Bengal tiger. Photo Credit: ABHIRUP DE  [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Fantastic news out of India: Home to half the world’s wild tigers, India has announced that its tiger population has increased to 1,706 from 1,411 since the last tiger census in 2007.

The announcement was made at the opening of the three-day International Tiger Conservation Conference in New Delhi, where tiger range countries are discussing the next steps for the Global Tiger Recovery Program. The program, created at the Russian tiger summit in November,  maps out the first formalized international initiative to save the species from extinction.

The encouraging figures show the depth of India’s commitment to its prime conservation issue, said Ravi Singh, Chief Executive Officer for World Wildlife Fund India. Doing even more with field-based management and intervention and involving more people and partners in the process will help keep tiger numbers on the rise, said Singh.

The count was conducted by India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority with key partners, including WWF. It was the largest tiger population survey ever undertaken. For the first time, the survey included non-Tiger Reserves and areas outside of national parks. Figures were broken down by site with some populations showing increases, such as the states of Assam and Uttarakhand, and others falling, including Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.

Bengal tiger in Kanha National Park. Photo Credit: Davidvraju  [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the overall good news, the census noted an alarming decline in tiger occupancy from 36,139 to 28,108 square miles outside of protected areas, resulting in the isolation of source populations.  Ongoing recovery will require strong protection of core tiger areas and the corridors that link them, as well as effective management in the surrounding areas,” said Dr. Barney Long,  Manager of WWF’s Asian Species Conservation Programs.

Monitoring Tiger Numbers

How are tigers counted, you may wonder? Primarily with infrared-triggered camera traps that are activated upon sensing body heat in their path. Such cameras have become important tools in conservation efforts since they not only monitor the population by identifying individual animals, but they also identify which habitat areas are used by tigers. Camera traps are often placed in pairs in areas thought to be frequented by tigers so that photos of their stripes can be taken on both sides of their bodies to help identify and track individual animals.

Indian Tiger

An Indian tiger breaks an infrared beam and has his photograph taken by remote camera as he drinks from a water hole Bandhavagargh National Park, India. © National Geographic Stock/ Michael Nichols / WWF

Panthera, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of large cats, has developed with the aid of benefactors a state-of-the-art camera trap that will more efficiently track the numbers of tigers and other endangered cats.

Focusing on the technology in cellphone cameras, which take less perfectly detailed pictures than full digital cameras but use a fraction of the energy, a task force for Panthera built a lightweight camera the size of a paperback book. In tests, the cameras photographed animals in three-tenths of a second, which was about as long as it took for the cats to enter the center of the frame. After an initial investment of $300,000, the cameras are being manufactured by a contractor for about $150 a pop.  About 1,000 are now in the process of being made and distributed, according to Panthera’s executive vice president, Luke Hunter. Most will go to tiger territory in Russia, Malaysia and Indonesia. But cameras are also headed to Gabon and Uganda for the study of forest leopards and the rare African golden cat.  Dr. Hunter says the test cameras have already produced great shots of everything from big cats to other wildlife and even the cats’ biggest enemies: poachers.

Tigers will need all the monitoring help they can get. Numbering more than 100,000 at the turn of the last century, tigers have lost more than 97 percent of their population and 94 percent of their home range in just 100 years, according to data from WWF.  They live in increasingly isolated pockets of Asia and the Russian Far East. With as few as 3,200 remaining, scientists say tigers could be extinct in the wild by the next Chinese Year of the Tiger in 2022. Let’s hope that this new data out of India will reverse that trend.

Read more about the census in India Tiger Estimate 2010. And check out my past post on Ten Ways to Save Tigers, to see what you can do to contribute to their future.

Yours in the commitment to conservation,