'India can become a true global leader in tiger conservation'

'India can become a true global leader in tiger conservation'

'India can become a true global leader in tiger conservation'

In a conversation with wildlife and conservation filmmaker, Shekar Dattatri, world-renowned tiger expert Dr Ullas Karanth of the Wildlife Conservation Society sounds a note of caution on the recently released all-India tiger numbers. Based on his decades of scientific effort in monitoring the big cats, he outlines much-needed improvements to the methodology used by the government, and explains some of the other conservation measures necessary to secure the long-term future of tigers in India.

Recent figures released by the government indicate that there has been a substantial increase in India’s tiger population since 2006. What is your assessment?

Following the debacle in Sariska (Rajasthan), where poachers wiped out every single tiger, the Central Government invested major funding and support to
tiger recovery. Some state governments have used these funds effectively and
put substantial efforts into enhanced patrolling and protection, promoting voluntary village relocations and expanding tiger reserves or adding new reserves. Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand and Assam are clearly in the forefront of this.

The non-governmental sector too played a substantial role in supporting tiger conservation, with several national and local NGOs, including WCS, contributing to capacity building of frontline staff and other stakeholders, intelligence gathering, facilitating and funding village and household relocations, advocacy, and litigation against external harmful impacts on tiger habitats.

Research efforts on tiger ecology and monitoring methodology pioneered by WCS have also received increased  attention from both the Wildlife Institute of India and other researchers. As a consequence of all these positive efforts, the status of tigers has generally improved as concluded by the preliminary census report.
Were you involved in the estimation process this time?

The WCS was among the NGO partners involved in the National Tiger Estimation effort in Karnataka, Kerala and Goa but only for the Phase IV part, which is restricted to accurate estimation of key populations inside wildlife reserves.

You have been critical of some of the methodology adopted for the estimation this time. Can you explain your concerns?

There are better, more-efficient practices available than those that were adopted. For instance, the statistical ‘double-sampling’ approach used to generate estimates in large landscapes and at the countrywide level, has relied on calibrations based on track surveys. This approach, which dates back to 1938, is not the best that current science offers.

At the WCS, we have demonstrated and published superior methods based on occupancy modelling which give more reliable estimates of tiger distribution, and are more cost-effective. We have been conducting rigorous counts of wild tiger population in large landscapes in Karnataka already.

However, my persistent criticism has been that distribution or occupancy surveys undertaken on a countrywide scale just once in four years, can primarily only tell us where the tigers are but cannot give accurate estimates of tiger numbers over large regions. Primarily, these distribution surveys carried out once in four years are more useful for identifying new tiger populations that have been established or populations that have been lost.
What improvements would you recommend to the current government methodology?

In India, 30-40 major source populations (in tiger reserves) hold over 90 per cent of all our tigers. It is crucial to carry out rigorous monitoring of these populations every year (using the protocols titled Phase IV Section 3 prescribed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority) to yield more accurate tiger numbers, measure increases and decreases in population, and survival and recruitment rates. The WCS carries out annual tiger monitoring in five of these source populations in Karnataka. If this is done in all key populations across the country, we can get an accurate count of 90 per cent of our tigers.
I welcome the fact that NTCA is moving in this direction, and hope that the final report on Phase IV efforts, due in March, will reflect these results. I am also pleased that NTCA has engaged a larger number of non-governmental researchers and institutions during the current survey. This has clearly led to wider area coverage under camera-trapping, and a much higher number of tiger photo-captures.

What else must we do to secure the future of our national animal?

Firstly, it is critical to expand the habitats holding tiger ‘source populations’. Of the 3,80,000 sq km of existing forests in which tigers once lived, less than 2,00,000 sq km is currently occupied by them as per our estimate. Of this, only 20 per cent supports reasonable tiger densities. In fact, this 20 per cent area harbours 90 per cent of India’s tigers! So, strict patrolling and protection, and strategic, fair voluntary relocation of human settlements from key tiger habitats are a must. Securing the remaining forests is also crucial. Another important issue that needs careful and scientific handling is human-tiger conflict, which has the potential to antagonise local people against conservation and tigers. Our goal should be to secure the species, rather than save every individual tiger.
What is your overall impression of tiger conservation in India today?

The improvement in the status of tigers in India is welcome news indeed and emphasises the lead role the country plays in global tiger conservation. Compared to any other country, India’s efforts, both from the government and the non-governmental side, are far superior.

Yet, even as we celebrate the country’s achievements, we should not be complacent. Where there is place to improve, we must. There is a lot we can learn from each other. With strong cooperation among the Centre, the states and the non-governmental sector, there is no reason why we cannot aspire to eventually have 5,000 or even 10,000 wild tigers in India.

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