Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh: Tiger deaths in central Indian states over the last eight years, especially Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, could mean a setback for India’s tiger conservation efforts.

Between 2009 and 2017, 631 tigers were reported dead in India, according to Tigernet, the tiger mortality database maintained by the National Tiger Conservation Agency (NTCA).

Among these, the highest numbers--133 deaths (21.1%)--have been recorded in Madhya Pradesh which has 13.8% of the country’s total tiger population of 2,226.

Neighbouring Maharashtra, which harbours at least three tiger reserves and protected areas, recorded 14.4% of the total tiger deaths in the same period. The state has 8.5% of India’s tigers, as per 2014 Census figures.

Karnataka, with 100 tiger deaths (15.8%), is second in the list. However, the state contributes 18.2% to the total tiger population in the country, which makes its performance far better in terms of the proportion of deaths reported.

Source: Tigernet, 2014 Tiger Census

India has a significant role in worldwide conservation efforts: Among the 13 countries which harbour breeding populations of wild tigers, India holds 57% of world's tigers (according to some estimates). These nations, named Tiger Range Countries (TRCs), have pledged to double the world tiger population by 2022, the year of the tiger in the Chinese calendar.

Habitats in Shivalik-Gangetic plain most affected

The standard population monitoring procedure carried out by NTCA--and assisting research bodies like the Wildlife Institute of India (WII)--once every four years segregates the country into six major landscape complexes based on the nature and geographic conditions of their tiger habitats. Among these, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh belong to the Shivalik-Gangetic plain landscape complex which accommodates the central Indian landscape and the Eastern Ghats.

This zone had 688 tigers, making it home for 31% of the total tiger population estimated in India, as per the 2014 census. Together, the tiger mortality figure for this landscape is 249 for the eight-year period, roughly 39%. However, 91% of deaths in the Shivalik-Gangetic plain are reported from Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra alone, while they contribute only 72% of the tiger population of the landscape complex.

The Western Ghats Landscape complex, which harbours 776 (34%) of the total tiger population in India, comprises of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Goa. It has recorded 277 deaths during the period, which is 28% of total tiger deaths. Karnataka’s share in this mortality figure is 57% (100 deaths) while it contributes 56% to the total tiger population of the landscape.

Poaching is a major factor in tiger deaths

Tigernet data do not assign any confirmed cause of death for more than 50% of the incidents reported during the period. However, among the cases which have a confirmed reason, 83 are due to poaching.

Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra top the list with 18 and 17 cases, respectively. Karnataka is third, with 13 deaths. Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra also top the list in number of cases where tiger body parts were seized from wildlife trafficking criminals. Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, respectively, have recorded 18 and 17 such incidents since 2009.

However, it may not be fair to conclude that these central Indian States are India’s poaching hotspots. If we consider poaching deaths in relation to total fatalities, Uttar Pradesh tops the list with 19%. Maharashtra follows at 18% and Kerala 16%. Karnataka figures stand at 13, but it stands third behind MP and Maharashtra because it reported 15 incidents of tiger body part seizure.

Tigers now inhabit only 6% of traditional habitats

The tiger, hunted and trafficked in many parts of the world, is listed as an endangered animal by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Tigers now inhabit only 6% of their original habitats, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Their population across these habitats has dropped by 40% since 2006.

Much of this decline is attributed to the pressure of growing human population and subsequent encroachments into tiger terrains. The Tigernet data for the last 8 years showed that, of 328 incidents where the cause of death could be confirmed, 114 were caused by human interference--poaching, road kill, and elimination by authorities or similar incidents.

While these figures are based on Tigernet data, TRAFFIC, a global organisation which fights wildlife trafficking, has noted that the database does not always capture mortality or seizure data as per reported incidents, indicating that the actual figures could be worse.

The ongoing tiger population census for 2018 is expected to come up with updated figures. With the adoption of new methods of population monitoring and inclusion of areas which were hitherto not a part of the exercise, indications are that the latest census may mark a spike in tiger population figures. The assumption is based mainly on information expected from the north-eastern states. In the last Census, the north-east had not been properly sampled.

This time, 14,000 camera traps are being used for greater accuracy as part of the existing double-sampling technique, which involves correlating data coming from ground survey of tiger pug marks and scat with data generated through camera trap images. Since 4,300 more camera traps are being used this time, the total numbers are expected to go up.

The last 2014 tiger census too marked a rise--up 30%from 2010 figures.

(Bhaskaran is an assistant professor and Kashyap is a research scholar at the School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh.)

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