Cambridge (UK): If there is any living being that can match the enterprising spirit of the humans within India, it has to be its tigers. Recently, a large population of tigers was found in the upper reaches of the Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, at around 12000 feet! This is probably just the latest of the various ventures of the Royal Bengal tiger that are said to have come into the Indian subcontinent in the Late Pleistocene age [1-3]. Tigers are present across the length and breadth of the country today, from the Sivalik-Terai ranges of the north to the backwaters of Kerala in the south; from the lush green forests of Assam and the Sunderbans in the east to the relatively more arid expanses in Sariska and Ranthambore. The oldest remains of a tiger-like cat (albeit slightly smaller than a tiger) in the world, called Panthera palaeosinensis, which is said to have existed around two million years ago, have been found in China and Java. Early true tiger fossils stem from Java and are around 1.6 – 1.8 million years old. Distinct fossils from the early and middle Pleistocene were discovered in deposits from Java, Sumatra and China. A subspecies called the Trinil tiger (Panthera tigris trinilensis) occurred about 1.2 million years ago and was found at the locality of Trinil in what is today the Ngawi Regency in East Java Province, Indonesia [4].

Much like the maned feline – the lion, the tiger is a migrant in the forests of India. While the lions arrived in India much earlier, about 20,000-30,000 years ago, the tigers arrived into India approximately 12,000 years ago from the north and northeastern Asia. Lion-tiger conflicts in India have been a topic of interest for scholars of natural history and the records that emerge out of the pages of history on this front shows a certain dominance of the striped feline over the maned ‘King of the Jungle’ in India! In 1955, the widely-respected journal of the Bombay Natural History Society carried an article in its 53rd volume, titled “Experiments in implanting African Lions into Madhya Bharat” wherein disastrous results of an effort by the Maharaja of Gwalior to introduce lions into tiger territory were produced. The experiment was a total failure with an important observation being that of lions being killed by tigers. Later, the author of the article, Kesri Singh, in a book put forth the opinion that tigers may have had a significant role in the disappearance of the lion from most India, being direct competitors, and isolating them only in Gir (Gujarat), the last stronghold of the Indian lion. Interestingly, several noted authors have also had similar opinions, with respect to lion-tiger conflicts, be it Richard Perry in The World of the Tiger (1965), Jack Denton Scott in Speaking Wildly (1966), Franklin Russell in The Hunting Animal (1983) and Kenneth Anderson in The Call of the Man-Eater (1961). Grand and ferocious as it is, the Indian tiger has not been bereft of its fair share of threats and dangers.

An Apex Predator, Besieged

Being a charismatic megafauna, with its distinct stripes on a coat of reddish-orange, the tiger has been threatened and hunted for centuries in India.

Figure: Mughal Emperor Babur hunting a tiger

In India, tigers were found as early as the era of the Indus Valley Civilisation, with the terracota figurines of tiger having been reported from Harappa [5]. In Mughal and British India, tigers were hunted for prestige and for taking trophies. Tiger hunting became a fairly popular sport. The Mughal form of hunting was through a qamargah: a circle in the jungle that was 80 km. in circumference, formed by 1,00,000 soldiers who slowly closed in till the circumference became about 6-7 km. and held thousands of animals [6]. Into this circle, the emperor would step armed with a gun, bow and arrow and often only a sword. In the first volume of ‘Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri’, the memoirs of Emperor Jahangir, the emperors makes a full inventory of the animals he has hunted, on two instances. In three months and 10 days in 1610, Jahangir records having hunted 12 tigers. By the age of 50, he had hunted 86 tigers [7].

Figure: Advertisement for travel in British India with (marked) offer for big game hunting

Figure: Tiger hunting in British India, 1903

With the use of firepower and an interest to hunt shared by a much larger number of aristocrats in the subsequent colonial era, tiger numbers dwindled manifold [8,9].

During the waning years of the Mughal rule itself, India had become politically divided into various smaller principalities and ruled by weak rulers, who were unable to provide safety to the natives. Tigers were seen as danger to the Indian society. The East India Company, for instance, noted that tigers also inflicted “serious injury on industrious husbandmen” and often destroyed their cattle and crops. British took uptiger hunting for the protection of natives. They encouraged Indian hunters for killing tigers. To destroy the menace, the British Raj also offered financial rewards to hunters, both Indians and Europeans, who killed them. However, the greatest attraction of the sport for many of these hunters was in association with masculinity. For the Britishers, it was a matter of pride and a symbol of their victory over the fiercest that India had, in the tigers. For instance, Walter Campbell writes in his My Indian Journal [10],

Never attack a tiger on foot—if you can help it. There are cases in which you must do so. Then face him like a Briton, and kill him if you can; for if you fail to kill him, he will certainly kill you.

It almost became a matter of prestige for a ‘Briton’ to be able to face a tiger and kill it, as is seen in various other records and diaries from that era!

