Indians are voluble and strident about tradition and indescribably careless about their traditional treasures, natural or manmade. They are also good at glossing over disgraces. The regular deaths of elephants hit by speeding trains, for example, have continued in spite of repeated pieties mouthed by government and railway officials from the states concerned and the Centre, yet another recent tragedy demonstrated that nothing had changed. Similarly, the institutionalized vagueness about the Royal Bengal tiger is a part of Indian habit. Poaching and loss of habitat, the latter leading to tiger-killings by terrified villagers, had long reduced India’s tiger population to shameful figures. The poaching, to supply the huge market for tiger skins and tiger parts across the border, could have been stopped long ago if governments and local forest officials had put their minds — and resources — to it. But smuggling is too lucrative for far too many people; preserving tigers seems a useless activity in comparison.
How many tigers are left? Reportedly, 39 tigers have been killed in this year alone. The National Tiger Conservation Authority has begun an all-India survey, split into four phases spanning 5,00,000 lakh square kilometres of forest. This would be different from the states’ annual surveys, being across state boundaries and reserve forests. Besides, every tiger spotted in the intensive search conducted by 2,000 experts working with forest officials will pass through multiple tests including camera trap and DNA testing of scat, so there can be no ‘double’ counting. In the 2010 census, India accounted for half the world’s tigers with 1,706 of them. If the new population estimate shows a bigger figure, the credit should go to the tigers’ resilience, not to human care.