By Prabal Kr Das
GUWAHATI, June 2 – At a time when serious concerns have been raised over the fate of the tiger in India, the status of the big cat in Assam is under a cloud. No one in the Forest department, and in conservation circles would hazard a guess about the number of tigers, which now survive in the State's Protected Areas (PA). "It is difficult to come even to an approximate, because estimation efforts have not been very effective so far. Even the most recent effort based on a methodology developed by Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun has run into some troubles," said a senior forest official, requesting anonymity.
Moreover, the Forest Department might be hesitant to reveal the present tiger population because there is a real apprehension that the most recent estimation, the results of which could come out later this year, is likely to reveal lesser numbers in most of the PAs than that available on record.
According to official data made available to this reporter, in 2000 there were a total of 353 tigers in nine habitats and outside Protected Areas of the State. The Eastern Assam Wildlife Division (including the Kaziranga National Park) contained the 85 tigers, the largest concentration in the State. The smallest population of two was recorded in Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary.
Habitats of sizeable concentrations included Laokhowa Sanctuary with 11, Sonai Rupai Sanctuary with 12, Orang National Park with 19, Nameri National Park with 26, Dibru Saikhowa National Park with 31 and Manas National Park with 65 tigers. Significantly, in the 2000 census 89 tigers were located in "outside Protected Areas."
Well-placed forest officials and conservationists both view the figures with incredulity because some of them seem to be inflated either by design or default.
For instance, the 65 tigers in Manas appear to be very high considering the fact that the park witnessed massive destruction of flora and fauna just a few years earlier. In the year 2000 and in the years preceding, the prey base required to sustain such large a number of tigers was not there – admitted a forest official.
The present situation could be much worse if a recent effort to monitor tigers is considered. From December 2005 a conservation group's project to camera trap tigers yielded images of only four animals.
Moreover, serious doubts persist over the existence of 89 tigers, which, according to the 2000 census were found outside PAs. "There is the possibility that tigers residing in Protected Areas, which were located outside were counted as separate animals," a senior forest official revealed.
The fate of the tiger in captivity does not look bright either, as the species has not increased in numbers in the Assam State Zoo. In the period 2002-07 the zoo witnessed the birth of only two tigers. On the other hand four tigers died during the same period.
Killing by poachers is another trend that is gradually becoming a matter of concern for the Forest Department. According to official data in 2003-04 a single animal was killed, but two were killed in 2005-06, while the very next year four tigers were felled.
The number of tigers killed by poachers might look small, but they gain significance when seen in the context of their highly endangered status and the growing threats they now face in the State.