Before the beginning of the 19th century, it was speculated that India had around 10,000 tigers. Over the years their number declined drastically, after the Britishers and erstwhile rulers hunted these for sport and poachers for money.
In 1972 came the Wild Life Protection Act, with tigers in the list of endangered species. Project Tiger was set up at Corbett National Park, with nine reserves in 1974. The government commissioned an annual survey, based on study of pug marks, to keep a check on falling numbers. The belief was that India had around 3,000 tigers.
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Officials say this was the turning point in the fight against poachers and India getting serious about tiger extinction. Under pressure from both international community and activists, the government ordered an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Some officials were suspended but the biggest change came when the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2006, was passed, a Wild Life Crime Control Board set up and empowered a National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
NTCA recommendations were made binding on states and the number of tiger reserves increased from nine to almost 50, covering 70,000 sq km or 2.2 per cent of geographical area.
The NTCA budget was also increased from Rs 986 crore to Rs 1,240 for creating more infrastructure, including buying of arms and ammunition for forest patrolling.
Other steps included raising of the minimum punishment to three years and hefty punishment for an offence committed in the core area. A tiger protection force was constituted, with participation of locals, and scientific methods and techniques (double sampling and camera taps) employed to get the authentic number of tigers in the country.
However, these measures couldn't prevent extinction of 30 tigers from the Panna Reserve in Madhya Pradesh in 2008, another jolt to conservationists. The scientific survey undertaken in 2006 but completed in 2008 revealed an abysmally low number of tigers, down from 3,000 to 1,410. The government had to reintroduce tigers at both Panna and Sariska, exhorted states to constitute a Special Tiger Protection Force and arm its personnel on the lines of the India Reserve Battalion. Currently this force is functional in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha and Rajasthan, states which have recorded an increase in tigers.
These efforts led to a rise in the total number from 1,410 in 2006 to 1,707 in 2010. Another boost came when the Supreme Court in 2012 put a blanket ban on 'tiger tourism', asking states to notify the buffer area and restricted tourist access to the core area.
S P Yadav, assistant secretary general of Global Tiger Forum, said the tiger is a prolific breeder. On an average, a tigress give birth to eight to 10 cubs in her life span of 10 years.
“Their reproduction depends on high prey density, availability of water, shelter and less human disturbance,” he said. A combination of these factors resulted in the increase in tiger population to 2216, according to the latest survey conducted in 2014.
However, experts have been eyeing these surveys with suspicion and believe the tiger is growing in only a few states which have adopted innovative practices. Ullas Karanth, a leading expert, said there has been improvement particularly in the Western Ghats, the Terai, parts of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra (see box).
“In Maharashtra and Rajasthan where tiger numbers actually increased, innovative state government schemes have come into play for conflict resolution. The Van Dhan Yojana in Rajasthan and Jan Van Vikas Yojana in Maharashtra are new schemes that effectively mitigate conflict between people and tiger landscapes,” said Valmik Thapar, another expert.
He said the good news was when Project Tiger started in 1974, there were 1,800-2,000 tigers and 42 years later, the number was the same, though the population of India had doubled from 630 million to 1.25 billion people. “The bad news is that many tiger reserves like Buxa (Bengal), Dampha (Mizoram) and Palamau (Jharkhand) have few tigers left,” he said.
A government official said the carrying capacity of India’s tiger reserves is only up to 2,500 and they do not expect the numbers to rise in the future. “Nature takes its own course to control their births. We will not have more tigers,” said Yadav.
The increase in tiger population might give rise to tourism but Yadav feels that it would not be significant. “The number of tourists who can enter the park is fixed and strictly regulated as per the SC norms,” he added.