It is the crack of dawn when the sky is nudging into an amber hue and the forest is waking up to the sound of chirping birds. The calm is broken by the shrill call of the langurs and the sense of anticipation is evident. Suddenly, a brilliant flash of orange and black emerges from the bushes, it's what everyone is waiting for — the majestic tiger.
This scene, which played out in front of my eyes at Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, remains one of my favourite memories of the animal.
The allure of the tiger is undeniable and this is a special year for the animal, as it marks 50 years of Project Tiger, a conservation project that started in April 1973. At the time, India's tiger numbers were estimated to be in the 1,800s — although there are reports that claim the number was as lower.
In the years since, Project Tiger has been converted into a statutory authority, which monitors poaching, works to reduce human pressure, mitigates man-animal conflict and regenerates forest habitats.
Efforts seem to have paid off, as India's latest tiger census shows that the number of tigers is now 3,167. This number is from five major national parks and is likely to go up as the final numbers will be revealed in two months.
Aly Rashid, director at Jehan Numa Wilderness, says: “Project Tiger is arguably one of the most successful big cat conservation projects in the world. Since its launch in 1973, it is a great achievement that, given India’s population pressure in 2023, the country still has tiger presence in all habitat types, as when the project started.”
“The final number will be released after further analysis but authorities suggest it is likely to be a roughly 25 to 30 per cent increase from the previous estimation of four years ago [at 6 per cent annual growth],” says Raghu Chundawat, partner at The Sarai at Toria and Baavan (Bagh Aap Aur Van) wildlife trust.
“This will be a substantial increase and shows how committed India is to this cause, despite the enormous pressure faced by the tiger, its co-species and the forests in general. However, the preliminary report shows an uneven pattern with a worrying trend of tigers lost from the eastern parts of its distribution.”
In 2010, Chundawat wrote The Rise and Fall of the Emerald Tigers: Ten Years of Research in Panna National Park, a study into the conservation of the Indian tiger.
The road ahead poses certain opportunities and challenges. India has about 50 tiger reserves, but it is only the well-known ones that are reporting strong tiger numbers. These are also the parks that have a strong eco-tourism model, correlating the fact that community involvement and the financial benefit are key to conserving the tiger in the future.
“If we can conserve the other parks, introduce low-impact eco-tourism and community benefit opportunities, India has enough habitat to increase the numbers to 10,000 tigers,” says Rashid. "The current increase to 3,167 in 2023 from 2,967 tigers four years ago is a good performance, but we should celebrate this with caution as only Central India has contributed to this increase, whereas other important tiger landscapes have remained either stable or declined in terms of tiger numbers."
“Per the tiger census reports, up to 25 per cent of tigers live outside the protected areas. With India’s insatiable quest for development, protecting the wildlife residing outside of protected areas will be our biggest challenge going forward.”
Conservationists also remain cautious. K Ullas Karanth, a conservation scientist, leading tiger expert and emeritus director at the Centre for Wildlife Studies, explains: “Tiger conservation in India was significantly successful between the early 1970s to around 2004. Thereafter, there has been a lot of publicity and hype.
“We need to increase the area under effective tiger conservation to between 200,000 and 300,000 square kilometres. At present it is about 75,000 square kilometres, and less than half that area is given necessary levels of protection for tigers, prey species and habitats. In this regard, the states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have done better.”
The people who live on the forest edge, who are impacted by conservation efforts as they face issues like crop loss, livestock loss and even loss of life, also have to be considered.
“Well-managed and responsible wildlife tourism is undoubtedly a key driver for conservation success, providing jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities for these communities,” says Hashim Tyabji, naturalist and partner at Kaafila Luxury Camps.
“This creates the local constituency for tigers and other wildlife. For all its flaws, it is apparent that where tourism flourishes, wildlife flourishes.”