More Tigers Are Dying in India—but the Future’s Looking Brighter

Poaching is down, and a rise in natural deaths may indicate that the big cats are thriving.

(Photo: Steve Winter/Getty Images)

Dec 4, 2014· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The body of a Bengal tiger was found on Sunday in India’s Pench National Park, the site that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s classic collection The Jungle Book. Although wildlife officials initially said they did not suspect that poachers killed the tiger—which had probably been dead for four days before it was discovered—they later conceded they were not ruling out the possibility.

What we know, however, is that the animal was the 54th tiger found dead in India this year. It followed closely on the heels of another dead tiger that was discovered in the Corbett Tiger Reserve on Nov. 28. The cause of that death has also not been determined.

It has been a deadly four years for tigers in India. On Nov. 26, environment minister Prakash Javadekar announced that 274 tigers have been found dead in the country since the beginning of 2011. With the latest two fatalities, the number is now 276. This represents a 53 percent spike in tiger deaths from 2006 to 2010, nearly three times the number of tigers reported dead between 2002 and 2006.

The death count was released ahead of the publication of the upcoming census of India’s tigers, which is conducted every four years. That census is due within the next month. The 2010 census found that India had approximately 1,700 tigers. The country is home to the majority of Bengal tigers, the most populous of the world’s six remaining tiger subspecies. The total wild population for all six tiger subspecies is estimated at 3,200.

Despite the increase in deaths, there are several “silver linings,” said Sanjay Gubbi, tiger program coordinator in India for Panthera, the big-cat conservation organization. For one, information on all tiger deaths and seizures of tiger parts has been made public through the Tigernet database set up by the country’s National Tiger Conservation Authority. This, he said, “is a step toward transparency.”

Another important note: Relatively few of these deaths are known to be the result of poaching. Of the deaths this year, only six are officially attributed to poaching. At least 49 other deaths have not been classified, mostly because the bodies decomposed too quickly for conclusive analysis. Gubbi says speedier investigations are required to “help narrow down the causes and the percentage of deaths due to various reasons.”

Looking into the numbers reveals even more. At least 40 tigers have been found dead this year in protected tiger reserves, up from 36 last year and 38 in 2012. Gubbi said this isn’t the bad news that it seems to be, especially because only one of the deaths has conclusively been linked to poaching.

Instead, it is an indication that tigers in at least some reserves have achieved healthy enough populations that they have reached their ecological carrying capacity. This means the reserves cannot support larger populations, owing either to lack of prey or lack of sufficient space for highly territorial males, which will kill each other in the wild. Gubbi said it’s normal for healthy tiger populations to have a mortality rate of 25 to 30 percent because of natural causes.

More worrying, he said, is the deaths outside the protected areas.

“Unnatural deaths should not happen,” he said. “There should be zero tolerance.” Prosecution of tiger poachers remains low, however.

This week nine men accused of illegally trading tiger and leopard skins were released two months after their arrest because forestry officials failed to file official charges. The Times of India called it “a classic example of how casually poaching cases are handled.”

Gubbi said poaching needs to be controlled because a handful of India’s reserves have very low tiger populations, and any further poaching there could lower numbers below the point where the big cats could remain ecologically viable.

But tiger populations are growing in other areas, and conservationists are hoping the government will establish additional protected zones. One area Gubbi said he hopes will become an official tiger reserve is the Male Mahadeshwara Wildlife Sanctuary, which was established last year. Camera traps in the sanctuary have revealed “surprising tiger numbers” that even the experts did not expect, he said.

All told, Gubbi said he feels that efforts to protect and grow tiger populations in India are working. More than 2,500 square kilometers of protected areas have been established, and migration corridors between tiger reserves are allowing genetic exchange between populations.

“Females are breeding in areas that no one expected,” he said, with each female producing two to three cubs a year. If the animals can be given enough protected space to thrive and if poaching can be controlled, then the numbers for the next four years could tell a completely different story.