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Hope and peril for wild tigers in India

The quartet of tiger cubs cavorted about their mother, teasing at her flank with their noses. She yawned, stretched and then bounded, swatting at her babies with sinewy power and surprising tenderness. The scene set my head swimming with poetry; snatches of William Blake's "Tyger Tyger, burning bright."

The tiger is the embodiment of charismatic megafauna in trouble. Less than 4,000 remain in the wild today, down from 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century. Of the original nine subspecies, three -- the Bali, Caspian and Javan -- are already extinct, while a fourth, the South China tiger, is arguably also lost.

But there is new cause for hope. In 2016, the World Wildlife Fund confirmed that the wild tiger population had increased for the first time in 100 years to at least 3,890 tigers, a rally from the 3,200 animals counted in 2010.

Much of this modest success is the result of efforts in India, home to 2,230 tigers or some 60% of the world population. Conservation efforts began in the 1970s when nine protected reserves were established under the banner of Project Tiger. Today India has 50 reserves spread over 70,000 sq. km.

The tigress and her cubs, the sight of which had me reciting Blake's poem "The Tyger," were playing in the Kanha reserve of India's central state of Madhya Pradesh. It is one of the country's poorer regions, with an annual per capita income of just over $1,000. But tourism has the potential to transform the economy and tigers are a big draw. The state has about 300 wild tigers that range across six protected reserves.

Over one week I visited three of the state's parks, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Panna, that stretch north across 350km. Safaris take place in the early morning when tigers are most active. Dense forests of teak and sal mean that sightings need to be close to the dusty tracks called pugdundees along which the jeeps trundle.

It is bitingly cold on morning safaris, as one rises before dawn to enter the park in an open jeep. As the horizon brightens, the air is still, mist rising off the watering holes, occasionally broken by the raucous cries of a peacock or rustle of a spotted deer.

I become finely attuned to every sign that could indicate a tiger: the warning cries of langur monkeys and barking deer, fresh paw prints in the sand.

One of the big hurdles in conservation is animal-human conflict, to which the only solution lies in giving a stake in the conservation process to those villagers affected by the creation of forest zones for tigers. All the drivers and forest rangers I encountered in Madhya Pradesh's tiger sanctuaries were locals, men who would have been eking out an alternative living as farmers. They zip about in jeeps and talk of the tigers with a sense of ownership. Additional employment opportunities for locals come from the hotels that range from basic lodges to $1,000-a-night luxury camps.

The implementation of conservation strategies often depends on the initiative of individual park officials. The Panna reserve in northern Madhya Pradesh is a case in point. In 2009 it was a failed project. Years of unchecked poaching and poisoning of tigers by villagers as revenge for killed cattle had reduced the park to a single male tiger from a peak population of 24 adults in 2006.

A new field director, Rangaiah Murthy, instituted a bold experiment. Four female tigers and one male were brought in from other reserves in the state. Villagers were coopted as rangers to check on the tiger's movements. Any cattle killed by the predators were promptly compensated for. Less than a decade on, Panna is now home to 35 tigers.

Successful translocation is significant because India's conservation challenge is not only about stabilizing tiger numbers, but also ensuring their genetic diversity. Relentless urbanization and infrastructure development has increasingly marooned the tigers on reserves that are unconnected to each other by forest corridors. Denied their ability to roam, the tigers are unable to deepen their gene pool. Inbreeding and consequent diseases may ultimately do more towards driving the tiger to extinction than well-established culprits like poachers.

Back in Kanha, however, the tiger cubs and their mother settled down for a snooze in the dappled sun, unaware of their peril.

Pallavi Aiyar is a Tokyo-based author and member of the World Economic Forum's Global Future Council on the Future of Information and Entertainment.

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