India’s Wild Tiger Population on the Rise


India’s population of endangered Bengal tigers is on the rise. According to a government estimate, there are nearly 3,000 Bengal tigers in the wild in India, a 33 percent increase since 2014. Wildlife experts say better safety monitoring and stricter wildlife policies have helped the tiger population grow to its largest in about two decades.

“Once the people of India decide to do something, there is no force that can prevent them from getting the desired results,” PM Modi said at a news conference announcing the figures.

But as the number of tigers has increased, so have the human-tiger conflicts in India, a country of 1.3 billion.

India has created nearly two dozen tiger reserves in the last decade, but many are surrounded by villages. As development projects shrink the space separating humans and tigers, the animals are spilling out of reserves in search of prey — wild pigs, cattle and sometimes people.

For over two years, a female tiger that officials had named T-1 stalked the hills of central India, where she was blamed for the deaths of at least 13 people. Last fall, hundreds of officers and sharpshooters riding elephants tried to tranquilize her. When that failed, T-1 was shot and killed.

In July 2019, a group of villagers beat a tiger to death in the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, about 200 miles east of New Delhi, after it attacked several people. In a video of the incident that was shared widely, the tiger appeared to be trying to block the blows with its paws. Four people were arrested and charged under a wildlife protection law.

Prerna Singh Bindra, a conservationist and the author of “The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis,” said the country needs “a sound strategy” to avoid human-animal conflicts. “Forests are being fragmented,” she said. “We are saying yes to about 98 percent of development and other projects in protected areas. If we keep cutting habitats, this tiger utopia is going to come crashing down.”

A ranger adjusting a motion-detecting camera used to track tigers.

The tiger census released in July 2019, which covered nearly 150,000 square miles and tracked “carnivore signs” using thousands of camera traps, found that India’s tiger population rose to 2,967 in 2018, about 700 more than in 2014. The world has only about 4,000 tigers left in the wild.

The report found that tiger populations had increased across India, with the highest number in Madhya Pradesh, a hot, shrubby state with more than 500 cats. Apart from the camera traps, thousands of wildlife officials covered more than 300,000 miles on foot to collect dung samples and take photographs from thick green canopies.

The authors of the report, which was prepared by the central government’s National Tiger Conservation Authority, called it “the world’s largest effort invested in any wildlife survey.”

Mr. Modi took the opportunity Monday to highlight the success, saying in a tweet that the tiger census would make “every Indian, every nature lover happy.” The report also coincided with the release of a promotional video for an coming episode of Bear Grylls’s popular television show “Man Vs. Wild” featuring Mr. Modi.

Valmik Thapar, a prominent Indian naturalist and a wild tiger specialist, said the data seemed mostly accurate and suggested a gradual return to numbers from the 1980s, when India’s tiger population hovered around 4,000. He credited the rebound to closer cooperation between state governments and wildlife experts. (Other experts said the increase might relate to improved counting methods.)

But Mr. Thapar said there was still a long way to go. Training for conservationists in many states remains “abysmal,” he said.

Mr. Thapar said India had yet to realize its potential as a wildlife tourism destination, which would create jobs for some of the same villagers who are currently hostile toward the cats.

And some parts of eastern India are still losing tigers, despite additional funds intended to save them. In several premier reserves, Mr. Thapar said, there are “no tigers at all.”

“We need to focus on doing something about these problems,” he said. “We must look after these national treasures.”

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