indias tigers are making a comeback

A conservation effort has worked well enough that there is now talk of sending some tigers to Cambodia to help that nation revive its own wild population.

In the early 1970s, things looked grim for India’s tigers. A wild population estimated in the tens of thousands at the time of independence in 1947 had shrunk to around 1,800. The tigers’ decline also held worrying implications for the nation’s environment because the apex predator is part of a complex but fragile ecosystem. Something had to be done.

On Sunday, as India celebrated the 50th anniversary of an intensive conservation effort known as Project Tiger, there was success to report: The tiger population had nearly doubled in the decades since, to 3,167.

The results of the 2022 tiger census, the release of which was delayed because of Covid, showed an increase of about 200 since the last census, in 2018. While the growth was much less than the previous four-year cycle, it was still steady.

“India is the largest tiger range country in the world,” Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, said in releasing the census after a 12-mile safari ride in the forests of the southern state of Karnataka. “These are the results of our conservation culture and people’s involvement.”

Conservation analysts and forest officials say the collapse in tiger numbers in the middle of the 20th century was caused mostly by a rapid expansion of trophy hunting, a practice formerly restricted to the colonial elite. While tiger numbers dwindled drastically, cheetahs disappeared entirely from India.

“The time between independence and 1972 was one of the worst periods for wildlife in India. Tigers were one of the main targets,” said Yadvendradev Jhala, a former dean at Wildlife Institute of India who studied the tigers for nearly two decades. “If Project Tiger had not happened, arguably India may have lost its tigers by now.”

A tiger killed by Prince Philip during a royal tour of India with Queen Elizabeth II in 1961. The collapse in tiger numbers in the middle of the 20th century was caused mostly by a rapid expansion of trophy hunting.Fox Photos/Getty Images

Steps the government took to reverse the decline included introducing anti-poaching measures; relocating villages to expand tiger reserves and buffer areas; and improving those reserves.

When the efforts began, there were nine tiger reserves covering an area of more than 5,405 square miles. Over five decades, that expanded to 53 reserves in 18 states, consisting of 28,958 square miles — about 2.3 percent of India’s total area.

Tigers require space to roam in search of food. An adult male tiger needs a minimum of 27 to 39 square miles.

At the time of independence, India had a human population of about 340 million. That left room for wildlife, with tiger numbers at around 40,000 then. Today, with India’s population nearing 1.4 billion, wildlife experts estimate that India can accommodate from 4,000 to 10,000 tigers.

The rise in both populations puts pressure on managing human-tiger conflict. Such conflict has at times spread panic and fear, stopping villagers from even going out to their fields.

In 2018, in the western state of Maharashtra, a tigress named T1 was shot dead by a professional hunter after several months of pursuit. T1, the local authorities said, had fatally mauled about a dozen people in the state’s Yavatmal district.

And despite careful government watch, tigers still die from causes like poaching, poisoning and electrocution. From 2017 to 2021, India lost 547 tigers, including 154 to causes termed “unnatural.” Eighty-eight of the deaths in that period were attributed to poaching.

A sedated cheetah before its flight from South Africa to India in February. Efforts are underway to introduce the African cats to India over the next decade.Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

But the nation now feels rich enough in tigers to consider sending some abroad. Indian authorities are in discussion with Cambodia to help revive the population there, which was wiped out by poaching and hunting.

In a related effort, India has received 20 cheetahs from African countries over the past year.

While one of the imported cheetahs died because of a medical condition about six months after arrival, another gave birth to four cubs at a national park in central India.

“For decades, cheetahs had disappeared from India. We brought magnificent big cats from Namibia and South Africa,” Mr. Modi said on Sunday. “Few days back in Kuno National Park, four beautiful cubs were born. After 75 years, cheetahs were born on Indian soil. That is a very auspicious start.”

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting.

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