1,411 to 1,706: WHO WILL COUNT THE STRIPES?

The tiger survey has run into a hot controversy with scientists and conservationists putting a question mark on the new inflated numbers
Akash Bisht Delhi 

At the International Tiger Conference held at Vigyan Bhawan in New Delhi on March 28, 2011, an elated Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh declared that the tiger numbers have increased in India from 1,411 to 1,706 since 2006. Tiger conservationists, international delegates, media and forest officials present in the packed auditorium of Vigyan Bhawan greeted the news with loud applause. 

Tiger conservationists and people across the country celebrated these new figures (including Hardnews, 'Celebrate the Yellow Stripes', http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2010/03/3479, April 2011) and were hopeful that the animal which has become a symbol of national pride isn't faring as bad as projected by media and others. This was a great moment for tiger conservation plans and it seemed things were not that pessimistic with the tiger protection programmes running in different reserves across the country. Despite the missing links in conservation strategies, this increase was a testimony that the increasing social and ecological consciousness to save the tiger has started to pay dividends. 

Tiger Estimate 2010, carried out by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, alongwith several other government and private partners, after rigorous scientific exercise, came up with the new statistics. However, this 49 per cent in tiger population densities followed a shocking 22 per cent decrease in tiger habitat across the country. This revelation soon took over the celebratory mood, and Jairam too called the findings a mixed bag, blaming poaching and development activities for the loss of habitat. 

"Many tiger reserves are under threat from coal mining, hydel power projects, irrigation projects. There is a need for nine per cent economic growth and there is no dispute in that, but we have to reconcile growth with environment... Choices have to be made on whether we can afford nine per cent growth and end up our forest cover. We have to find a way of balancing imperative high growth with imperative preserving of the ecosystem," said Jairam. Soon, the increased numbers were sidelined and the issue of shrinking habitat took over the headlines and news debates.

In the days to come, several conservationists expressed deep anguish about the loss of habitat and its implications for the future of tiger conservation in India. Meanwhile, India's foremost tiger expert Ullas Karanth dropped a bombshell when he expressed surprise at the figures that implified a rise of 49 per cent in tiger density when compared with the 22 per cent habitat shrinkage. In a letter published in Science magazine, Karanth, alongwith other scientists, wrote, "The Indian government reported a 16 per cent increase in tiger numbers over the past four years. This implies an average increase of 49 per cent in local tiger densities, despite the reported range contraction of 22 per cent. Yet, these assertions cannot be verified because details of tiger photo-captures at sampled locations, as well as of spatial extrapolations from these data, are incomplete."

Pointing out that the new tiger numbers are based on unreliable data, Karanth went on to add that as the methodological details of the WII survey have not been made public, this is hampering the technical assessment of the reliability of the results. He is of the view that whatever details have been made public do not reveal information about tiger photo captures at sampled locations, density estimation protocols used, and the basis for extrapolating the local tiger numbers across wider regions. 

Several other scientists and conservationists have raised similar concerns. "Scientifically, the methods and results should be reviewed, and there is no better person than Ullas Karanth to conduct such a study. If the government has nothing to hide, then what is the problem in sharing the information with Ullas?" asks Belinda Wright, Executive Director, Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). 

Another scientist, who wished to remain anonymous, has challenged the extrapolation theory. "How can they use tiger population from a sampled area as the fundamental criterion for determining the population in a nearly identical area?" he asks. Despite several attempts, there has been no response from WII and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).

Wildlife scientists have been extremely critical of the extrapolation theory and believe that the entire procedure could be faulty - one cannot extrapolate data from areas with high tiger densities to other areas with moderate or low tiger densities. "Small samples can't be extrapolated to other areas, and similarly data from protected areas can't be applied to non-protected areas," says Poonam Dhanwatey of Tiger Research and Conservation Trust, which works in the Taboda Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra.

