The temperature is not the only thing rising in India, its population of Bengal tigers — its national animal — has also been on the rise. But while the country’s devastating heat waves are no cause for celebration, India is reveling in the significant increase of its tiger population, following years of dedicated conservation efforts to save the endangered species.
There are now an estimated 2,967 Bengal tigers in India, up from up from 2,226 in 2014, according to a government report released last week — a feat that Prime Minister Narendra Modi called a “historic achievement.”
“Once the people of India decide to do something, there is no force that can prevent them from getting the desired results,” Modi said at a news conference on Monday announcing the figures.
The particular species of the wild animal is only found in the Indian subcontinent, which also includes Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives.
The census on tiger population is carried out every four years and is based on data collected by wildlife officials across 380,000 square kilometers of land — an area bigger than the whole state of Texas. The 2018 census, the results of which were just announced, was conducted using 26,000 camera traps in known tiger habitats to obtain 350,000 images that helped track the population.
India has doubled its Bengal tiger population over the past 12 years, and although the recent numbers are impressive, conservationists warn that the high figure may also be due to improved methods of recording and tracking, and not just conservation progress alone.
Another particular concern shared among experts is the availability of sufficient space to support the growing tiger population.
“Every adult tiger needs to create his or her own territory, and this territory is sometimes almost 200 square kilometers, so they need quite a bit of space,” Neha Sinha, a wildlife conservationist told the Guardian. “If you want our numbers to be stable then tigers need to disperse.”
But, as their habitats are being destroyed to keep up with massive development projects, the designation of more protected space for the animals seems unlikely to happen. And, while India has created nearly two dozen tiger reserves in the last decade, many are surrounded by villages inhabited by humans.
The proximity has led to an increase in cases of contact and conflict between humans and tigers. As a result, tigers often wander into villages and threaten the surrounding communities by attacking cattle and, occasionally, humans. Many communities have started leaving poison out for the tigers and developed an animosity towards them.
Last week, four villagers were arrested in Uttar Pradesh, after a tiger was beaten to death near the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, about 200 miles east of New Delhi. In a video that circulated on social media, the tiger is seen attempting to defend itself by slowly moving its paws.
“Unless we have a sound strategy to tackle these conflicts, tiger lynchings will continue,” Prerna Singh Bindra, a conservationist and the author of The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis, told the New York Times.
“Forests are being fragmented. We are saying yes to about 98% of development and other projects in protected areas. If we keep cutting habitats, this tiger utopia is going to come crashing down.”
In the year 1900, more than 100,000 tigers existed on the planet, but by 2010 the numbers had fallen to a record low of 3,200. Of all the Tiger species that exist, Bengal tigers are the most numerous subspecies.
The general decline in tiger population prompted India and 12 other countries to sign a conservation agreement in an attempt to redouble their efforts to protect the species and aim to double tiger populations by 2022. Modi said India has achieved its goal four years ahead of schedule.
Despite the progress, Valmik Thapar, a prominent Indian naturalist and a wild tiger specialist said that some parts of Eastern India are still losing tigers.
“We need to focus on doing something about these problems,” he told the New York Times. “We must look after these national treasures.”