mangalore today

The tiger (con)census

Mumbai, April 4, 2011: Two historical figures shocked India and the world, beginning last week. India’s human population was reported at 1.21 billion (1,210,193,422 to be precise) along with the highly controversial and seemingly inflated figure of 1,706 tigers.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA)-Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF)-Wildlife Institute of India (WII)-Aranyak-WWF (India)-Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) released preliminary report of apparently the most rigorous and robust, year-long census using camera traps, tiger signs, DNA extractions and abundance estimation indices, has the conservation community raising serious doubts about the efficacy, accuracy and outcome of the Rs 9.01 crore exercise, which recently announced an estimated figure of 1,706 tigers in India.



"Establishing absolute tiger numbers in a large country like India is a dubious exercise, embroiled in endless controversy, even with the use of best science," confirms Dr Ullas Karanth, leading tiger scientist and the proponent of camera trapping as a census technique in India. Looking back, the 1971 declaration of an all-time low figure of 1,700 tigers led to the launch of Project Tiger in nine Protected Areas (PAs) on April 1, 1973. Now, nearly four decades, 39 tiger reserves and millions of rupees later, we seem to be rejoicing the same figure of 1,700 tigers!

Even preliminary inspection of the data shows that if at all there is a rise in absolute tiger numbers by 295 tigers (which is highly doubtful) then it is more due to the wider expanse of this survey and not any indication of increased security provided to tigers in our outside PAs. The survey includes areas either not or cursorily surveyed in 2006 but studied in greater detail in 2010,  Sunderbans (WB, 70 tigers), Orang (Assam, 30 tigers), Sahyadri (Maharashtra, 21 tigers), Kuno Palpur-Madhav NP-Raisen-Dewas (MP, 20 tigers), Kaziranga (Assam, 130 tigers), Moyar-Sigur-Satyamangalam (TN), Katarniaghat-Pilibhit (UP) but excludes Namdapha (Arunachal Pradesh, probably 20 tigers). The study raises some ugly questions, such as where did the 200-odd tigers of Sunderbans vanish, considering the fact that the West Bengal Government kept claiming a steady figure of 275 tigers over the last decade? So with such concrete proof of loss of tiger numbers, is there enough reason for the masses to rejoice?

Belinda Wright, a leading tiger conservationist, founder and Executive Director of Wildlife Protection Society India (WPSI) points out that the 22 per cent fall in tiger habitats from 93,600 sqkm to 72,800 sqkm  a loss of 20,800 sqft, could be catastrophic for the overall conservation of tigers, putting them closer to humans than ever before. The biggest concern lies in the fact that the study only managed to actually camera trap a mere 32 per cent of 1,706 or 550 tigers (or 615 as the MoEF Website and Dr Jhala quote different figures). One major premise of the extrapolated and averaged figure, has been the ’Model of Imperfect Detections’  based on various co-variates, including tiger signs, abundances of prey species, signs of human disturbance or livestock or wood cutting also called Human Footprint (HFP) Index. If human presence or disturbance was considered a negative co-efficient in the modelling exercise, what explains the increased man-animal conflict and straying into non-forested, urbanised regions, among tigers, leopards and bears? Incidentally, 70 tigers have been poached, found dead in human precincts or skins recovered in 2010, contradicting the HFI premise for extrapolation.

Another technique used during the survey, the DNA analysis for individual identification, has several scientists questioning the training and consistency of field data collectors. "DNA analysis for individual identification using scats (faeces), although an established technique, necessitates expertise in identifying markers, a high level of analytical skill and consistency in procedure, besides it being extremely expensive. Multiple samples need to be assessed repeatedly to establish authentic individual identification. The difficulty of analytical consistency, collectors’ bias and replicability in multiple locations make it difficult to use for a nation-wide study such as an annual all-India Tiger census," opines Dr Shomita Mukherjee, a global small-cat specialist and Scientist (SACON).

If the announcement of an absolute rise of 12 per cent in tiger numbers, the highly scientific census techniques or the (prohibitively high) cost and manpower (88,000 data collectors) involved in the census didn’t convince you of the tiger’s stability, then will the fact that over 60,000 families share the tiger’s habitat inside protected areas make you feel at ease? Noted filmmaker and tiger campaigner, Valmik Thapar, challenges the government’s inefficiency in establishing the Tiger Task Force which has received a sanction of over Rs 350 crore in 2005 to rehabilitate villages outside tiger reserves and consolidate the tiger’s future. Although he feels that with an honest and earnest Jairam Ramesh at the helm of our Environment Ministry and a more extensive and robust census procedure, positive opportunities for wildlife conservation will arise, and the disconnect between the state and central government machineries will deal the nail in the tiger and our forests’ coffin.

Ramesh openly confesses that protecting our forests and its creatures is going to be challenging, what with the pressures of maintaining the 9 per cent growth rate, the energy demands of our burgeoning human population via Hydel and Power Projects, increasing surface transport and habitat-threatening projects such as the interlinking of rivers. De-centralisation of responsibility and partnerships will be the call of the day. Increasing forest corridors across state borders and establishing more bi- or tri-state protected areas would be the way ahead.

As far as number crunching is concerned. Dr Dharmendra Khandal, onservation biologist (Tiger Watch, Ranthambore), Dr Karanth, Dr Murkherjee and Thapar feel that rather than these massive pan-India census procedures after 3-4 years, the MoEF must fund multiple teams of localised NGOs and scientific organisations entrusted with permissions and involving qualified researchers. Year-long monitoring would thus generate far more reliable, robust and in-depth data on individual tigers, their distribution, movements across landscapes, and any conservation threats besides the added security of many more public observers.

Wildlife Biologist and Director, Society for Promotion of Research, Outdoors, Urbanity, Training and Social Welfare  Anand Pendharkar, demystifies and questions the validity of the increased tiger numbers while the country bemoans the extensive loss of crucial tiger habitats across India.

Courtesy: Mid-Day, Mumbai

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t necessarily represent those of the paper. For more on where to spot the Royal Bengal Tiger, turn to Pg 10 in The Guide