An open approach must for tiger census

An open approach must for tiger census

In the wake of the latest tiger census figures released by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the government which announced in January an increase in India’s tiger count by 30 per cent in four years – claiming the presence of 2,226 of them in the wild with the estimated range being 1,945 on the lower side and 2,491 on the higher – a sense of anticipation, discounting the hype surrounding the announcement, was generated in the minds of serious conservationists for safe future of tigers in the country.

But since then a controversy has erupted regarding these figures raising doubts in the mind of general public besides confusing conservationists and the officials in the state forest departments who were all involved in this once-in-four-year exercise. There have been mixed reaction to above tiger census figures.

While the NTCA, the apex body in charge of Project Tiger, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, in-charge of the above operation and the forest officials associated with the above exercise, have claimed it to be a scientifically conducted estimation exercise – carried out over four years using a methodology that was first used by the government in 2006, replacing the traditional pug-mark-based system and data was collected through 9,735 camera traps, besides scat DNA analysis – some  have questioned these figures including the methodology.

Scientists from the University of Oxford, Indian Statistical Institute, and the Wildlife Conservation Society have challenged the “index-calibration” method used in the survey. In a research paper published in the journal “Methods in Ecology and, Evolution”, they claimed inherent shortcomings of the NTCA method. “We do not believe this method can yield sufficiently refined results to accurately measure changes in tiger numbers at landscape or countrywide scales, as is being attempted. We have demonstrated and published alternative superior methods,” Ullas Karanth, director for Science in Asia at the WCS, had said.

The NTCA, refuting it said, “The published study is based on data of 2005 and 2011, and has deliberately ignored methods used in the recent estimation which are currently the most advanced and robust spatial models, and address all concerns.”

While a layman would not understand the nuances of above controversy, those who
have had fair and long term association with the tiger conservation in the country, and have been part of  the old and the new technique, feel concerned about the development. It may be worth recalling that till 2001 tigers were estimated by the pug mark method which was pilloried by these very experts who not only questioned the whole methodology but even attributed motives to the department which responded by adopting more science-based estimation exercise in which the experts too were taken on board.

The camera trap was introduced with much fanfare and the 2005 figure was brought down to 1,400 tigers  as against 3,500 of 2001 census, explaining away the drastic fall in numbers to over reporting of the figures by the department. Unfortunately it did no credit to itself by reporting tigers in Sarsika and Panna where, as found out subsequently, none existed. This gave a fillip to statistics-based estimation, which incidentally is not fully applicable in as complex an exercise as involved for tiger estimation in a vast and diversified country like ours.

However, when WII started developing the methodology, it no doubt was in hurry – thanks to the hype and pressure in the aftermath of the Tiger Task Force Report and came out with the new methodology after apparently trying out the model in Satpura Ranges in MP.

Reservations over methodology

Even then serious concerns and reservations were expressed in the application of statistical and occupancy modelling to a highly invisible animal like tiger on such a large landscape as India having such diversified forest types. In fact, when the 2005 data was declared, few states refused to accept the findings where tiger population was shown to have declined significantly.

Over the years, the WII and the NTCA did attempt to refine the methodology. But it does not mean that the independent opinion expressed in the media should be overlooked. Science is a continuously evolving thing and it would only be in the interest of them to examine all the concerns without going into the motives of such reservations.

They must take the scientists, states and the field officers in confidence by adopting more proactive consultative mechanism and should take their suggestions. It is equally imperative that state wildlife departments should not remain merely passive followers of the guidelines that emanate from the Union ministry but become active stakeholders for, after all, they are primarily responsible for tiger protection.

Over the years it is sad to see that forests and wildlife conservation management in the country has become too Delhi-centric and sooner the states stop this trend the better. Meanwhile, it would also be prudent to wait for the annual tiger census report which is due soon.

(The writer is former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)

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