A tiger cooling off in a waterhole. (iStock)

India has successfully conducted the 2017 census of tigers. The counting exercise which is conducted every four years includes other carnivores and mega-herbivores such as elephants but since tiger is the flagship animal, it is famously regarded as the Tiger Census, writes Priyanka Bhardwaj.

Tigernet, the official database of India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority, states in the census that the country lost 115 tigers, 98 recorded tiger deaths and 17 cases of seized bones, skins, and claws last year.

The maximum number of fatalities, recorded in the central province of Madhya Pradesh, stands at 28, followed by 21 deaths in Maharashtra, and 16 deaths in Assam.

These deaths have been attributed to various natural causes, electrocution, poisoning, poaching, road or rail accidents, and being caught in traps.

The figures are a marginal improvement as compared to 2016 when 100 deaths and 22 seizures were recorded, and the total number of living tigers was pegged at 2,500.

The combined number of deaths for both 2017 and 2016 can therefore be pegged at 237, translating into an average of nine tiger deaths for each month.

In 2014 2,226 tigers or 70 percent of global tiger population were roaming the Indian jungles.

These estimates are a dramatic rise since 2006 when the total number of tigers had dipped to 1,411 and this had the government of the day responded with plugging many loopholes in the efforts of various state forest departments and setting up additional tiger reserves.

Yet, there are areas where improvements would be more than welcome and have been suggested.

Experts point to hurdles in keeping tigers safe from poachers and loss of habitat due to encroachments with the cooption of tribal and indigenous forest dwellers in conservation programs based on local and traditional systems mixed with modern techniques.

In 2017 the use of smartphones and new application for data collection was introduced on a nationwide scale but the old system of “double sampling,” conducted in 400,000 square kilometers of forests in 18 states raises issues of discrepancies and unpredictability.

The index-calibration method used to estimate tiger population results in “over-dispersion” due to extrapolation of actual animal numbers over larger regions.

Conservationists are still undecided if reanalysis would be the best option to resolve this.

Another suggestion is that all individual cases of tiger deaths be investigated by dedicated teams, equipped with patrolling and intelligence capacities, to ensure tiger-lives and precise monitoring.

Royal Bengal Tigers in Ranthambhore National Park, India. (iStock)

In India alone there are 50 tiger reserves covering 2.12 percent of the total geographical area looked after by forest departments under auspices of Project Tiger launched in 1973.

As part of its tiger diplomacy focused on better conservation of wildlife the Indian government has mooted an agenda to embark on a joint census of tiger population with its neighbors, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

This agreement was arrived at a meeting of officials of the four countries and members of the Global Tiger Forum (GTF), an international body for tiger conservation last year.

The joint census will adopt the same protocol of camera traps instead of pug marks for precise and accurate estimation of tiger numbers under the supervision and coordination of the GTF.

Interestingly these countries also have overlapping jungles such as Sunderbans with India.

The combined territory of the four nations in the Indian subcontinent is home to about 80-90 percent of world’s tiger population.

Cambodia in South East Asia has already been roped in by India to collaborate in protecting tigers and since 2015 India also is working out a program to share tiger cubs with the global community.

Tigers are a highly endangered species as specified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

Their habitats are found in thirteen countries including Russia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao PDR and South Asia.

In 1900 worldwide tiger numbers were at 100,000 approximately and by 2010 the numbers plunged to just 3,200.

World Wildlife Fund reports that tigers have lost 93 percent of their historical range.

The wildlife trade monitoring network called TRAFFIC reported that body parts of at least 1,590 tigers were seized by law enforcement officials between January 2000 and April 2014 across tiger ranges all over the world.

All tiger ranges are witnessing a rapid dwindling of tiger populations except in India where humongous awareness programs, efforts and funds are being invested to protect them.

The first phase of estimation of 2018 census in India would be a ground survey data collection and will be carried out in January and experts expect numbers to be higher than last year.

The All India Tiger Estimation 2018 plan is to digitize data records using an Android mobile application called the Monitoring System for Tiger-Intensive Protection and Ecological Status or M-STrIPES and eliminate the slow and erroneous manual process of recording.

The data will also pertain to the carnivore’s signs, relative abundance of prey, habitat and human impact, and every beat or 10 to 15 km of area under a forest guard will be provided by an app-loaded smart-phone that will in turn be connected to a central server, and where internet connectivity is unavailable, the data would be uploaded at the forest management office.

Apart from data logging the app will record prey populations, patrol effort, and unusual activities, such as poaching and human-wildlife conflict, facilitate faster analysis capability and connect guards with local managers for timely action.

M-STrIPES has been successfully used in provinces of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh for the last five years.

Among other efforts by the government are revival of natural corridors for tigers and establishment of Special Tiger Protection Force such as the one instituted in Karnataka that boasts of highest tiger population.

To tackle issues of electrocution forest department and electricity board of Maharashtra have joined hands to encourage farmers to avoid illegal power traps and use lesser harmful solar or battery-powered fences.

Additionally, repopulation of dying reserves from areas where territorial infighting due to reasons of over density have been successfully underway for more than a decade.