India marks 50 years of Project Tiger : Here's how India saved extinction of the endangered Wild Cats

From 1,411 tigers in 2006 to 2,967 in 2018, India has been able to double their population of the striped cat. But poaching and inbreeding continue to threaten their long-term survival.
India marks 50 years of Project Tiger : Here's how India saved extinction of the endangered Wild Cats

Home to over 75 per cent of the world’s last surviving tigers, India is all set to release its latest count of the striped big cat on Sunday. The release coincides with the completion of 50 years of Project Tiger — One of the biggest wildlife conservation missions launched in 1973 to save the endangered carnivore.

From just 1,411 tigers estimated to be in the wild in the year 2006, India has been able to double its population reaching up to 2,967 in 2018, as per the government estimate. Wildlife experts and conservationists expect a further uptick in the overall numbers in the latest survey.

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India marks 50 years of Project Tiger : Here's how India saved extinction of the endangered Wild Cats

Commemorating the completion of the 50th anniversary of Project Tiger, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will release the latest tiger census data and release the government’s vision for tiger conservation during ‘Amrit Kaal’ at a mega event in Karnataka’s Mysuru on April 9.

A three-day event is slated to take place in Mysore from April 9, organized by the Central Government. The upcoming festivities will include the unveiling of the latest tiger census figures by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as well as the release of a document evaluating the efficient management of tiger reserves and a vision statement outlining future efforts towards tiger conservation. Furthermore, the Prime Minister will also launch a commemorative Rs 50 coin in honor of the project.

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India marks 50 years of Project Tiger : Here's how India saved extinction of the endangered Wild Cats

What Is Project Tiger?

India launched Project Tiger on April 1, 1973, to promote conservation and revive the dwindling tiger population. Initially, the project incorporated 9 tiger reserves spanning 18,278 sq km. Over the past 50 years, significant progress has been made towards this objective, and the number of tiger reserves has now increased to 53, encompassing an area of 75,500 sq km.

India has around 3,000 tigers, more than 70 per cent of the global wild tiger population, and the number is increasing at a rate of 6 per cent per year, according to latest official figures.

How Are Tigers Counted?

The process of counting the tigers is not easy, and when the government began it all in 1973, forest staff had to use glass and butter paper to track tiger pugmarks. Every tiger has a unique and individual footprint, like human fingerprints, which helps in tracking. Rangers would trace the joint marks off the foot and trace it on butter paper to draw and record the footprint with the intention of using it to track that particular tiger in the future.

However, the whole process is more complex. The fact that the pugmarks differ when a tiger stands, rests, or runs adds discrepancies to the process.

Over the years, the practice evolved into a statistical method of counting.

According to the Wildlife Institute of India, the Capture-Mark-Recapture framework is a well-established method for estimating the abundance/density of elusive carnivores, such as tigers and leopards, through the use of camera trap surveys. The present technology is a huge improvement from the earlier method of studying tigers through tracing their unique and individual footprints or pugmarks on papers.

The camera trapping methodology involves taking photographs of individuals based on their distinctive pelage patterns, which can uniquely identify them. However, according to the experts, there is an increasing interest in broad-scale camera trap surveys for unmarked species as well. The development of Spatial Capture-Recapture (SCR) methods has improved density estimation by incorporating the spatial or “location" information of animal photo-captures and camera deployment. The data can also be analysed using conventional mark-recapture techniques, even outside a spatial framework, according to the official Phase III Camera Trapping Protocol manual.

The government takes stock of the tiger population every four years. The humungous exercise involves forest officials and scientists doing a survey across the country looking for signs of the wild cat. The assessment, which began in 2006, is currently in its fifth cycle with the results set to be announced on Sunday.

The estimates are made by collecting field data on tiger sign intensity, prey abundance, human disturbance a s well as habitat characteristics in various forest beats followed by estimates based on modern camera trap images.

According to an India Today report, for the tiger survey, India is divided into five zones, namely the Gangetic Plains, Central India and Eastern Ghats, Western Ghats, North Eastern Hills and Brahmaputra Flood Plains, and Sundarbans. In 2018, a comprehensive survey was conducted over an area of 381,400 square kilometers, covering 141 sites with a total of 26,838 camera trap locations.

According to wildlife conservationist Latika Nath, the reported numbers of tigers are likely an underestimate as camera traps are primarily placed in protected areas. As the population of tigers increases, they may venture beyond national park boundaries where camera traps are not present, she told the publication.

Are The Numbers Enough?

From over 50,000 tigers at a point in time, just 3,000 remain in the wild as per the 2018 census. Madhya Pradesh saw the highest number of tigers at 526 in the last survey , closely followed by Karnataka at 524 and Uttarakhand with 442 tigers. More than 7 0 per cent of these cats are inside the 53 tiger reserves spread over 75,796 sq km area.

“As the number rises, we also need to focus on involving local communities at every step, or the conservation efforts will not sustain. This can only happen if they also get the benefit of new livelihood opportunities like eco-tourism,” says Dr Dharmendra Khandal, conservation biologist with Ranthambore-based NGO Tiger Watch.

With the growth rate of tigers in India currently at around 6 per cent a year, ADG (Forests) SP Yadav — who heads the centrally sponsored Project Tiger — says the goal now is to sustain this viable population based on scientifically calculated carrying capacity of habitats.

The Project Tiger head pointed out that the tiger populations in some reserves, such as Buxa Tiger Reserve in West Bengal, Satkosia and Similipal in Odisha, and Satpura in Madhya Pradesh, are very low. “We need active management where tiger numbers are below or above the carrying capacity,"

Speaking about the future strategy for tiger conservation in the country he said, “We need to translocate these tigers to areas that have a good prey base and better chances of survival."

The Man - Animal Conflict

Addressing issues regarding man-animal conflict, the Project Tiger Head said that the government, with the help of the Wildlife Institute of India, has come up with guidelines for linear infrastructure and mitigation measures. “So, all proposals of projects in tiger corridors or tiger habitats, or buffer areas are put up before the standing committee of the NBWL (National Board for Wildlife) and implemented only after the recommendation of the panel which looks into all factors, including appropriate mitigation measures," he said.

NTCA data shows that India lost 857 tigers between 2012 and 2020, while 193 of them died due to poaching. Such incidents came down substantially from 34 in 2018 to just seven in 2020. Calling poaching the number one treat to the tiget population in India, Yadav said, “poaching takes place in India not because there is a demand in our country, it is driven by the demand in consumer countries. Thanks to technology, better surveillance, patrolling and protection mechanisms, poaching has substantially reduced in India. But it still is the number one threat."

Improved monitoring and early warning systems are crucial to reduce tiger-human conflicts, according to the official. Tigers need to establish their own territory after reaching maturity, which can lead to fights with existing tigers. If they lose, they move out in search of new territory, which is known as dispersal.

During dispersal, they may pass through tiger corridors that can be disturbed or diverted by roads, canals or other linear infrastructure, causing them to move into human habitats. However, it is not their natural behavior to identify humans as prey, Yadav said.

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