Against All Odds, Indian Tigers Bounce Back

LONDON, England, October 1, 2001 (ENS) - The critically endangered tiger is making a remarkable comeback in the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, India. Tiger experts say this small success must act as an inspirational test case for India's remaining wild tigers, which are struggling under pressure from poachers, dwindling habitat, and loss of prey species.

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Royal Bengal tiger (Photo courtesy Wildlife Protection Society of India)
The Panna Tiger Reserve's vulnerable population of two to three tigers per 100 square kilometers has grown to a healthier population of seven to eight tigers per 100 square kilometers - a critical step in a country that loses an average of one tiger a day from its dwindling population to poaching and habitat loss.

This growth has been brought about by the implementation of new management practices, unique monitoring methods including the radio collaring of tigers, and has been boosted by field equipment provided by international fundraising and international lobbying to tackle environmental pressures. Environmental groups say the project is an example of how individuals can bring success despite a lack of institutional reform and political apathy.

"All over India, key tiger areas such as this one are being destroyed for industrial concerns at the whim of politicians seeking to line their own pockets," said Debbie Banks, senior campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). "By destroying the tigers' habitat, they are also destroying the environment that local people depend on for food and water. The tiger acts as a symbol for the health of India, and the success in Panna acts as hope for both people and wildlife."

The EIA says the Panna Tiger Reserve was surrounded by illegal sandstone mines, and its water supplies were polluted by waste from state owned diamond mines. Inside the park, illegal grazing and logging were devastating the tigers' habitat.

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Police display tiger and leopard skins and parts seized in Khaga, in the North Indian State of Uttar Pradesh (Photo courtesy EIA)
International campaigning by EIA to raise the profile of Panna and the problems it faced has prodded the state government into closing the sandstone mines and committing to improve the diamond mines.

About half the world's remaining tigers live in India, which hosts a population of between 2,000 and 3,000 tigers, experts estimate. About 250 to 300 tigers are lost each year through poaching for trade, habitat loss and prey decline.

The latest figures show that 54 tigers have been poached in India so far this year. Most tiger reserves are short staffed and ill equipped.

Dr. Raghunandan Singh Chundawat, head of the tiger research project at Panna Tiger Reserve, said that monitoring of radio collared tigers has been key to the growth of the Reserve's tiger population.

"The long term survival of the tiger population depends not so much on how many tigers there are in a particular area but on the number that are able to breed successfully," Chundawat explained. "Our research project's daily monitoring of radio collared tigers undoubtedly increased their protection from human induced mortalities. This allowed the radio-collared tigers to breed and increased the chances of cubs surviving to adulthood."

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Young female tiger in Ranthambore National Park, India (Photo by James Gilden, courtesy 5tigers.org)
"One of the most rewarding aspects of this project has been to follow the fortunes of one particular female - one of the first tigresses we radio collared - and her offspring, particularly the breeding females," Chundawat continued. "We know that that this particular tigress increased Panna's tiger population by 17 individuals over the past 5 years."

The project works in close collaboration with park authorities, Chundawat noted, allowing them to concentrate on growing the tiger population, instead of spending all their time trying to prevent poaching.

"Global Tiger Patrol often works in a catalytic way, researching into and supporting new initiatives with seed funding," said Amanda Bright, chair of Global Tiger Patrol, a United Kingdom based charity that is one of the partners in the tiger program. "Dr. Chundawat's project, in Panna, is particularly gratifying as the knock on effect has been that his work, together with the increased vigilance in the area, has resulted in a measurable increase in tiger numbers."

Groups like EIA and the Global Tiger Patrol also provide equipment such as binoculars, jeeps, high speed patrol boats, jungle equipment and training for park rangers, who put their lives on the line daily to protect the tigers. EIA and the Global Tiger Patrol are calling for the Indian government to learn from the success at Panna Tiger Reserve and act now to protect the tiger, the forests and the people.