NEW DELHI – The number of Indian tigers living in the wild rose to 1,706 at the latest count, giving a boost to conservation efforts for the endangered species in the country with the world's largest population of the big cats.
But the government on Monday raised concern over a sharp decline in the habitat where tigers were found, which could shrink further if the government goes ahead with new development projects.
"We have a mixed bag," Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said at the release of the tiger census in New Delhi. "We have reason to feel satisfied with what we have done. But the threats are imminent."
The government has for decades been fighting a losing battle to conserve tiger numbers against poaching, which feeds a lucrative cross-border trade in body parts, and the loss of natural habitat. Tiger numbers have plummeted 97 percent from 100,000 at the turn of the last century.
But the latest government data showed an increase to 1,636 cats tracked in 2010 from 1,411 three years ago, according to a census released on Monday. The census also added numbers from the Sunderbans region in West Bengal state for the first time, taking the total to 1,706.
"There's a lot of encouraging news in this survey," Jim Leape, Director General of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), told Reuters.
"In the areas where India has worked to have effective protection in tiger reserves and effective engagement in the surrounding landscapes you see tiger numbers improving."
However, the total area where tigers were found has fallen to 72,800 sq km (28,100 sq miles) from 93,600 sq km (36,100 sq miles) over three years.
The rise in tiger numbers was good news for conservation efforts, though the surge could be partly down to better data, which was helped by hidden cameras in forests, said Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
"The bad news is the very alarming decline in tiger occupancy," she added.
Tiger conservation is a hot-button issue in India, which pits the need to preserve wildlife against the development needs of a country with blistering economic growth rates but hundreds of millions living below the poverty line.
Power shortages in particular are seen as a major constraint to faster economic growth, putting pressure on the environment ministry from vested interests to permit the development of coal mines and hydroelectric dams.
"We can deal with the poachers," said Ramesh, who has held up hundreds of projects over environmental concerns in defiance of concerns from other ministries.
"We can deal with the mafias, the real estate mafias and the mining mafias, but what is difficult to deal with is the development dynamic, because there is the need for higher and faster economic growth," he said.
Conservationists say the trade in skin and bones is booming to countries such as China, which has banned the use of tiger parts in medicine but where everything from fur, whiskers, eyeballs, to bones, are still used.