The tiger (Panthera tigris) is an endangered, large felid whose demographic status is poorly known across its distributional range in Asia. Previously applied methods for estimating tiger abundance, using total counts based on tracks, have proved unreliable. Lack of reliable data on tiger densities not only has constrained our ability to understand the ecological factors shaping communities of large, solitary felids, but also has undermined the effective conservation of these animals. In this paper, we describe the use of a field method proposed by Karanth (1995), which combines camera-trap photography, to identify individual tigers, with theoretically well-founded capture–recapture models. We developed a sampling design for camera-trapping and used the approach to estimate tiger population size and density in four representative tiger habitats in different parts of India. The field method worked well and provided data suitable for analysis using closed capture–recapture models. The results suggest the potential for applying this methodology to rigorously estimate abundances, survival rates, and other population parameters for tigers and other low-density, secretive animal species in which individuals can be identified based on natural markings.
Estimated probabilities of photo-capturing tigers present in the study sites ranged from 0.75 to 1.00. Estimated densities of tigers >1 yr old ranged from 4.1 ± 1.31 to 16.8 ± 2.96 tigers/100 km2 (mean ± 1 se). Simultaneously, we used line-transect sampling to determine that mean densities of principal tiger prey at these sites ranged from 56.1 to 63.8 ungulates/km2. Tiger densities appear to be positively associated with prey densities, except at one site influenced by tiger poaching. Our results generally support the prediction that relative abundances of large felid species may be governed primarily by the abundance and structure of their prey communities.