KARANTH'S LETTER IN Science magazine reads: "Moreover, the extrapolation of tiger numbers to wider regions is reportedly based on standard methods of sampling and estimation, but it is not clear from reports whether the survey protocols used actually match these standard practices."

Another scientist goes on to add that out of three phases of tiger estimation, the first phase is most vulnerable to discrepancies, as most ground staff of the forest department are ill-equipped to handle such an extensive exercise, and could have reported wrong numbers that were later made the basis for the final estimation. "The pug mark method of determining tiger population was abandoned after the forest department was found inflating figures across various tiger reserves. So, how can we trust the same people now? Has the forest department completely overhauled their integrity in the last few years?" he asks. 

Soon after the news of elimination of tigers from Sariska Tiger Reserve in 2005 was made public, the government decided to form the Tiger Task Force (TTF) amid public furore over such abject apathy towards this majestic predator. The TTF then recommended that the pugmark census should be abandoned, alternative methods using sampling be developed, the results be transparently shared, and the tiger monitoring methodology be continually reviewed and refined. NTCA then entrusted WII to come up with a new monitoring scheme with more scientific rigour. It was then that WII recommended three phases of tiger monitoring. The first phase would include beat level data collection from ground surveys, followed by habitat characterisation from satellite data, and camera traps for computation of tiger density.  

Dhanwatey too raises suspicion on the role of beat-level officers who she thinks would go to any extent to save their jobs, even if it means fudging data. "Besides, they don't have the expertise to undertake such an exercise," she adds. She also confirms that more than 30 per cent of the cameras malfunctioned, and that too could have led to ambiguity. 

Pointing out the increase in the area that was surveyed, scientists believe that the rise in numbers could be a logical consequence. "In the 2006 survey, Sunderbans and several other areas were not surveyed, so we don't know what to believe," says a conservation scientist from Maharashtra. According to him, the 'mapable' tiger occupancy reported from Maharashtra in 2006 was 4,273 sq km while it has gone up to 12,000-odd sq kms in the 2010 survey. "Where does this huge difference come from? If they didn't include the rest of the area in 2006, how can they claim the numbers have gone up? It could also mean the 2006 report was faulty and couldn't be treated as a base for 2010 results," mentions another scientist. He adds that since 2006 nothing much has changed in tiger-occupied areas, and little has been done about village relocation. "Poaching and tiger deaths are still being reported from various reserves, so what has changed so drastically that the numbers have seen such an increase?" he asks. 

Dhanwatey too beleives that the area covered in this census is far greater than in 2006, so the tiger numbers were bound to increase. Anil Kumar Singh, a wildlife biologist with Wildlife Trust of India, differs and mentions that covering the whole area is a very difficult task and needs a lot more time, equipment and manpower. "So, extrapolation is the only option, and we should take pride in the fact that this is the largest survey to be conducted on a species. With time, the procedure will only evolve and have more scientific rigour," he adds. 

In Phase 4 of the survey, the government has decided to monitor tiger populations across the country annually, instead of the four-year cycle used earlier, and cover the entire  tiger population or take samples of at least 500 sq kms, instead of 200 sq kms as under Phase 3. The government also intends to use less number of days to complete the camera trapping, and maintain the trapping intensity at 500 trap-nights per 100 sq kms. 

Karanth is hopeful that this would give more scientific validity to any census. He also wants the government to abandon its monopoly over tiger estimations, and pursue a genuine public-private partnership. He believes it would help the future of tiger conservation. "I think making tiger monitoring a public-private partnership rather than a government monopoly as at present is a key step, and it can be done. It will save government funds, integrate non-governmental scientific data into overall monitoring, and above all, bring transparency and credibility to the entire exercise," he says. 

Earlier, reacting to his reservations, Jairam had said that Ullas Karanth is like the species (tiger) he studies - extremely territory-conscious and essentially a loner. When asked about it, Karanth told Hardnews, "I have been happily married for 37 years and have many good friends, including Minister Jairam!"

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2011