Becoming the National Animal, and Project Tiger

After India became independent in 1947, the extent of tiger-hunting sharply dropped, for the better. However the problem was far from over. Even though aristocrats and government officials may not have been hunting tigers as much as before, poaching slowly started rearing its head as a major cause of concern. Moreover, post-independence, large areas of prime forests had been cleared to settle Partition refugees in the Terai, and other regions. Natural habitats were destroyed to make way for mines, dams, real estate, infrastructure and industrial projects. This created an immense pressure on the striped felines in the country. While the number of tigers in 1910 was estimated to have been 40,000, this p dwindled to 4,000 in 1953, 2,000 in 1964 and later only 1,827 in 1972.

Kailash Sankhala was the first conservationist who raised his voice in favour of protecting the tiger as early as 1956. Sankhala conducted an extensive study during a time when tiger population was dwindling at an alarming rate [11]. The government took the issue as one that needed to be prioritised and worked on. The tiger was adopted as the National Animal by the Indian Board for Wildlife, along with the passage of the Wildlife Protection Act, in 1972. Sankhala’s research later lead him to become director of Project Tiger in 1973, and his work laid the groundwork for the successful launch of the Project under Indira Gandhi.

Figure: Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India, with Raja and Rani, 2-4 month old tiger cubs, presented to him by Algural Shastri, U.P. Forest Minister, New Delhi, 17 May 1961

Initially nine tiger reserves were established in different states of India during the period 1973-74, covering an area of about 16,339 sq. km and with a population of 268 tigers. These tiger reserves were in Manas (Assam), Palamau (Bihar), Simlipal (Orissa), Corbett (U.P.), Kanha (M.P.), Melghat (Maharashtra), Bandipur (Karnataka), Ranthambhore (Rajasthan) and Sunderbans (West Bengal). The project aims at ensuring a viable population of tigers existing in their natural habitats, besides seeking to protect them from extinction and preserving areas of biological importance as a natural heritage. The future that the task force for the project envisioned was one where these tiger reserves served as breeding nuclei, from which surplus animals would migrate to adjacent forests.

When Indira Gandhi came to power, trade in tiger skins was rampant and an exposé by Sankhala, along with a woman journalist, showed how tiger, snow leopard, leopard pelts were being sold openly, and in large numbers in bazaars, including in Delhi’s Chankaya market! As much as I have had my issues with many of Mrs. Gandhi’s actions and policies during her tenure, it has to be admitted that Indira Gandhi was to become, as noted conservationist Valmik Thapar writes, “wildlife’s saviour”. The first landmark in her tenure, in the area of wildlife conservation, was the first International Conservation Union that India hosted in 1969, where the crisis of the tiger was raised. This was followed by an immediate ban on tiger shooting, in spite of the immense pressure by the shikar-safari lobby, comprising of those who had made a business out of facilitating hunting trips in India. They protested the loss of precious foreign exchange  and their business. However, iron-willed as she was, Indira responded without mincing any words

We do need foreign exchange but not at the cost of life and liberty of some of the most beautiful inhabitants of this continent.

Besides founding the aforementioned Project Tiger, she also spearheaded the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, which prohibited commercial activities in forests. She also secured the forests of the Silent Valley in Kerala by refusing to allow the establishment of a hydel power plant, after considering and acknowledging a people’s movement that had built up in the state. When student groups petitioned the destruction of the Delhi Ridge, which is the last outcrop of the ancient Aravalli hills, Indira initiated steps to protect the area.

By the late 1980s, the initial nine reserves had been increased to 15 reserves covering an area of 24,700 square kilometres. More than 1100 tigers were estimated to inhabit the reserves by 1984 [12]. By 1997, 23 tiger reserves encompassed an area of 33,000 square kilometres. However the fate of tiger habitat outside the reserves was still not that good, mainly due to pressure on habitat, incessant poaching and large-scale development projects.

The Tiger roars Again

Project Tiger has evolved and taken giant strides, albeit ridden with its own set of problems, over the last few decades. India had 2,226 tigers in the wild, as per the 2014 tiger census. This is a marked improvement from just a decade previously, with 1,411 tigers in 2006. Technology has been slowly incorporated in the census-taking itself, with camera trap and sign surveys using Geographic Information System (GIS) becoming standard tools. In the 2018 census, even more advanced technology such as the M-STrIPES ((Monitoring system for Tigers – Intensive Protection and Ecological Status)) App, which is a software based tiger monitoring system, will be used. The results for this census will be declared in January 2019.

Besides advancement in census-taking, there has been progress in conservation practices as well. Wireless communication systems and patrol camps have been developed within tiger reserves, due to which poaching has declined. Fire protection is planned and implemented by suitable preventive and control measures in an effective manner. Since Project Tiger follows a model where each tiger reserve has a core region, surrounded by a buffer zone, and these buffer zones at times have human habitation in them, it is of utmost importance to either involve the villagers in conservation practices or relocate them with appropriate renumeration/compensation. Voluntary village relocation has been done in many reserves in recent years. Live stock grazing has been controlled to a large extent in the tiger reserves. Various projects for developmental works have improved the water regime and vegetation within reserves, thereby increasing the animal density. This has been supplemented by the availability of research data pertaining to vegetation changes from many reserves. Future plans include use of advanced information and communication technology in wildlife protection, conservation practices as well as crime management in tiger reserves, besides the development of GIS-based digitized database and devising a new tiger habitat and population evaluation system.

