The progress report appears exemplary: from 3,200 in 2010, the wild tiger population numbers have jumped to 3,890. It marks an increase of more than 20 percent in six years in the 13 countries where the big cats still roam the jungles. Those countries are working to meet an ambitious goal set in 2010 of doubling the tiger’s numbers by 2022.
Officials from tiger-range countries, however, say that despite the improving statistics, the battle to save the animal is far from over. They issued the warning as they wrapped up a three-day conference in New Delhi.
“There is never a dull moment, you know, the dynamics of the tiger is very complicated; it changes. We are proceeding towards the goal, but in between you will have more challenges, so we need to be prepared to face those challenges,” says Secretary-General of Global Tiger Forum Rajesh Gopal, who headed India’s tiger conservation efforts for more than a decade.
India will remain the epicenter of the gigantic effort. India is home to 70 percent of the world’s tiger population. Other countries playing a key role are Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, while Russia has emerged on the front lines of tiger conservation, reporting a steady rise in numbers.
Conservation vs. development needs
Experts say the major challenges are Asia’s massive development needs, particularly in crowded countries like India and Bangladesh, where the tiger’s habitat is under increasing pressure from the need to build roads and set up industries.
At the conference, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi played down such concerns, saying the conservation of nature need not be a drag on development.
“This is a difficult task, but can be achieved. Our genius lies in smartly integrating the tiger and wildlife safeguards in various infrastructures,” he said.
Those words did little to allay the concerns of many conservationists. They cite the latest worry - plans for four-lane highways that could cut through tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan states.
“The message that is going out now if we have to have a mine here or a mine there or a national highway or a dam, we will just eat into tiger reserves. So what? That is the wrong message,” said Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
Conservationists like Gopal say wildlife agencies are working to resolve the conflict between the goals of development and the tiger because both are important to Asian countries.
“In the case of highways also, the ministry in consultation with other experts, we have come out with some safeguards, overpasses and underpasses - such structures which would help the animal to cross over from one side of the habitat to the other,” he says.
The other challenge remains the multi-million-dollar illegal trade that continues to thrive despite increased surveillance and better technology to satiate China’s huge appetite for tiger parts. Wright warns there is a desperate need to “up the ante” against sophisticated gangs of poachers which she says are running rings around enforcement authorities in all the tiger-range countries.
“Just in the first three months, till 31 March, 25 tigers were poached or their skins and bones seized. That is the highest figure since 2001. That is pretty shocking,” says Wright.
Conservationists have long called for a ban on tiger products in China to curb the poaching, but the country’s growing affluence has only led to a surge in demand.
Conference participants discussed ways to step up protection by greater use of technology and enhanced cooperation among enforcement agencies in the tiger-range countries.
Experts say that the fact the tiger’s numbers are at their highest in over a century is no cause for celebration – the mighty beast is still very much an endangered species.