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Why there will never be more than 1,411 tigers in India

26/03/2010 11:09:27

Not everyone wants tiger numbers to increase. Photo credit Wildlife Extra

1,411 tigers, and unanswered questions
By Sunita Narain - With kind permission from Centre for Science and Environment, India.

March 2010. Only 1411 tigers left. So says the latest advertisement campaign of a new telecom company in India and the WWF. It is powerful. It plays to our emotions. But it does not tell us what is being done, or should be done. It does not tell us how we, the consuming classes, can be part of the solution to safeguard the tiger.

India cannot have more than 1,411 tigers
The reason is simple. One must gloss over the bitter, inconvenient truth that India cannot have more than 1,411 tigers-this figure is the mid-range of the last census-unless we re-imagine conservation differently; very differently. In fact, if there are these many tigers, that's amazing. Forget more.

Let me explain what I have learnt from some remarkable conservationists in India. Tigers are territorial; they literally need land to roam, and with the birth of a male tiger, this search starts. Either the old tiger gives way or the young male has to look for new ground. But where is that ground? All around India's parks, forests are destroyed. People who live close to tiger reserves resent this animal, which kills their cattle. They have no use for the Wildlife Reserve Forests, which protect the herbivores and wild boars that eat their growing crops. They get nothing in return for living around tiger land, and they definitely don't want any tigers on their land.

In Kanha tiger reserve, for instance, I learnt how field managers keep a count of tiger cubs. They know there should be an increase of 10 tigers each year to maintain a viable and healthy population. They do much to protect the tigers inside the park. But the numbers do not increase. The young tigers, in search of territory, move beyond the protected-and now increasingly guarded-area.

When the outside world was forested, the tiger could expand its territory. But now the forests are degraded and the people who live in them are poor and angry. So what usually happens is a tragedy, as happened in Ranthambore, where two young tigers were poisoned just last week.

Nobody wins in this bloody battle. This is why we have to make peace-between the tigers, who need space to roam, and the poor villagers, who need benefits from conservation. This is why we must practice coexistence.

More tigers outside reserves than in?
The numbers are stark. Irrefutable. Over the past many years the tiger census revealed many more tigers lived outside reserves. The 2001 census put the number at about 1,500 tigers inside and as many as 2,000 outside. But nobody quite believed these numbers. In 2005, the task force I chaired to look into tiger conservation suggested the method of counting be changed to be more accurate. This was done. The next census found the number of tigers in reserves was about the same, between 1,165 and 1,657. But between the two censuses, the tigers outside (if they ever existed) just disappeared. This is why numbers fell. This is why we cry for the beloved tiger. Paper tiger.

There is just not enough space for tiger numbers 
to increase in India. Photo credit Wildlife Extra

Numbers limited by space
Look at it another way. The total area of what is called the ‘core tiger habitat' - national parks mostly-is some 17,000 square kilometres. Tiger conservationists will tell you the animal needs a minimum 10 square kilometres of territory to roam, mate and live. Add it up and you will see that's roughly why we have so many or so few tigers.

Poaching is critical, but not the only problem
This is not to say poaching is not a problem, or to deny the sheer lack of protection because the guards are so few. These are crucial, as the task force report Joining The Dots showed. But the crisis of numbers will not go away unless we practise conservation differently.

The human - wildlife conflict is growing
Until now, policy has ensured people outside the reserve get nothing from protection. Over the years, with little investment and even less understanding of how to plant trees that survive cattle and goats, the tracts of land outside the reserves stand denuded. People have no option but to use the resources of the protected areas to graze their cattle. At the same time as the ruminants move into forests, the wild herbivores-deer and other animals-move out to farmers' fields to forage and destroy. It is also an inconvenient fact that the tiger often survives on easier and slow moving prey, the cattle, buffalo and goat of the farmer.

Villagers worse off than birds
The conflict is growing. In villages adjoining Bandhavgarh people told me they were worse off than birds. At least birds could sleep a few hours at night. For them the vigil to protect crops from wild animals is unending and fruitless. What an indictment of conservation.

What needs to be done?
So, if we want more land to safeguard more tigers we must learn this reality.


