One-third of India’s tigers live outside reserves

Cover image by Nikhil Devasar

The latest report on the population of tigers in India says that one-third of all tigers in India live outside the country’s 50 tiger reserves. That means that there are over a thousand tigers outside sanctuaries. The report was published by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and Wildlife Institute of India (WII).

These tigers live in forested patches that adjoin (lie next to) sanctuaries or connect two protected areas and were counted through camera trapping. Some of these big cats may have moved out of reserves due to population issues. Tigers need large areas for their territories and the once available areas within reserves get occupied, they move out. The report’s authors noted that “forest divisions in Uttarakhand, MP, Maharashtra and Karnataka (all areas outside official reserves)  have equal or more tigers than some tiger reserves in the country.”

Is this a good thing?

The number of tigers outside reserves is a sign of an increasing tiger population, which is good. When tigers move out of reserves, they form new families by mixing with populations outside their traditional area. This ensures that gene pools are mixed and made stronger.

To understand this, think of tigers in a small sanctuary that originated from a small group of big cats. These big cats would have had babies and they in turn would have found mates from within this pool and given birth to more cubs. Over time, the entire population would have become closely related as this cycle kept repeating itself. The end result is a population whose genes are similar to each other.

As you may know, genes are proteins found in animal cells that contain the masterplan for the body’s growth. The problem with a similar gene pool is that all these animals will have the same genetic flaws (such as deformities in limbs or tendency to catch a disease). This is dangerous – imagine if they all caught a dangerous virus! On the other hand, when they move out and start and family with a mate from a different forest (and a different set of genes), the cubs will probably be stronger, having the best of both parents.

Are they safe?

Tigers outside reserves face problems – they can be killed by poachers as these areas aren’t watched over by the police or forest department. The report in fact specifically states that forest departments need more support from the government in order to manage areas outside sanctuaries.