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India's wild tiger population rises, despite conflict with people

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Tigers at a reserve in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Wildlife experts say better safety monitoring and stricter wildlife polices have helped the tiger population grow to its largest in about two decades.

New Delhi

INDIA'S population of endangered Bengal tigers is on the rise, officials said on Monday.

According to a government estimate, there are nearly 3,000 Bengal tigers in the wild in India, a 33 per cent increase since 2014. Wildlife experts say better safety monitoring and stricter wildlife polices have helped the tiger population grow to its largest in about two decades.

"Once the people of India decide to do something, there is no force that can prevent them from getting the desired results," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at a news conference on Monday announcing the figures.

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But as the number of tigers has increased, so have the human-tiger conflicts in India, a country of 1.3 billion.

India has created nearly two dozen tiger reserves in the past decade, but many are surrounded by villages. As development projects shrink the space separating humans and tigers, the animals are spilling out of reserves in search of prey - wild pigs, cattle and sometimes people.

For more than two years, a female tiger that authorities had named T-1 stalked the hills of central India, where she was blamed for the deaths of at least 13 people. Last autumn, hundreds of officers and veterinarian sharpshooters riding elephants tried to tranquilise her. When that failed, T-1 was shot and killed.

Last week, a group of villagers beat a tiger to death in the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, about 200 miles (about 320 km) east of New Delhi, after it attacked several people. In a video of the incident that was shared widely, the tiger appeared to be trying to block the blows with its paws. Four people were arrested and charged under a wildlife protection law.

Prerna Singh Bindra, a conservationist and author of The Vanishing: India's Wildlife Crisis, said the country needs "a sound strategy" to avoid human-animal conflicts. "Forests are being fragmented," she said. "We are saying yes to about 98 per cent of development and other projects in protected areas. If we keep cutting habitats, this tiger utopia is going to come crashing down." The tiger census released on Monday, which covered nearly 150,000 square miles (about 390 sq km) and tracked "carnivore signs" using thousands of camera traps, found that India's tiger population rose to 2,967 in 2018, about 700 more than in 2014. The world has only about 4,000 tigers left in the wild.

The report found that tiger populations had increased across India, with the highest number in Madhya Pradesh, a hot, shrubby state with more than 500 cats. Apart from the camera traps, thousands of wildlife officials covered more than 300,000 miles (about 480 km) on foot to collect dung samples and take photographs from thick green canopies.

The authors of the report, which was prepared by the central government's National Tiger Conservation Authority, called it "the world's largest effort invested in any wildlife survey."

Valmik Thapar, a prominent Indian naturalist and a wild tiger specialist, said India had yet to realise its potential as a wildlife tourism destination, which would create jobs for some of the same villagers who are currently hostile toward the cats.

And some parts of eastern India are still losing tigers, despite additional funds intended to save them. In several premier reserves, Mr Thapar said, there are "no tigers at all" . "We need to focus on doing something about these problems," he said. "We must look after these national treasures." NYTIMES