Dec 11 2007

Reading the news headlines about tiger conservation can sometimes be a depressing exercise. In the last six months, a gloomy picture has been painted for tigers, particularly in India where a new census revealed that only 1,300 to 1,500 tigers remain- about half of the previous official estimates. Tigercubs_bivash_2

What these reports don’t reveal is that tiger populations have not actually declined by 50 percent; rather, it is more likely that the old census numbers were inaccurate due to the use of pug-mark (footprint) counts, where often the same tiger is counted more than once. Eric Dinerstein, WWF’s chief scientist, summed up the problem of pug-mark counting by saying: “Tiger footprints are as difficult to tell apart as human footprints on a beach.” The new tiger census tools – occupancy surveys and camera-trap counts – which were used in India’s latest census are far more reliable and are much more likely to yield accurate results than pug-mark counts.

If India can more accurately measure its tiger populations with these new census tools, then it can conduct better conservation that is informed by good science. And while India continues to face serious tiger conservation challenges, it also has some amazing success stories that often miss the mainstream press.

I recently spoke with Bivash Pandav, a talented conservationist working in the Terai region at the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India. He told me that tigers are returning to the Chilla Range in Rajaji National Park, where in 2004, the Indian government completed a voluntary resettlement program to move the park’s residents to new smallholdings outside the park. Once the people were gone, tigers almost immediately returned to the vacated area and Bivash was lucky to have photographed a lactating tiger in this area (bottom), “This was particularly exciting to me,” said Bivash “because it meant that tigers had not only returned, but they were breeding too.” Later he was rewarded with a photo of the same tigress who wandered past one of his camera traps, as if showing off her two beautiful cubs (top). In all, Bivash estimates that the Chilla range now is inhabited by six tigers.

Further down the Terai landscape, Bivash drew my attention to another success story in the forest corridor designed to link Bardia National Park in Nepal to the Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in India. His camera traps captured photos of tigers, and even rhinos, regularly using this corridor as a ‘wildlife highway’ between the protected areas in India and Nepal.

These two success stories illustrate that tigers are a resilient species and that simple conservation actions such as removing disturbances from core protected areas or joining core areas together with habitat corridors will allow tiger numbers to increase rapidly. And with the new census tools, scientists are now well-equipped to accurately measure these population resurgences.

Brian Gratwicke is our regular environmental contributer to this site. He was a Rhodes Scholar. He was originally from Zimbabwe and now resides in Washington, DC.