(CNN) -- At 4.30 a.m., an hour before the sun rises over Bandhavgarh Nature Park in central India, a dozen elephants are prepared for the day ahead.
Mahouts, (elephant drivers) tie wooden seats on the elephants' backs, then head into the park. They have an important job to do: locate tigers.
"They give us our morning news bulletin," says C K Patil, the field director of the park.
Unlike jeeps, elephants can reach the heavily forested corners of the jungle where any of the park's 59 tigers may be found. Once the elephant drivers spot a tiger, they send the information back to rangers via walkie talkies.
Bandhavgarh has the highest density of tigers in India. Worldwide there are only around 3,000 tigers in the wild and according to the 2010 census in India, 1,706 tigers live in the country. That's a 20% increase from the previous census, four years before.
The rise in tiger numbers is mainly the result of better tracking methods. Previously forest officials used to look for paw prints and make tracings, which led to lots of errors, says Patil.
In the last census, forest officials used more scientific methods, including hidden cameras and DNA tests. While the increase in tiger numbers is good news, say environmentalists, they warn India cannot get complacent.
Patil says protecting this endangered population needs to be a priority for the country. It certainly is for him. Under his guidance, around 500 forest officials patrol the park day and night, keeping track of the tigers.
They also look out for signs of illegal entry, such as broken fences where a poacher may have sneaked in. Poaching remains one of the biggest threats to tiger conservation. Tiger parts are regularly smuggled out of India and sent to China where they're used for traditional medicine. Some suggest the black market in tiger parts is second in value only to the narcotics trade.
"The street value in Hong Kong of a tiger would be close to the street value in weight of heroin," says Babi Nobis, wildlife enthusiast and board member of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
India's Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh says there is a bigger problem: "Even if we are able to handle poaching, the larger pressure is going to come from development."
As India chases a target of 9% economic growth this year, there is pressure to build more factories, mines, irrigation projects and railway lines, which often means cutting down the country's forests.
"You can go after the poacher, put him into jail. But what do you do with a three-piece-suited guy who says, 9% growth is needed for abolishing India's poverty and everyone applauds," Ramesh says.
Tiger habitats have already shrunk by 20% in India since the last census. Environmentalists say giving up just another inch would have disastrous consequences.