India's Tiger Population Is on the Rise

India is home to 70 percent of the world's tigers, and progress there is raising optimism about the future of the species. (Photo: Lensalot/Shutterstock)

Good news in the world of endangered species is generally a rare thing, so it's worth taking a moment to celebrate the results from India's latest tiger census.

Conservation Effort Gains Amid Challenges

Conservation officials for the country announced this week a 30 percent increase in its tiger population, a trend that has continued since the last census. The numbers were 1,706 in 2011; 2,226 in 2015 and now 2,967 in 2019.

"We reaffirm our commitment towards protecting the tiger," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said as he released the report. "Some 15 years ago, there was serious concern about the decline in the population of tigers. It was a big challenge for us but with determination, we have achieved our goals."

With India home to an estimated 70 percent of the world's tigers, increases like this one are hopeful for the survival of the species. Efforts to stabilize the species stretch back to 1972, when a census discovered only 1,872 tigers left in the country (down from 40,000 at the turn of the 20th century). To preserve habitat and protect existing populations, conservation officials launched Project Tiger, which includes 47 reserves covering more than 20,674 square miles.

Unfortunately, like many other countries that harbor endangered species, India's conservation efforts are being rocked by mass-scale organized poaching and increased demand from the black market for animal parts. A census in 2008 in India found its tiger population at a dangerously low number of 1,411 tigers. To counter further drops, officials moved to protect sensitive tiger breeding grounds and increase the country's wildlife reserves. Despite stricter laws governing tourism in tiger reserves, more than 3 million people visit them each year, boosting local economies and creating jobs.

"Tigers cannot survive without their protection staff, good management and large enough natural landscapes," Julian Matthews, of Travel Operators for Tigers, told the UK Telegraph, "but they will not thrive and expand without nature tourism’s invaluable economics, its visitors’ ‘hearts on their sleeve’ consciences, and communities willing to fight for living wildlife, because large carnivores are worth more to them alive than dead."

International Philanthropic Support

International cooperation and funding from groups like WildAid, the World Wildlife Fund and deep-pocketed advocates like Richard Branson, Larry Ellison and Leonardo DiCaprio have made an impact, as have on-the-ground efforts from local communities and individuals.

"If we don’t take action now, one of the most iconic animals on our planet could be gone in just a few decades," DiCaprio said after a million dollar donation to the WWF in 2010. "By saving tigers, we can also protect some of our last remaining ancient forests and improve the lives of indigenous communities."

Technology is also aiding the comeback, with officials monitoring tiger populations using drones and other technology. For 2019, 26,000 camera traps took almost 350,000 images across known tiger habitats using artificial intelligence to identify individual tigers.

While the population increases are encouraging, conservationists say the fight to save tigers and other endangered species is far from over.

"While this is good news from India, I don't think anyone is sitting back and saying 'we've won'," Debbie Banks, head of the Tiger Campaign at the Environmental Investigation Agency, told CNN. "The demand within China for skins to decorate homes and bones for tiger bone wine all continue. And so it's a constant battle."