderabad region. In 1919 a hunt yielded 120 tigers, 27 leopards and 15 sloth bears. It is a matter of great regret that the last tiger around Mohenjodaro, the cradle of our civilization on the banks of the River Indus, was despatched in 1906. Thus, snapped a natural living link with our 5,000 years of history.
According to Valmik.Thapar, “….massive destruction of the tiger took place between 1930 and 1960. Between the British and the Indian ruling classes the records increased in leaps and bounds. Ranthambhore, the Maharaja of Jaipur’s private hunting reserve, saw a peak of activity. In those days the ‘shooting lodge’ had spacious lawns where hunting parties played croquet and badminton, and took morning exercise on camel back for pleasure. Camps were laid out with large colourful tents called Shamianas as the hunting parties awaited news of the tiger. The guests included His Majesty King George of Greece, the Duke of Gloucester, the Count and Countess Szechenyi, Princess Zia, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the Georgian Prince Alec Mdvani, Earl Hopping, Sir Robert Throckmorton, Sir Beauchamp St. John, a series of Maharajas and a host of others.
“Shooting records multiplied even faster than before. In 1938-39 season Lord Linlithgow, former Viceroy of India, shot 120 tigers in ten weeks in the Chitwan Valley of Nepal. Maharaja of Udaipur shot at least 1,000 tigers, the Maharajkumar of Vijayanagaram over 325, Maharaja of Surguja around 1,100, Maharaja of Rewa 500, Maharaja of Gauripur 500, and so on.
“The move to independence gave a fresh lease of life to Indian hunters, who now went after the tiger with a vengeance. Even in the Forest Service, killing a tiger enhanced a man’s status. It meant that he had understood the ways of the jungle. Small and large shikar companies sprang up all over India, enticing sportsmen into what was described as the world’s most exciting sport. The tiger population declined rapidly. It stood at around 40,000 at the turn of the century, and fell to about 4,000 in the fifties. The price of skin soared. The tiger appeared to be gasping for life.”
The post independence era saw turmoil on an unprecedented scale. Old values died, and the new ones were still being born. Energies of Indian leaders and people were concentrated on affairs of state and feeding the hungry. Obviously the protection of flora and fauna took a back seat among the priorities of the nation. Moreover, hunting had been identified with the British and the princes. The former having left the country and the latter having been reduced to unemployed pensioners, their favourite sport, shikar, was either considered as something to be despised or pursued with great gusto to show that there were no more privileged imperialists or Maharajas left. Soon shikar became sport of common man and that too without any rules. On the other hand the great hunting preserves of the maharajas were ruthlessly vandalised. Wild animals whose killing would have brought down the wrath of the royalty or the officer of the Raj could now be had for the asking.
Forests once jealously guarded by the British and maharajas alike shrank and altogether disappeared with pressures of increasing population. According to a Food and Agriculture Organisation report, India had only 14 per cent of its forest cover left by 1980. The result was an unmitigated disaster. The magnitude of the tragedy can be gauged by the fact that by 1972, or within just 25 years of our independence, we had almost wiped out the entire tiger population of our country. That year’s tiger census shows a population of 1827 in India, about 100 in Bangladesh, approximately 150 in Nepal, perhaps 200 in Bhutan and few in Sikkim and western areas of Burma, a total of about 2,400 Indian tigers in all.
Sensing the approaching doom for the Indian tigers Government of India ably assisted by IUCN and WWF went about salvaging efficiently what it could. Soon Project Tiger was launched and the results were encouraging. In 1980 the population of the animal in the subcontinent was estimated at 3,300. If one were to take these figures seriously, they show an increase of 900 tigers in 10 years!!!!!! Now the question is are these figures true? Did they reflect the real picture of the story? Most people have doubts. In the same year the number of other species was – Siberian tigers 350 to 400, Indochinese tigers 2,000, Sumatran tigers 600 to 800, Chinese tigers perhaps a few and the Javan tigers only 1 or 2 (a decline from 5 to 10 in 1970).
Status of the Tiger in 1996
|Bengal Indian Tiger||3030||4735|
|South China Tiger||20||30|
Table compiled by Peter Jackson – Chairman, Cat Specialist Group (abridged)
95 tigers died, 22 skins seized in 2016
India lost 117 tigers in 2016, says the official website of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), with ninety-five deaths so far and the seizure of 22 skins.
There has been a 24% increase in fatalities as compared to last year’s figures, which has left wildlife activists concerned. In 2015, the country lost 70 tigers due to various reasons and 10 skins were seized, making it a total of 80 tigers.
As per statistics on tigernet.nic.in, the highest tiger mortality was reported in Madhya Pradesh, which lost 29 striped cats, followed by Karnataka (17), Maharashtra (15), and Tamil Nadu (seven). Other states — Assam, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Kerala — also lost its tiger population, taking the total to 95 tigers that died of infighting, electrocution, natural causes, drowning, accidents, poisoning, eliminated by authorities, and even poaching.
