Can tigers claw their way back from the brink?

Story highlights

India's Environment Minister has announced a 30% increase in wild tigers in India since 2011

Debbie Banks from the Environmental Investigation Agency says this has "set India apart from other tiger range countries"

One of the major challenges that continues to exist, however, is the sophistication of the illegal tiger trade

The significance of the tiger goes beyond its aesthetics, says Banks

CNN  — 

Wild tigers in India appear to be staging a comeback in the battle against extinction, with the country’s Environment Minister announcing a 30% increase in the endangered species’ population since 2011.

“Our latest estimate today is that India has 70% of the world’s tiger population and we have now 2,226 tigers presently in 47 tiger reserves [up from 1,706 in 2011] and this is a great achievement. It is a net increase of 30% over the last estimation,” Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said in a statement Monday.

Researchers involved in the study, the third of its kind carried out in India, say they used advanced technology to assess the population of the big cats.

Debbie Banks, head of the Tiger Campaign at the Environmental Investigation Agency, which carries out extensive research on the illegal tiger trade, welcomed news of the study, saying she looked forward to seeing the full report when it releases in March.

“I think it has set India apart from some of the other tiger range countries. If you look at China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, there’s more emphasis on tigers in captivity, farming and valuing tigers for their body parts higher than the survival of tigers in the wild,” she says to CNN.

India’s once-thriving tiger population has been severely affected by poaching, a reduction in prey, habitat destruction and conflict with villagers who may occupy the same area.

Although preliminary results of the government’s study are promising, Banks warns against complacency.

“While this is good news from India, I don’t think anyone is sitting back and saying ‘we’ve won.’ The demand within China for skins to decorate homes and bones for tiger bone wine all continue. And so it’s a constant battle.”

A major challenge is also the sophistication of the tiger trade, where body parts of the animal are transported across unofficial borders, such as mountain passes. “The criminals have changed their practice. And there’s no evidence of any enforcement there,” she says.

A historical symbol of power and beauty in cultures such as India and China, the significance of the tiger goes beyond its aesthetics, Banks says.

“Tigers are major indicator of the health of the environment, certainly the health of the forest that they inhabit. But they are the water gods, if you like. They are indicators of how well we are doing to conserve forests that provide water for millions of people and mitigate climate change.

“There’s an ecosystem reason to save wild tigers.”

And if today’s results are anything to go by, Banks says India appears to be leading that charge.

“India, despite all the problems it has with high human population in small areas, is totally setting the benchmark for wild tiger conservation.”