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| Last Updated:: 21/01/2015

Tiger numbers grow by 30 percentage in 4 years: Can forests sustain India's Big Cat boom?

 NEW DELHI: The latest tiger census results showing a 30% increase in Big Cat numbers in four years throws up a crucial question for conservationists and policy-makers: how many tigers can India's forests hold without large scale man-animal conflicts coming into play? 


Experts say although more than 5,000 tigers can be accommodated across Indian forests through effective protection, a manageable number would be between 3,000 and 3,500. However, they add that sustaining even the current tiger population requires an economic agenda that's sensitive to conservation. 

"Another 1,000-1,500 tigers would be manageable," said Yadvendra Jhala, wildlife biologist at Dehradun's Wildlife Institute of India and one of the men behind the tiger census. "But we require infrastructure development to be smart and green." 


Jhala said the biggest conservation challenge was to strengthen forest corridors to enable movement of tigers across forests — migrations that add genetic diversity to local tiger populations and are key to their long-term survival.


"Most forest corridors today are degraded. Yet, studies have shown they are still being used by tigers to move from one protected forest to another. But any further degradation and they would become barriers," Jhala said. 

Veteran tiger biologist K Ullas Karanth, director for science-Asia at Wildlife Conservation Society, felt tiger numbers could multiply manifold if more forest areas are brought under protection. 

"Total area under forests that can support tigers exceeds 2,00,000 sq km. Less than 25% of that is well protected at the moment. We can have 5,000-10,000 tigers if we can increase the area under effective protection," Karanth said. 


However, that remains a distant dream. The 2010 tiger census had shown an alarming drop in tiger numbers outside protected areas, implying that these forests had become too degraded to support tigers, mainly due to pressure of human population and development. 

With development and growth being a prime focus of the NDA government, wildlife activists fear forests would become a casualty and human-animal conflicts would rise. 

""The tiger is a symbol of our entire forests. What we need is smart infrastructure development that's sensitive to forests and wildlife. For instance, if there's a road being built through a green area, it should have overpasses and underpasses that enable movement of animals," said Jhala. 

Other experts wanted the momentum of increased tiger numbers to be sustained through higher budgetary support for conservation. 

"I hope governments will increase budget allocations to employ more forest guards and proper training," said Hemendra Kothari, chairman of Wildlife Conservation Trust. 

"Around 600 of India's rivers either originate or are fed by tiger forests. Their protection is not only for the tiger but also for water security and protection of the environment," he added.