Rise in attacks – bad news for victims, good news for tigers


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The Independent Online

For villagers and their families it is a tragedy, but for tiger conservationists a sudden rise in the number of attacks offers welcome, if gruesome, evidence the predator is staging a comeback.

Tiger numbers have risen by more than 20 per cent in the last five years in India, the first time that a significant increase has been recorded since the population crashed – in 1960 there were an estimated 25,000 of the big cats.

Surveys have established there are an estimated 1,706 tigers in India, up 21 per cent from 1,411 in 2006.

Tiger populations have swelled best in protected areas like national parks. In other areas, tigers remain in decline. Where tiger numbers are growing there have been more attacks on villagers.

There have been at least seven fatal tiger attacks since November near Sunderkhal, on the borders of the Corbett National Park, in northern India's Uttarakhand state – an area which had seen no attacks for five years.

In 2006 there were 164 tigers in the reserve but numbers now total 214, an increase of almost one-third.

The creation of protected areas has been crucial to the tiger's resurgence. As tiger numbers rise, the introduction of "elephant corridors", tracts of land that link areas where they can live safe from humans, lets them recolonise forest habitats. The corridors are cleared of villagers to form a "wildlife motorway". The corridors follow elephant migration tracks which most animals, including tigers, tend to use when travelling as they offer the easiest route across the landscape.

But so successful are the corridors proving that conservationists have been unable to rehouse villagers quickly enough to prevent them coming into conflict with tigers. The fatal attacks of villagers near Sunderkhal were in one of these corridors, even though tigers, unlike leopards, try hard to avoid going near human settlements.

John Burton, chief executive of the World Land Trust, a British conservation charity helping to create the corridors, said that the scheme is a key factor in the increase in tiger numbers as it allows them to spread into new territory without having to set foot on farmland where they might be shot.

Apart from the deaths of the villagers, he welcomed the increase in tigers. He said in historical terms an extra 295 is small, but is still a vital upwards shift.

"If we can create these corridors and extend them there's no good reason why tiger numbers shouldn't get back to their historical levels in some parts of India. The food is there – there are plenty of deer and wild boar," he said

Camera traps recorded 550 different tigers and through this and other sightings it was possible to estimate the total number of tigers now living in India. The counts took place from December 2009 to December 2010 and the results were published this year.

Tiger counters must earn their stripes

Counting tigers isn't quite as dangerous as sneaking up and tweaking one by the tail, but simply setting foot into tiger country remains a risky business for researchers.

The people carrying out the surveys travel by Jeep and rarely walk more than a few metres from the safety of their vehicles in case a tiger, perfectly camouflaged in the forest, is lurking in the undergrowth.

Camera traps are an extremely effective means of counting because they are positioned in places where tigers are likely to pass through. Conservationists then analyse all the images to compare tiger stripe patterns to ensure there is no double counting, a problem which is much harder to avoid when recording tiger footprints.

However, tiger tracks are still a useful means of establishing the cats' presence, and patrols looking for signs of tigers form a significant element of the survey. Other signs include the half-eaten remains of prey species.