Figure: Worldwide distribution of tigers in the wild, in 2014 (Courtesy: India Today)

We have come a long way from when all the tigers were killed in Sariska and Panna reserves; a long way from when the poached tiger-parts were marketed and moved across to various parts of the world, including and particularly to China, by organised networks. According to the official data of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the country’s nodal body working on welfare and protection of tigers, at least 100 tiger deaths, due to reasons ranging from natural deaths, territorial fights, poaching, electrocution and poisoning, were recorded in 2018. This is said to be lower than the numbers for the previous year.

However, threats due to poaching, lose of habitation and human-wildlife conflict continue to linger ominously. According to the data of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, a total of 1,148 cases of poaching of tigers were recorded between 1994-2017. There is also resistance from communities living near existing or proposed Tiger reserves, such as the resistance by the Idu Mishmi tribe in Arunachal Pradesh recently.  The occasional man-eater tiger making an appearance does not help either, with such incidents causing ripples of fear to affect the populace. Recently, after killing 13 human beings, T-1, a man-eater tigress who belonged to the 30% of India’s tiger population that does not reside in a tiger reserve or national park, was shot dead. To reduce the possibility of harmful human-wildlife interactions that fuel such incidents, we need to look more closely at ways to maintain green corridors and safe-zones for both humans and wildlife. The shrinking of green corridors between tiger reserves has been a cause of alarm, and hopefully this shall be prevented by the government and the call of national and international wildlife conservation groups.

In Conclusion

The tiger is a symbol of India’s pride, much as the European colonial powers tried to highlight. The tiger is an irreplaceable part of India’s jungle. We came precariously close to losing them at one point with about 1500 left in the wild. Let us not go down that path again. Nobel Laureate (Literature, 1986) Wole Soyinka once said,”A tiger does not shout its tigritude, it acts.” To ensure the interests of this magnificent beast, let us act too. Act by speaking up and standing up for our tigers. Act so that the saffron on its hide can flash past, in a confusion of flora and fauna, when it is hot on the trails of its prey. Let us act so that the tiger’s roar reverberates through the jungles of India, glorious and loud, for years to come!


[1] Kitchener, A. C.; Dugmore, A. J. (2000). “Biogeographical change in the tiger, Panthera tigris”. Animal Conservation forum. 3 (2): 113–124.

[2] Luo, S. J.; Kim, J.; Johnson, W. E.; van der Walt, J.; Martenson, J.; et al. (2004). “Phylogeography and Genetic Ancestry of Tigers (Panthera tigris)”. PLoS Biology. 2 (12): e442. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0020442. PMC 534810. PMID 15583716.

[3] Cooper, D. M.; Dugmore, A. J.; Gittings, B. M.,; Scharf, A. K.; Wilting, A.; Kitchener, A. C. (2016). “Predicted Pleistocene–Holocene rangeshifts of the tiger (Panthera tigris)”. Diversity and Distributions. 22 (11): 1–13. doi:10.1111/ddi.12484.

[4] Seidensticker, John. “Large carnivores and the consequences of habitat insularization: ecology and conservation of tigers in Indonesia and Bangladesh.” (1986).

[5] Fairservis, Walter. “Cattle and the Harappan chiefdoms of the Indus Valley.” Expedition 28.2 (1986): 43.

[6] Pearson, M. N. “Recreation in Mughal India.” The International Journal of the History of Sport 1.3 (1984): 335-350.

[7] Beveridge, Henry, ed. Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri: or Memoirs of Jahangir. Prabhat Prakashan, 1978.

[8] Storey, William K. “Big Cats and Imperialism: Lion and Tiger Hunting in Kenya and Northern India, 1898-1930.” Journal of World History 2.2 (1991): 135-173.

[9] Pandian, Anand S. “Predatory care: the imperial hunt in Mughal and British India.” Journal of Historical Sociology 14.1 (2001): 79-107.

[10] Sramek, Joseph. “” Face Him Like a Briton”: Tiger Hunting, Imperialism, and British Masculinity in Colonial India, 1800-1875.” Victorian Studies 48.4 (2006): 659-680.

[11]  Ronald Tilson; Philip J. Nyhus (30 November 2009). Tigers of the World: The Science, Politics and Conservation of Panthera tigris. Academic Press. pp. 5–. ISBN 978-0-08-094751-8.

[12] Thapar, V. (1999). The tragedy of the Indian tiger: starting from scratch. In: Seidensticker, J., Christie, S., Jackson, P. (eds.) Riding the Tiger. Tiger Conservation in human-dominated landscapes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. hardback ISBN 0-521-64057-1, paperback ISBN 0-521-64835-1. pp. 296–306.