About 100 years ago, there were almost 100,000 tigers in the world, but their number has reduced drastically — to about 3,500 today. (KALYAN VARMA)

NAGARHOLE, India — Herding cats is notoriously difficult, and even counting them presents a challenge. Particularly when they are big cats. Adding up wild tigers is a major undertaking that the Indian government completed last month after a yearlong $2 million sampling exercise with 470,000 forest foot patrols and 880 hidden cameras.

The cat count, conducted every four years, estimated that the number of tigers in the wild in India has gone up from 1411 in 2006 to about 1706. The government is also investigating and reporting their deaths by sending a ranger team accompanied by independent observers every time a tiger carcass is found.

Officials say that tight monitoring measures such as these have helped protect the endangered cat and reduced the chances of fudging the records to inflate the numbers.

But not everyone is rushing to celebrate the count. Some conservationists say that the overall count does not reflect a real progress in big cat conservation.

“Tigers have a very high birth and death rate. You cannot track the decline and survival of the tiger population in surveys conducted every four years. The government should conduct annual surveys using cameras in a more intensive manner,” said K. Ullas Karanth, director of Center for Wildlife Studies and a pioneer in India in using camera traps to monitor tigers in the southwest state of Karnataka. “Since various threats faced by tigers do not appear to have diminished in last four years, it is difficult to explain the claimed reversal of the decline of tigers.”

Not too long ago, India counted its tigers through the old paw-print method. But after reports that the method was prone to human errors and fraud, officials adopted camera trapping for the first time in 2006 during the previous census. In the current 2010 census, about 550 individual tigers were identified from photographs based on their unique stripe patterns.

“There were three phases. First, we physically collected data about tiger presence through paw prints and scratch marks on trees. Then we examined the condition of the prey and used satellite mapping to assess forest cover. And finally we used camera traps in representative areas,” said B.K. Singh, chief wildlife warden of Karnataka.

But some conservationists say that about 13 areas sampled this time were not included in the 2006 estimate. And these account for 288 of the 295 additional tigers reported. There were also reports that a few cameras malfunctioned and had to be replaced, thereby increasing the odds for data distortion. The cameras also showed a time lag, with photographs taken only after the tiger had walked away from most of the frame. In many places, the government survey kept the cameras on for more than the recommended 45 days in one spot.

About 100 years ago, there were almost 100,000 tigers in the world, but poaching, habitat destruction, human encroachment and illegal trafficking in tiger parts have drastically reduced their numbers. The current world total is about 3,500.

Last year, a 13-nation study by the wildlife trade monitoring watchdog called TRAFFIC reported that at least 1,069 tigers were killed in the past decade to procure bones, claws and skin. Of the 481 seizures analyzed, 276 were in India.

“It is an organized, transnational crime. Tigers are poached in India, and the products move via Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan, and sold in China, Korea and Taiwan,” said Samir Sinha, head of TRAFFIC–India. In January, eight countries in the region formed the South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network jointly clamp down on poachers and traffickers. The arrests in tiger trade are often of people who transport the material. The killer or the ultimate buyer are rarely arrested.

In Nagarhole, a team recently found that a dead tiger’s claws had been removed by villagers. One tiger claw fetches $12 locally but is sold for 10 times as much in the international market.

Rampant poaching reduced the number of tigers in the northern Indian Sariska National Park to zero in 2004, from 25 in the previous year, setting off national alarm. Two years ago, the park brought in five tigers from another reserve. But they have not bred, and one tiger has died. Conservationists here call it the “Sariska debacle” because new tigers were brought in without stopping a marble mining project inside the park.

Tigers have disappeared from about one-fourth of the area they inhabited four years ago. Big cat biologists say that there is less opportunity and space for the tigers to disperse. As the Indian economy grows at a frenetic pace and the human population swells, biologists say that tiger habitat will continue to shrink, further boxing them into isolated patches.

In Karnataka, rangers and Wildlife Conservation Society activists have fought to prevent the irreparable loss of tiger-movement corridors because of development projects. They have opposed new railway lines, highway expansion, mining projects and new dams. In 2008, they campaigned to stop a World Bank-funded project to expand 13 miles of road inside the tiger-bearing forest and forced a ban on daily vehicle traffic for 12 hours, from dusk to dawn. About four miles of traffic was also diverted outside the park.

Forest officials in Karnataka recently increased by three times the compensation package for forest-dwelling villagers’ relocation outside the park, to $2300.

Six months ago, Cheluva Timma, 60, moved out of the Nagarhole forest with his family to a row of cement houses in a flat treeless landscape.

“The compensation was good. The human conflict with tigers, elephants, wild pigs was on the rise. We were always living in fear,” said Timma, whose family had lived in the forest for generations.

But Indian conservationists are divided on creating inviolate tiger habitats and working with forest-dwelling communities.

Some point out that a landmark 2006 Forest Rights Act, enshrining the right of forest communities to their land, contradicts the conservation efforts to coax people to move out of tiger habitats. A number of lawsuits have been filed, including one in the Indian Supreme Court, asking the courts for clarification.