Twenty-two skins were seized so far this year, with the highest number in Uttarakhand (six), followed by Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Delhi and Chhattisgarh (with two skins each). Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh reported one seizure each.
Sunish Kumar, programme officer of the Delhi-based Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), said, “We have reported 130 tiger mortalities this year. Definitely this number is an increase from the past figures. What’s challenging is despite policies and stringent laws, we are losing big cats at a fast pace.” (The Hindustan Times)
India lost 41 tigers in 7 months (2015)
India lost close to 41 tigers from January until August 9 this year (2015), similar to the count in the same period in 2014, reveals fresh data from National Tiger Conservation Authority and TRAFFIC-India, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
States that have reported the maximum number of tiger deaths include Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Apart from natural death, authorities have pointed out other reasons for tiger deaths in the last various years, including poaching, in fighting, snares and traps, poisoning by villagers and shooting.
Last year, another cause of death cited was poaching by poisoning using organophosphorous compounds. Other causes included cardio-respiratory failure and even retaliatory killing by electrocution near Dhamokar at Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh.
337 tigers lost in a decade (2002-2012)
337 tigers lost their lives in and outside various reserves in India in the last decade (2002-2012), an RTI (Right To Information) query has revealed. These big cats died due to poaching, infighting, accidents and old age etc. A highest of 58 tigers were found dead in 2009, followed by 56 in 2011, 36 in 2008 and 28 each in 2007 and 2002.
A total of 17 tigers, including cubs, were found dead in 2005, 16 each in 2003 and between January and March this year (2012), and 14 in 2006, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) said in reply to the RTI query. According to the data, as many as 68 tigers were victims of poaching during the period. Besides, others had died of natural causes including old age, starvation, road and rail accidents, electrocution and weakness. Interestingly, there were about a dozen incidents in which the cause of tiger deaths “could not be ascertained”.
A highest of 14 tigers were poached in 2010, 13 in 2009, 11 in 2011, nine in 2002, six each in 2007 and 2008, five in 2006, three in January and March this year and one in 2004. (Times Of India – 16 Apr. 2012)
411 tigers disappeared between 1999 and 2003 in India
Government of India has acknowledged before the Supreme Court that 411 tigers have disappeared from various forests and sanctuaries all over India between 1999 and 2003. These figures, part of an environment ministry report cited in government’s affidavit filed in May 2005 in response to a petition by environmentalist Ashok Kumar.
Poaching of 114 big cats had been directly confirmed in various forests, while skins of 238 were seized from conduits along with their bones in different parts of the country, indicating that they were apparently killed by poachers. The remaining 59 might have died of natural death.
Affidavit says poaching was rampant particularly in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Maharashtra, accounting for 24 and 23 killings respectively. Thirteen big cats were killed in Madhya Pradesh (MP) — home to Kanha, Panna, Pench, Satpura and Bandhavgarh tiger reserves — during the same period.
The natural mortality of the species was highest in MP (15), UP (12), and Uttranchal (10). From the 238 seizures in 211 cases, MP topped the list with 57, followed by UP (44), West Bengal (39), Maharashtra (19), Uttranchal (15) and Andhra Pradesh (AP) 11.
“The international border of India with Nepal, Bangladehs and Myanmar is relatively porous. It facilitates illegal transfer of contraband,” government said.
Tiger poaching estimates by the Union ministry of environment & forests, the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
Year Govt WPSI NTCA
2017 103 mortality + 12 seizures2016 117 lost (95 deaths + 22 skins seized) 2015 80 lost (70 deaths + 10 skin seized) 2014 81 64 2013 80 2012 88 2011 61 2004 5 34 2003 16 35 2002 36 43 2001 36 72 2000 9 52 1999 24 81
Seizures of tiger parts
1. In the month of June 2004, 10 tiger skins, 25 leopard skins, four sacks of tiger bone and claws from 31 tigers and leopards were found in 11 seizures in India and Nepal.
2. Government of India (GOI) has acknowledged before the Supreme Court in an affidavit that between 1999 and 2003 skins of 238 tigers were seized from conduits along with their bones in different parts of the country. These figures are part of an environment ministry report cited in government’s affidavit filed in May 2005 in response to a petition by environmentalist Ashok Kumar.
3. In 2001 an international agency intercepted “31 tiger skins, 581 leopard skins, 778 otter skins etc.” in Tibet from a single consignment from India destined for China.
4. In August 1993 Delhi police seized 400 kg of tiger bones, eight tiger skins along with 43 leopard skins. This was perhaps the biggest seizure of animal remains ever reported in India. The involvement of Tibetans points to the involvement of the Chinese industry.