India’s Disappearing Tigers
Image Credit: Uniphoto Press

India’s Disappearing Tigers


I admit I’d hoped for something a little more exciting after a seven-and-a-half-hour journey from New Delhi to one of India’s best-known wildlife parks. It’s not that we didn’t see any wildlife when we made the trek late last month to the Corbett National Park in the northern state of Uttaranchal.

On our outing to the forests and grass lands of the 1300-square-kilometre park we saw 4 deer, 3 wild boar, 2 rabbits, lots of monkeys—and a giant frog. But this is also India’s oldest tiger sanctuary, home to 162 Bengal tigers. And we didn’t see a single one.

Gopal Dutt Sayal, general manager of the hotel we stayed at, warns tourists that although the park, named after British hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett, is known for having one of the highest concentrations of tigers in the country, they shouldn’t get their hopes up. ‘There’s roughly only a four percent chance of seeing a tiger,’ says Sayal, a qualified naturalist.

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However, he adds that the 162 tigers recorded in 2009 was still a healthy increase on the 134 counted the year before.

It’s a rare piece of good news for conservation efforts surrounding the biggest of the big cats, and India’s national animal. WWF India says at the turn of the 20th century, India had an estimated 40,000 wild tigers. Yet by 2002, a pugmark (footprint) census indicated the number had fallen to 3,642. A landmark 2008 monitoring exercise, meanwhile, suggested that the decline was even more alarming, claiming there were only 1,411 tigers left.

It’s not as if the government hasn’t recognised the problem. In 1972, India launched Project Tiger, a wildlife conservation movement aimed at protecting the Bengal tiger, after the first-ever national census conducted that year found there were only 1,827 tigers left. The ambitious project was, in fact, initiated at the Corbett National Park, and funds were allocated for protecting the tiger, while hunting the animal was also banned. Now, there are more than 40 tiger reserves across the country under Project Tiger.

And initially, the project was met with significant success, with the population of tigers climbing from 1,200 in the 1970s to 3,500 in the 1990s. But, the 2008 study, Status of Tigers, Co-Predators and Prey in India, conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India in association with the National Tiger Conservation Authority using camera traps, sounded the alarm and banished any possibility of complacency.

So why do the national numbers keep falling? Loss of habitat is typically blamed, but some recent reports have suggested the bigger problem is actually an increase in poaching, prompting some to question whether the emphasis should be more on policing the situation than an environmental awareness drive.

Last year saw a spike in tiger deaths around the country’s national parks, with the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), a respected non-profit, putting the death tally for the year at 85.

Indian tigers are being killed as part of a lucrative trade in their bones for use in Oriental medicine, especially since the decimation of the tiger in the Far East compelled traditional medicine manufactures to look for sources overseas. WPSI research says poaching for this reason started in northern India in the mid-1980’s, and that tigers are now being killed for relatively small amounts of money by tribes who know the forests well.

Poaching is a punishable offence in India under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, and violators can be jailed for up to three years. For offences committed inside the core area of a tiger reserve, there’s a mandatory prison term of three years, extendable to seven years and a fine of Rs. 50,000 ($1,125) extendable to Rs. 2 lakhs.

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