“The tiger is a larger-than-life animal. It is more than something mortal,” says Aditya Panda, a passionate conservationist and Expedition Leader with Natural Habitat Adventures who’s based in Orissa, India. Long symbols of strength, majesty and immortality, these apex creatures play pivotal roles in maintaining healthy ecosystems (bonus: protecting one tiger translates to preserving nearly 2,500 acres of forest), serve as huge draws for ecotourism in Asia and even star in Hindu and Buddhist belief systems. Still, despite their outsize significance and allure, of all the big cats, tigers are the most endangered. Though some 100,000 thrived across the continent a century ago, today, only around 3,900 remain, and in just four percent of their historic range.
February 1, 2022, marks the start of the Chinese Year of the Tiger, a timely reminder to reflect on the animal’s significance—and reassess its conservation status. In 2010, the last Year of the Tiger, leaders from 13 Asian countries pledged to double the number of wild tigers by 2022. Sadly, though, the goal is almost certain to fall short. According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), wild tigers are on the decline in all tiger range countries in mainland Southeast Asia. What’s more, over the past 25 years, wild tigers have disappeared entirely from Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam.
There is reason for hope, however. Wild tiger counts have risen in Nepal, Bhutan, Russia and particularly India, home of the Bengal tiger and some 75 percent of the world’s total tiger population. Here, Good Nature Travel offers a glimpse into India’s auspicious numbers, what the country is doing right, which challenges remain and, critically, how travelers can help ensure its wild tiger counts continue their upward trend.
Strength in Numbers
April 1973 marks another significant date for wild tigers: With only around 1,700 Bengal tigers alive in India that year, the country launched Project Tiger, an unprecedented endeavor to save its national symbol from extinction. Following India’s 1972 ban on tiger hunting, which had decimated the species, Project Tiger set out to protect natural habitats and create a series of specially designated tiger reserves. Today, India is home to 52 such reserves, carved around existing national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, all part of India’s vast Protected Areas Network, which comprises more than 860 sites. India’s tiger counts, held every four years, are also integral to its conservation efforts. As of the last official All India Tiger Estimation, conducted in 2018, the country sheltered 2,967 wild tigers. The upside: “The 2018 results show that India doubled its tiger numbers (from 1,411 in 2006) with four years to spare,” says Panda.
Case-studies of the tiger’s resurgence in India’s Protected Areas Network are wide-ranging, including in its Central India Tiger Landscape, which is now home to a third (about 1,000) of India’s tigers. What’s more, says Panda, “No reserve represents the best of this landscape and its conservation pedigree the way Kanha National Park does (it has always led the way in formulating management best practices that are then implemented in India’s other tiger reserves).” Nearby Bandhavgarh National Park, another flagship of India’s conservation efforts, now also boasts some of the country’s largest breeding populations of tigers, he adds. Vigorous reintroduction efforts, coupled with increased anti-poaching patrols and extensions of wildlife corridors, also led to significant gains in parks where tigers had previously vanished. Populations in Panna National Park in Madhya Pradesh, for instance, rose from zero in 2008 to 64 in 2020, and in Rajasthan’s Sariska National Park, from zero to 20 between 2005 and 2020.
Despite India’s unparalleled progress, its native Bengal tigers are still endangered and continue to face countless threats, beginning with poaching (tigers are trapped and sold for their body parts), declines in their traditional prey, and human-wildlife conflicts (the animals are frequently retaliated against for killing livestock). Climate change is also a culprit: Forest fires, for example, jeopardize tigers’ natural habitats and rising sea levels even threaten mangrove forests inhabited by a uniquely adapted tiger population living in the coastal Sundarbans region, shared by India and Bangladesh. Preventing losses in the tiger’s habitat won’t come easily, however. “India is the world’s second-most populous country and is extremely land starved,” says Panda, and “holding aside land for wildlife is an inherently conflicted matter.” The dilemma for tigers and other large roamers: Rapid infrastructural growth and urbanization are fragmenting wildlife landscapes, Panda notes, adding that tigers are “large ranging creatures and require unhindered right of way through natural landscapes across vast distances.”
More Reason for Hope
Still, there’s good reason to feel optimistic about the Bengal tiger’s future in India. This starts with the country’s foundational conservation policies established in the early 1970s and, says Panda, extends to “public support for wildlife conservation, a thriving wildlife biology community and the healthy involvement of non-government agencies.” Contributions come from international organizations such as WWF, which works to preserve the tiger’s natural habitat and eliminate the tiger trade, along with national groups such as Tiger Watch Ranthambore, whose focus areas include teaching eco-awareness and involving local villagers in tiger research, camera trapping and other conservation practices. Panda’s other picks for NGOs doing great work—and which are worthy of support—include Wildlife Conservation Trust, Satpuda Foundation and Wildlife Trust of India, to name a few. Oh, and about those auspicious numbers and India’s quadrennial All India Tiger Estimation meant to determine its current tiger conservation status: 2022’s count is expected to be released later this year and, good news: “I anticipate the upcoming results to show further increases in tiger numbers,” says Panda.
Lend Your Hand
Ecotourism, Panda adds, is essential to furthering India’s conservation success stories, as is traveling on conservation-first trips with responsible tour providers. Visiting Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Kaziranga national parks, Nat Hab’s Grand India Wildlife Adventure, for instance, directly benefits tiger conservation and in turn helps bring sustainable employment and revenues to rural communities. Seeing tigers in the wild—and knowing your trip can help preserve them for posterity—makes for a transformational travel experience. But be warned: “Every single tiger sighting is like your first,” Panda says. “It is addictive. It is meditative. It is life changing. You are always left wanting for more.”