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Why tiger numbers can never tell the whole story

Growing tiger numbers are reason for cheer but to move forward on conservation, the focus must shift to the genetic health of distinct populations

A tiger in Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh.
A tiger in Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh. (Aditya Chandra Panda)

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This year, the Supreme Court’s forest panel indicted a former state minister and Uttarakhand forest staff for illegally creating a zoo safari in the Corbett Tiger Reserve. Last year, the National Green Tribunal had halted this zoo safari, which had resulted in the cutting of over 6,000 trees.

The SC panel—the Central Empowered Committee, or CEC—suggested an amendment in Union environment ministry policies in 2019 that have allowed the creation of zoos inside wild habitat. Because zoos can be anywhere, and forests don’t need to be sacrificed at the altar of tickets. The panel also emphasised the threat of disease spread between zoo animals and wild counterparts and the need to keep forest corridors free of construction.

At the heart of it, this reinforces the idea of the tiger as a free animal. When you go to a forest, national park or tiger reserve to see a tiger, you are beholden to the animal. This is an animal at once secretive and bold, fierce but fun, and you may get a picture of the tiger as snarling or supine. Or, you may not get any pictures at all. To create a zoo in a reserve is guaranteeing a sighting but it’s not a sighting that’s true to the nature of the beast.

And, for an animal to be free, it also has to be free-ranging. The idea of leaving forest corridors free of construction, as emphasised by the CEC, is an important one. Firstly, tigers are fiercely territorial—each adult animal will find and defend their own territory (about 50 sq. km), for which they must walk across their forests. In short, tiger numbers can only go up if the animal is allowed to walk and then secure its own land. Secondly, tigers have genetic clusters within India and there is a need to bolster numbers within these distinct populations.

On 9 April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the latest tiger numbers—an estimation completed in 2022. We have about 3,167 tigers in India (the last estimation in 2018 counted 2,967 tigers). Saving tigers is no mean feat—poor infrastructure planning, poaching and forest loss are primary threats. The numbers are an important component of the tiger story. But so is genetics, and it may be as important as numbers.

Genetic studies show that tigers in Valmiki (Bihar), Satkosia and Simlipal (Odisha), the hills of the North-East and southern Western Ghats have genetically distinct tiger populations. Both the 2018 and 2022 reports point this out. Except for the Western Ghats, these populations are quite small, and this is a matter of concern. The tigers in Satkosia have gone extinct. According to the 2018 census, Valmiki has about 30 tigers. Reserves in the North-East, including those in Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, are doing very badly.


A scene from Ranthambhore, Rajasthan.    
A scene from Ranthambhore, Rajasthan.    (Aditya Chandra Panda)

Valmiki is a little-known reserve but it may hold India’s oldest tigers. “Valmiki has a genetically distinct tiger population. On the Nepal side, the adjoining Chitwan park also has tigers that are genetically unique from the rest of the Terai population. It could possibly be the oldest tiger stock in India. Perhaps tigers entered India and established themselves in Valmiki in the Last Glacial Maximum and were wiped out in other parts of India. Later, other tigers may have settled in other areas,” says a scientist who has worked on the tiger report.

Meanwhile, the Simlipal tigers are famed for their broad black stripes—so broad they make the tigers appear almost fully black, rather than the traditional orange-yellow and black. The 2022 report also points out that the North-East hill tiger population could be the result of gene flow from the South-East Asian tigers of Myanmar.

This now poses two management challenges. One is the question of repopulating reserves that don’t have tigers. In areas like Satkosia (or Jharkhand’s Palamau, which has perhaps one tiger), tigers can be brought in but they have to be from a related genetic cluster. The second is the issue of connecting tiger habitats so tigers can disperse naturally and create viable populations.

This could be harder than it sounds.

An amendment to the 1980 Forest (Conservation) Act, now before Parliament, will exempt large tracts of forest land from the ambit of the law (effectively opening up forest areas to non-forest uses). The proposed clause suggests that forests around highways, public roads, railways or public amenities of a certain size should not be considered forest. Further, it proposes that construction of linear projects (roads, highways, railways, etc.) within 100km of the international border, and concerning “strategic” or “national importance”, should be exempt from the Act.

The catch here is simple: The North-East hills, along with Valmiki, the Terai and the Himalaya, are all close to the border. And the roads we make severely inhibit tiger “roads” or pathways. Tigers are often killed or impacted by vehicles and trains because they are unable to cross linear structures easily.

To move forward on tiger conservation, we must shift the focus from just numbers to genetic health. One way to do this is to make tigers a cross-cutting concern with all departments—and to bypass forests that have tigers. The less effective option is to make roads underground or overhead—a form of “green infrastructure”.

Tigers are pioneers. They try to move even within hostile areas, covering hundreds of kilometres in search of good forests and mates. Many of these pathways are cut up by modern infrastructure, akin to shadow-banning tiger movement. Restoring forests is good not just for tigers but also the climate. I recently wrote about a tiger that came to Debrigarh, an area in Odisha that hadn’t seen a tiger in years. I was thinking about tiger explorations recently in central India, a place that abounds with both tribal and modern stories of tigers crossing one’s life.

Ripening like a peach under the merciless sun, I was looking at a tigress lying next to a sambar deer kill. Her two cubs were nearby. One occasionally pulled her ears, the other tried to chew the deer. It was a happy family scene. Suddenly, stripes rippled through the dappled light: The tigress had shot up and was streaking across the area. Her body blazed with anger and her tail prickled with tension: She had spotted a leopard and was going to fight it off if necessary. Her snarls resonated in my bones.

I was witnessing natural history—a drama with completely wilful characters. I was also glad to see three of India’s 3,000-odd tigers. This is a feeling I want others to experience. And if we secure corridors and forests, the number of free-ranging tigers will increase, and they will likely be easier to see.

Because we have a rich history of regular tiger estimations, it appears that tiger conservation is all about numbers. But like our own report cards in hindsight, we now know that numbers never tell the whole story. This report card also has a column on genetic health and it’s time to take field notes and do the work.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species.

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