  • The answer is in, first and foremost, paying people quickly and generously for the crops destroyed or the cattle killed. Currently, this does not happen. 
  • Second, we need to ensure there is substantial and disproportionate development investment in areas that adjoin a tiger reserve. People should benefit from living in the buffer of the reserve. They must want to secure the tiger. 
  • Third, people must get direct gains from conservation, they must be the first choice for conservation jobs. They must be partners, owners and indeed earners from tourism the tiger brings.


This is the agenda for tiger conservation: for 1,411 and many more. Otherwise, the media campaign will be nothing more than noise, drumming up support with more frantic chest thumping that leads nowhere.

Read the comments about this article and leave your own comment

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Posted by: David | 24 Mar 2016 06:40:52

Save Our Tigers - Song

dear all, here is a song on the subject of diminishing tiger headcount .... please listen to it and share it with ur friends and loved ones

Posted by: Anshuman | 20 Jul 2012 06:13:38

Moving a percentage of the Tiger population?

Would it be possible to move a proportion of the existing Indian population of younger animals to other forested areas around the world that once supported a viable population. Regardless of whether the genetic population would be the same, would it not be better to have some tigers successfully thriving in wild areas such as indonesia rather than remnant populations in zoo's? At least we would be protecting the gene pool until another solution could be found.

Posted by: simon smethurst | 01 Apr 2010 21:41:03

Population pressures and hunting

A very good article regarding the demonstration of the actual space requirements that a healthy tiger population requires. It is true that habitat destruction and farming/tiger conflicts have as their root cause human population growth, and the ever-growing natural resource requirement of each individual person.

The solving of this issue has to be based on appropriate medium term family planning and a management of consumer driven lifestyles (obviously not just an Indian issue), which will require much inclusive efforts, given the socio-economic and environmental backgrounds that this is based on.

One problem which must be immediately tackled is the emptying of India's tiger reserves of this species from direct hunting, and the subsequent pathetic and disgraceful trade in tiger skins and body parts. There may only be approximately 800 wild tigers left in India now, which are divided into often relatively isolated national parks within the country. Pockets of 20-40 tigers scattered around the country poses a serious problem for genetic diversity, in addition to vulnerability to disease outbreaks.

Tiger populations can thrive if given appropriate opportunities. First, a serious clamp down on all hunting, so as we then can move forward with a reliable base population to managing human/tiger interface strategies. Critically, through education, the tiger has to seen by all as part of a healthy ecosystem framework which has long term local and regional benefits for humans, wildlife and landscapes.

Posted by: David Feeney | 28 Mar 2010 19:15:34

Control human population

If there is no space to increase reserved forests it only means that human population is increasing at such a rate that it is creating crisis for other species. In other words, the existence of one species is causing the extinction of hundreds of other species. So I believe in order to conserve these other species, for the long term goal, conservationists also need to work with the country's Health/Family Planning sector. Because we can't kill humans to reduce population instantly, we can at least start working upon the problem now to get a result in the future.
To achieve quick conservation, the ideas in this article are good but we need to ensure that cattle owners don't come up with fake stories of tiger attacks to gain money as compensation as this happened in the years following India's independence. Being poor doesn't necessarily mean being honest.

Posted by: Nazneen Ahmed Popy | 28 Mar 2010 05:50:49

There may be a solution!

There are tribes in Africa that are now using dogs as guards for their crops. This is such a good idea...India should try it!

Posted by: Marcia McDuffie | 23 Mar 2010 18:37:39

Sad yes; but!

I agree this is very sad, but the truth is there in the article, the tiger is only (reasonably) safe inside protected areas. It is fast becoming a reality in the world that to see wildlife one visits a reserve, in Africa, India, or even here in Britain.
The population of the world is too high & that is where the problem should be addressed, in Europe as well as elsewhere!

Posted by: mark | 23 Mar 2010 11:25:17

So sad

It's obvious what the Indian Government has to do. They really just need to protect as much land as possible, and set up as many anti-poaching units as possible. I really think India isn't serious about saving the tiger.

Posted by: Jeff | 22 Mar 2010 20:01:16

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