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How India brought its tigers back from the brink

India boasts two-thirds of the world’s tiger population – in less than one-quarter of their global range. A nationwide conservation project started in 1973 has grabbed global headlines. Balancing conservation and human development remains a work in progress.

One of the highlights of any trip to India is the chance to see the magnificent Bengal tiger – a 500lb apex predator with a penchant for swimming – in its natural habitat. And where better to do it than Pench National Park? Pench inspired Rudyard Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book, and is one of the oldest tiger reserves in India. It’s now home to at least 65 tigers – but a visit to Pench is not only about striped cats.

The park boasts 39 mammal species – including Indian leopard, sloth bear, spotted deer, wild dog, gaur or Indian bison, and wolf – and a whopping 210 bird species. SA Expeditions guests stay in one of our splendid, handpicked eco-friendly lodges within park limits. The lodges boast spectacular locations, exquisite décor and design, and locally-inspired cuisine. You’ll enjoy twice-daily game drives with an expert naturalist guide. And you’ll also get the chance to experience the jungles of Central India on foot or by bicycle. Other activities include village walks, bush dinners, and the incredible Kipling Hide – the only underground photography hide in India.

Sloth bear, Melursus ursinus, Ranthambore National Park, India
The sloth bear was named for its similar characteristics to a tree sloth; they have long, thick claws, peculiar teeth, and they sometimes hang upside down on tree branches.

(Almost) hunted to extinction

Just 200 years ago, tens of thousands of tigers roamed 29 nations spanning the length and breadth of Asia. The tiger is grouped into nine subspecies, three of which (Javan, Caspian, and Bali) are officially extinct. A fourth, the South-China subspecies, is most likely extinct in the wild, with no signs of its existence in the last decade.

By the middle of the 20th century, India’s Bengal tiger seemed headed the same way. During the period of British colonial rule (1858-1947), tiger hunting – once the preserve of India’s royals – went mainstream. Large colonial hunting parties killed tigers by the dozens, and locals were rewarded financially for killing them. These measures saw 1,579 tigers killed in 1878 and 1,726 in 1882. All told, the population was reduced from 40,000 to 1,800 in under a century. Once the British left, the tiny population that remained seemed doomed.

Tiger hunting by George Curzon and his wife Mary in British India, 1903
Bengal Tiger hunting by the English upper-class George Curzon and his wife in British India (1903).

Project Tiger

That changed in 1972, when a blanket ban on tiger hunting was enforced. A year later, with the tiger population hovering at around 1,700, the Indian government launched Project Tiger, which “set out to protect natural habitats and create a series of specially designated tiger reserves”. Pench National Park, which was first established as a sanctuary in 1965, was one of the pioneers of this movement. In fact, one of our preferred lodges in the park is owned by the family of the man who started Project Tiger.

By the late 1980s, nine reserves had grown to 15, and the total protected area had almost trebled to 9,500 square miles. A decade later, India boasted 23 reserves encompassing 13,000 square miles. While things had certainly improved for tigers living in protected areas, the same could not be said for tigers that weren’t in protected areas.

Tiger walking on a safari at Pench National Park, India
Going on safari in Pench National Park is one of the best places to see tigers in their natural habitat.

Upping the ante

The next major inflection point came in 2010, when the 13 nations that still boasted wild tiger populations met in St Petersburg to discuss ways to save the species from extinction. All 13 countries pledged to double their wild tiger numbers by 2022 – but since then only Nepal (home to 355 tigers in 2022), Bhutan (103 tigers in 2022), and India have come close to achieving this goal.

Despite its rapid human and economic expansion, India has more than doubled its wild tiger numbers from 1,411 in 2006 to 2,967 in 2018. The 2022 census results are eagerly awaited. In 2019, the government spent almost $50 million on tiger conservation. Some of this was spent on relocating villages outside of conservation areas. It also went to building the world’s largest animal underpass system along a 10-mile stretch of highway that bisects Pench National Park. A total of nine underpasses were built (and fitted with camera traps to allow scientists to gauge their efficacy). By 2021, the underpasses had been used by 18 different mammal species, including 11 individual tigers. Watch this video news report for more information about this impressive example of sustainable development.

Challenges remain

India’s tiger program has, rightly, been lauded as a major international conservation success story. Without Project Tiger, the entire species would be perilously close to extinction. But, as this article in Nature in 2019 noted, the Indian government’s response has also come in for some criticism from independent tiger experts.

First things first. Some experts have cast doubt on the accuracy of India’s tiger censuses. While there’s no denying the increase in tiger numbers since 2006, Ullas Karanth, director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru, says the surveys are carried out by “ill-trained workers who don’t know how to do accurate counts.” He added that these workers often felt pressured to “record positive tiger signs and ignore signs of human disturbance”.

Bengal tiger at Pench National Park in India
A Bengal tiger on the prowl at Pench National Park.

Another common criticism is that India’s tiger reserves – which now number an impressive 50 – are typically rather small in size, and surrounded by human development. This isn’t ideal for Bengal tigers, especially males, which need vast ranges. Once a reserve reaches ‘tiger saturation point’, the big cats are left with no choice but to encroach beyond the reserves – resulting in human-wildlife conflict. Between 2016 and 2018, for example, a tigress in the western Indian state of Maharashtra is said to have killed 13 people.

Another problem with small reserves is that they can easily lead to inbreeding, although this can be mitigated by moving tigers between reserves. A similar project with cheetahs in southern Africa is proving extremely successful.

A balancing act

While the criticisms described above should certainly not be ignored, they must also be viewed in context. At SA Expeditions, we’ve always maintained that conservation can never happen in a bubble. With an average annual population growth rate of 1.2% in the past decade, India will overtake China as the world’s most populous country in 2023. Recent economic growth, meanwhile, has helped India to become the sixth largest economy in the world. While it would be wonderful to have larger tiger reserves, this simply isn’t possible in a nation of 1.4 billion humans.

India has also made a concerted effort to ensure its tiger reserves adhere to international conservation best practice. In 2021, India made a massive leap forward when it announced that 14 of its tiger reserves had achieved Conservation Assured Tiger Standards (CA|TS) approval. “CA|TS is a global conservation tool that sets best practice and standards to manage target species, and encourages assessments to benchmark progress. Habitats which support tiger populations are the building blocks of wild tiger conservation, and effectively managing them is essential for tigers’ long-term survival. CA|TS is being implemented across 125 sites in seven tiger range countries, and India has the biggest number with 94 sites.”

Bengal tiger eyes

Be a part of the solution

Sustainable ecotourism is an integral component of conservation on a rapidly-developing planet. As a proud B Corp, SA Expeditions is committed to working with locally-owned lodges and suppliers that uplift nearby communities while also conserving nature. Speak to a destination expert about crafting a bespoke, once-in-a-lifetime Indian tiger adventure for you and your family.

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