One of the world’s fiercest apex predators was locked in the battle of its life—and it was losing.

At the turn of the 20th century, 100,000 tigers roamed the wilds of Asia, with India home to roughly 40,000 of the beasts. By 1972, that number had dropped to just 1,827.

Determined not to let the tiger exist only in zoos, India’s government launched an ambitious project in 1973 to establish ranger-protected havens in national parks. Called Project Tiger, it aimed to boost the number of tigers by conserving their dwindling habitats and ecosystems. And it worked: India today boasts roughly 70 percent of the world’s tiger population with nearly 3,000 of the big cats living on 50 reserves.

But it’s been a wild ride, requiring an entire country to change its stripes.

INR­2,500

Average benefits realized for each INR1 spent on tiger reserve management

Source: Center for Ecological Services Management of the Indian Institute of Forest Management with National Tiger Conservation Authority, 2019

In 2014, India’s tiger census showed the population had increased by only about 400 animals since 1972, prompting many in the media to call the effort a failure. The first sign of trouble had come in 2004, when it was revealed the Sariska reserve had no tigers left—despite an official estimate that put its total at 20. The following year, one of the nation’s leading tiger experts, Valmik Thapar, took the Project Tiger team to task for not doing enough to prevent poaching. Experts blamed the problems on inadequate law enforcement and a porous management system, says Ayan Sadhu, a senior biologist for the National Tiger Conservation Authority at the Wildlife Institute of India, which monitors tiger conservation across India.

To reverse the treacherous trend, Project Tiger teamed with WWF and 12 other “tiger range countries” in 2010 to launch the TX2 program, a push to double the number of wild tigers by 2022, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger. With sponsors supplying more funding—from INR1.5 billion in 2003 to more than INR3.4 billion by 2017—project leaders deployed a new high-tech system to monitor tiger habitats more accurately. Partnering with external stakeholders to implement remote sensing, geographic information systems, GPS, and high-resolution spatial data and camera trapping, the group was better able to estimate the population of tigers (and their prey). “Age-old techniques got replaced by more reliable and easy-to-use population enumeration techniques,” Sadhu says.

“Once the people of India decide to do something, there is no force that can prevent them from getting the desired results.”

Narendra Modi

prime minister of India

Going forward, the technology might help curb poaching too. Between 1994 and 2017, the Wildlife Protection Society of India documented 1,148 cases, “only a fraction of the actual poaching and trade in tiger parts in India.” Armed with firmer evidence, government leaders could impose stronger punishments and help the team make its case to public stakeholders. (For people struggling to make ends meet, tiger trafficking remains a lucrative option.)

Meanwhile, Project Tiger continues to push for forests outside the preserves to be protected. “Existing protected areas of India are too small to hold a viable population of tigers in the long run,” Sadhu says. Each tiger needs up to 77 square miles (200 square kilometers), which can be difficult to reserve in a country where the human population has soared to more than 1.35 billion. Given concern about the country’s food production, it’s difficult to justify restricting land use, Sadhu says.

Despite the obstacles, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared in July that the country’s tiger population had grown to 2,967, surging 33 percent over the past four years. That’s double India’s record-low 2006 census numbers, meaning India met its TX2 goal four years early. “Once the people of India decide to do something, there is no force that can prevent them from getting the desired results,” Modi said as he proclaimed India one of the biggest and most secure habitats of the tiger.