Tigers in India

Imagine a fort, deep in India’s forest, called Ranthambore Fort.  Now imagine you’re a maharajah — an ancient king, hundreds of years ago — vacationing there.  The forest is your playground — you hunt tigers there for sport.  You practice conservation, of a kind — you hunt, but not too many, so there will still be tigers there for hunting.

Ranthambhore Fort
Ranthambhore Fort

Although the days of the Maharajas are over, the fort still survives.  The area surrounding it is a national tiger reserve — and one of the few places you can still see a tiger in the wild.

The tiger we saw in Ranthambhore reserve
The tiger we saw in Ranthambhore reserve

Project Tiger

In 1970, India banned tiger hunting.  The first census of tigers in India showed there were fewer tigers than expected — 1,827 Bengal tigers.  So, in 1973, the country launched a national tiger conservation program called Project Tiger.

The Ranthambhore forest was named a tiger reserve, and later expanded in 1992.  Today, it covers about 400 square km (150 square miles), and it’s one of the most visited tiger reserves in India.

Ranthambhore sign

Tigers share the park with leopards, striped hyenas, langurs, macaques, spotted deer, and a larger type of deer called sambar deer.  In Ranthambhore, deer are the tigers’ primary prey.  Tigers can eat 27 kg (60 lbs) of meat at a sitting.  A tiger might eat about once a week.

Sambar deer - the tiger's favorite food
Sambar deer – the tiger’s favorite food

The Challenge of Counting Tigers

Bengal tigers, or Indian tigers, are the most numerous species in the wild, although all tiger species are endangered.  Now, about 1,700 live in the wild in India.  About 670 more Bengals live in countries nearby.

In Ranthambhore, there are between 50 and 60 tigers.  It’s hard to get an exact number — it’s difficult to keep track of tigers, especially because they’re most active at night.  And some tigers disappear for periods of time, reappearing later.

Another picture of the tiger we saw
Another picture of the tiger we saw

However, there is one thing that helps in counting:  a tiger’s stripes.  No two tigers have the same pattern of stripes — their unique patterns are like human fingerprints, and help scientists and rangers keep track of individual tigers.

Conflict with Local People

Tigers are territorial – a female tiger needs a territory large enough to feed her and her cubs.  Males have a much larger territory, usually overlapping the territory of one or many females.  One challenge for Ranthambhore is that the park already is at capacity.  As a result, some tigers have left the park in search of new space.

Although there are other forests within range, they aren’t protected, and there isn’t a corridor for tigers to get there.  Ranthambore has rivers on two sides, and villages on the other two.  About 200,000 people live nearby, and roaming tigers can cause difficulties for local people.

Ranthambhore with farm fields in the background
Ranthambhore with farm fields in the background

People in the area have been killed by tigers.  And tigers that leave the park may prey on livestock.  As a result, people sometimes fight back:  one tiger from Ranthambhore was found poisoned in December 2013.  However, the Rajasthan Forest Department and WWF-India work to protect straying tigers whenever possible.

Tourism in Ranthambhore

It was amazing to see a tiger in the wild.  It was a little unsettling, though to see all the jeeps clustered nearby, hear the engines revving and see Jeeps jockeying to get tourists in good positions to take photos.

Jeeps of tourists watching the tiger
Jeeps of tourists watching the tiger

However, tourism in Ranthambhore does seem generally well-run.  A government guide is required, safaris are at specific times only, and vehicles must exit the park by 6 pm.  That means the tiger’s most active time, at night, is relatively undisturbed by humans.

Year of the Tiger:  2022

Although tigers in Ranthambhore are doing fairly well, worldwide tiger numbers have been on the decline, and some species are extinct.  In 2009, the world population of wild tigers was about 3,200.  In the 1990s (although it’s a rough estimate), there were 5,000 to 7,000.

This is due to habitat loss, conflict with local people, and the sale of tiger parts for medicines and other products.  (We learned about the illegal tiger trade and demand for tiger products when we visited ENV, in Vietnam.)

However, there’s some good news for tigers.  As Jamie and Jason mentioned in their recent post, 13 countries with wild tiger populations have launched an initiative to increase the number of tigers.  The next Year of the Tiger on the Asian lunar calendar is 2022:  by then, the goal is to reach a world population of 6,000 wild tigers.

Hopefully, by improving conservation programs, enforcing existing laws, and especially by working closely with local people, the number of tigers in the wild will grow.  India has by far the largest tiger population of any single country, so its efforts will make a tremendous difference.

In our next post, we’ll talk about more about tigers, and how conservation groups can work with local people.  We’ll share a conversation we had with one of the founders of Nature Conservation Foundation, where we learned a lot about what it takes to make a conservation program successful.

Study Guide Questions

1. In the whole world, about how many tigers are there in the wild today?

2. True or False: All tigers have the exact same pattern of stripes.

3. Name two challenges that tigers cause to local people.

4. Why can’t the people that manage Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve try to double the amount of tigers in the reserve?


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