There were 1,706 tigers in the wild in India in 2010, up from 1,411 in 2006, the country’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh announced in New Delhi on Monday. Though the increase is small, it is good news for conservationists, since the declining trend in tiger numbers has been reversed, at least for the time being.

The announcement came on the opening day of a three-day conference on tiger conservation being held here in India, and being attended by experts from all Asian countries that have tigers in the wild, including China and Russia. India has the highest number of wild tigers in the world, but the number has fallen drastically from an estimated 100,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century. Poaching and loss of forests are the main reasons, and both continue – poaching for the highly lucrative illegal market in tiger parts which are used in some traditional Chinese medicine preparations, and loss of forests due to mining, road building and industrial projects.

Since the tiger is at the top of the food chain, its population is the best possible indicator of the health of an ecosystem, especially its biodiversity. India started its well-known tiger conservation project – called project Tiger – in 1973. Now there are 39 protected forest areas under the control of this project. But an estimated 30% of the tigers counted in 2010 are outside these protected forests, which Ramesh flagged as an area of concern while releasing the results of the new census. “We do not have complete strategies to deal with this,” he pointed out, referring to the fact that these forests are under increased threat from human activities.

For the first time in a tiger census, officials have used camera traps to distinguish between individual tigers by the stripes on them, according to YV Jhala from the Wildlife Institute of India, who led the census.

One of the reasons why tigers are facing extinction in the wild in India today is that their populations are split, with huge tracts of cities and villages between isolated forests. Analysing the 2010 census results, conservationists have reported some encouraging findings on this front as well. “We found that most tiger source sites are maintaining viable populations,” Jhala said.

The new census estimates that forests in the foothills of the Himalayas now have 353 tigers, central India and the eastern coastal zone have 601, the western coastal zone has 534, north-eastern India has 148 and the Indian part of the Sundarbans mangrove forest has 70 tigers in the wild.

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