Tiger, tiger, burning bright! Apologies William Blake for the misspelling and the attention-seeking exclamation mark, but the tigers of India are shining in the dark indeed—on the pages of Guinness World Records, at least. A shining example of Aatmanirbhar Bharat, as environment minister Prakash Javadekar put it after Guinness acknowledged that the fourth cycle of the All India Tiger Estimation 2018 is the world's largest camera trap wildlife survey. Camera traps were placed at 26,838 locations spread across the country and they took 76,651 photographs of tigers. Stripe-pattern-recognition software helped identify individuals from that pile of photos.
The census estimated 2,967 tigers, which means India has 75 per cent of the global tiger population. That also means India doubled its count four years before its 2022 target—set at the first-ever global tiger summit in St Petersburg in 2010. Sankalp se Sidhi, an anthemic “attainment through resolve” programme, was the mantra that drove hundreds of officials and volunteers on the trail of one of the most elusive, temperamental and yet popular animals in the world. They scoured forests, put up stakeouts, sampled claw and pug marks, predator poop and prey dung, and fed all the information into the data feed to come up with a comprehensive analysis. That’s no mean achievement—a fruit of some 620,795 cumulative labour-days, technically. The National Tiger Conservation Authority steers the quadrennial survey, the Wildlife Institute of India provides technical support, while state forest departments and other agencies conduct the fieldwork.
But the good news in the overflowing doom is less of a roar than a rasp. Conservationists call it the “number trap”, one that stretches credulity and hides more than it reveals. The remarkable jump in tiger population doesn’t disclose how many of these majestic animals the country loses prematurely each year—primarily because of shrinking habitat, which leads to turf fights, reduced prey base and “conflicts” with humans, its biggest enemy. The country lost 110 tigers in 2019, a third of them to poaching. And 750 in the past eight years—poachers were the main culprit again. Experts say this is bound to happen when more and more tigers are packed into a small area—being territorial by nature, many of them find little cover to hide, while some seek out shelter near or in human settlements, thereby becoming easy prey for hunters.
India has 25 per cent of the world’s tiger habitat—with 50 designated tiger reserves currently—but shelters 75 per cent of the global tiger population. Habitat is dwindling precipitously but tiger numbers are leaping. Is it ecologically reasonable? The answer won’t purr in quickly. Perhaps, the tigress hiding in a rice mill after injuring a man in Maharashtra's Chandrapur this past July 14 could tell. Rangers tranqed and captured her, fortunately.