50 Tigers Missing in India? The Government Doesn’t Have a Clue

While the world celebrates Tiger Day, The Quint found out that India doesn’t even keep track of its missing big cats

Updated
India
3 min read
Raja, an 8-year Royal Bengal Tiger rescued at Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary in West Bengal. (Photo: Reuters Archives)

As the world celebrates International Tiger Day, enthusiasts in central India are worried about Jai, a tiger that went missing this summer from Umred Karhandla wildlife sanctuary in Maharashtra. A number of campaigns have been launched on social media and searches are on at the sanctuary to find the 250 kg wild cat. 150 enthusiasts from 10 NGOs are combing villages in the corridor, looking for the tiger. They have announced a reward of Rs. 50,000 for any evidence of Jai, whose name is inspired by Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Sholay. Prayers are being held for his safe return.

It isn’t just Jai. Viru is missing from the neighbouring Nagzira sanctuary since 2012. So are Rashtrapati and Dendu. About 6 tigers are missing from Nagriza alone. Three are missing from Telangana, around 15 from Ranthambore in Rajasthan, 10 from Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh... the list goes on. But what is the exact number of missing tigers in India? Don’t ask, because nobody knows.

Even the Data is Unavailable

Out of total 3,890 wild tigers living in the world today, 2,226 are in India alone. They live in 49 reserve forests spread across the country. Every tiger has a unique stripe pattern and a radio collar and most are under CCTV surveillance. Every male tiger has its territory that can range from 10 sq km to 20 sq km. Sometimes, territories are larger than that.

If a tiger is not spotted in his territory for some months, it’s considered missing. A missing tiger could have moved from its territory or could have been poached. An animal cannot be declared dead until its carcass is found. But how can a big cat with a radio collar vanish into thin air?

Forest Department are supposed to know their tigers very well. It’s their job. Frankly, if they do their job properly, they can find the missing tiger or ascertain what happened to it in a couple of hours, but there are many lapses. 
Kishor Rithe, Member, Maharashtra Wildlife Board

But the officials in Delhi don’t hold the forest department guilty. Dr Rajesh Gopal, who had been heading Project Tiger since 2001, is of the opinion that it is a collective responsibility. Project Tiger was launched in 1973 for conservation of tigers in wild habitats.

There is no such statistical data (of missing tigers). Tigers inherently keep moving out and they must do so to diversify their gene pool. Once they move out of a reserve, they are vulnerable to poaching. So, it’s a collective responsibility of forest officers, district administration and common people to save them from being poached. 
Dr Rajesh Gopal, Secretary General, Global Tiger Forum

Even if a tiger moves out, it will either go to a neighbouring sanctuary or get killed. Why then is the government not in a position to keep track of these missing tigers, asks wildlife lover Sarita Subramanium, who has been running a campaign to save a tiger called Ustad.

Has Jai Been Found?

Meanwhile, the government is as confused about Jai’s status as it is about the number of missing tigers. Maharashtra forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar claimed on Thursday that Jai had been spotted in Paoni corridor in Bhandara district, but activists have are doubtful. On Friday, Chief Minister hoped that the 7-year-old big cat would return safely.

Jai has a history of going astray and returning after some time. We are hopeful and confident that this time also, the tiger will be tracked.
Devendra Fadnavis, Chief Minister, Maharashtra

If the newspaper reports from dozens of editions in various languages are anything to go by, more than 50 tigers are missing across the country. The number could be bigger.

So, in many cases, is ‘missing tigers’ a misleading term for ‘poached tigers’? Yes, say activists. No, says government.

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