Tiger conservation: a game of inconsistent numbers

29 Jul 2015

On World Tiger Day, figures reveal that the tiger remains in a precarious position

It’s World Tiger day today, but is it time to celebrate? Well, it depends what reports you read.

  • Bhutan has 100 tigers, 30pc up on a previous estimate, according to a new survey. Good news.
  • Bangladesh has 106, less than a quarter of the 440 estimated a decade ago. Bad news.
  • India’s Bengal tiger population is up 30pc to 2,226, but they are only now including all tigers in the country in the census. Confusing news.

What seems to be happening, at least in the Bangladesh case, is a marked improvement in how we count tigers.

It’s not as simple as driving around with a clipboard, ticking off each one as you pass. As they are such reclusive creatures, it’s difficult to lay your eyes on tigers in the wild.

Previous techniques for counting them was to track their paw prints, but this wasn’t accurate at all. It does, however, explain why the Bangladeshi population of tigers appeared so large in 2004.

Now cameras are used, which is far more effective. However, poaching – as always – remains a concern.

“There’s no doubt tiger population has declined in the Sundarbans in recent years due to rampant poaching of the big cats and for lack of proper forest management,” said Wildlife biologist Monirul Khan.

Indian summer

In India, the new government is proudly trumpeting a rise in tiger numbers to 2,226, which seems remarkable in just four years.

Though things aren’t, perhaps, as they seem.

The previous census only counted tigers in sanctuaries and reserves, with the new count – which covers all tigers in the country – not so much a 30pc rise in the number of tigers, but more a 30pc rise in tigers we’re aware of.

“Out of the 2,226 tigers estimated in this census, we have photographic evidence for about 1,500 individuals, or 70pc. And the statistical models are state-of-the-art,” says Rajesh Gopal, who headed India’s tiger conservation project for years.

An Asian problem

Tiger numbers throughout south-east Asia are unknown, with countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Burma offering scant reports. This, according to the WWF, is not merely a worry so much as “a crisis”.

“Until countries know the reality on the ground, they can’t take appropriate action to protect their tigers,” said Mike Baltzer, WWF Tigers Alive initiative leader.

It’s thought that just 3,000 tigers live in the wild today – which makes India’s figures remarkable – down from perhaps 100,000 a century ago.

Conservation efforts are ongoing, but with those kinds of numbers it’s difficult to see just how successful they can be.

Main image, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic