As Earth is likely facing its sixth mass extinction event, conservation success stories are few and far between. Tigers, the largest cats on the planet, were reduced by 96% during the 20th century. Thankfully, a recent census of tigers in India—home to 70% of all the tigers in the world—has shown that numbers are up 30% over four years. Conservation officials are attributing this success to the country’s serious crackdown on poaching and habitat preservation.
The census has been conducted every four years since 2006 by India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority. Data about tiger habitats was collected through ground surveys, a network of over 9,700 camera traps, and noninvasive genetic testing from feces samples. Roughly 80% of all the tigers have been individually photographed through this study. Before this extensive survey began, it was estimated there were roughly 3,500 tigers throughout the country. Sadly, those estimates were grossly inflated.
The first report in 2006 revealed that there were only 1,411 tigers left in India. The subsequent report in 2010 showed a modest increase to 1,706. Officials anticipated a similar rate of growth for the current report with a population around 1,900, but were stunned to find that there are now 2,226 tigers across India. Not only is this a 30% increase over the last four years, but an increase of nearly 58% since the program began in 2006.
Though India has had laws against poaching and other wildlife crimes for 40 years, they have been difficult to enforce due to a lack of resources. The state of Maharashtra, which has one of the largest tiger populations in India, threw down the gauntlet against poachers in 2012. Not only did they ramp up the number of rangers on patrol, but they also decriminalized the act of wounding or killing poachers. As many poachers are poor and desperate for the lucrative payout that comes with wildlife crimes, the state government will also pay for information regarding poachers and smugglers.
Tigers used to span 30 countries throughout Asia, with as many as 100,000 individuals in 1900. By the end of the century, their historic range was reduced by 93%, and the population shrunk 96% to about 3,000. This incredible loss has been blamed on extensive habitat destruction and poaching for trophies or folk remedies, particularly in China and Vietnam. Though there is no evidence to support the claims, some still believe that various parts of tigers can cure anything from alcoholism to leprosy, and they are willing to pay up to $370 per pound for the bones alone.
Other countries with tiger populations, including China and Bangladesh, will also be conducting and releasing a census in the coming year. This will allow conservationists to get a true sense of global tiger numbers and make it easier to track population trends. While India’s success is being deservedly celebrated, there is still much work to do. India is home to over 1 billion people and counting, with other Asian countries densely populated as well. With tiger and human populations growing simultaneously, the two species are likely to overlap. Officials will need to come up with a plan that will allow humans and tigers to safely live side by side.