Royal Bengal Tiger
Royal Bengal tigers are the most numerous sub-species in the wild with the highest density in India (around 2967 individuals at July 2019). India is home to more than two thirds of the world’s surviving wild tiger population. Tigers are territorial animals requiring large areas of habitat suitable for their prey demands, which coupled with the fact that they are indigenous to some of the most densely populated places on earth gives rise to frequent human-animal conflict. The presence of a recessive gene renders some Royal Bengal tigers cream or white instead of orange. White tigers are rarely found in the wild. White tigers in captivity around the world are descended from a white male tiger which was captured alive in Bandhavgarh in the 1950s.
Project Tiger, an initiative spear-headed by the former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1973, set out to provide protected tiger areas for India’s national animal and to ensure a reversal of the decline in tiger numbers which had seen the population fall from around 45000 in 1900 to below 1200. Initially, some success was seen at 25 protected reserves where numbers almost tripled to around 3500 by the mid 1990s, but in recent years, the trend reversed with numbers again falling to around 1400 by the 2008 census. Since 2011, there has been a change to the way tiger numbers have been counted with cubs now included in the census data for the first time. In 2011, tiger numbers were reported to be 1706 and by 2014 this had risen again to 2226, by the end of 2018 the number had risen again to 2967. There are 50 tiger reserves in India and by 2008 the outdated Project Tiger was replaced by a new government funded Tiger Protection Force.
Royal Bengal tiger numbers dropped by 97% in the last century and sadly threats to their survival continue. Poaching is a significant factor in the wild tigers’ demise and in the last decade two of the “Project Tiger Reserves” in India (namely Sariska and Panna) lost all their tigers to poachers, despite census data reporting tigers were still at large. It was a wakeup call for the way in which tiger censuses were undertaken and more robust scientific methods of counting were subsequently introduced. Following the overhaul, wild tiger re-introduction programmes were initiated in both reserves by re-locating tigers from other reserves in the same state (Ranthambhore for Sariska; and Pench, Kanha and Bandhavgarh for Panna). These re-location schemes have, however, had their problems due to a lack of genetic diversity (Sariska). The tigers at Panna fared slightly better, after initial problems with the male wandering over 200 miles back to his former home, with 1 tigress producing 4 cubs in April 2010, however, reports were received shortly afterwards suggesting that 2 or more of these cubs had died. The male tiger was implicated due to a lack of familiarisation with his progeny and his desire to mate with the mother. As the years have progressed continued population growth has been seen at Panna, although it isn’t without its problems; whilst progress at Sariska has been much slower. For these initiatives to succeed strict management of the areas, tiger transfers and new population size is paramount.
Sadly, there are more Royal Bengal Tigers in captivity than in the wild due largely to an estimated 12000 tigers being kept in private collections or as pets in the USA, although not all are pure-bred Royal Bengal tigers, some of these have been hybridised with other sub-species, such as the Amur-Royal Bengal cross-breed which gained popularity due to its huge size and powerful frame. These hybrids could never be released into the wild or be used to secure the future of the remaining 6 wild tiger sub-species from extinction.