Wildlife by numbers

Conservation zoologist K Ullas Karanth is reputed for his work on tigers. He is the author of several books, some of them popular, others, meant for the community of scientists and researchers. As the title suggests, Science and Conservation of Wildlife Populations goes to the heart of conservation  in a simplified manner. Conservation is triggered by dwindling numbers and vindicated by numbers successfully stabilised or improved. For proof, numbers matter. This book by Dr Karanth, essentially a compilation of scientific articles with numbers aplenty, would fall in the second category of his books.

Estimating wildlife populations is a challenging task. The book is devoted to the many methods employed for the purpose. The text reflects the years of practical experience available with the author. It highlights challenges faced in the field and ways to address the same. Chapter 4 of the book puts the whole work in perspective, pointing out how global extinction of species, driven by anthropogenic factors, is occurring at an unprecedented rate. Large terrestrial mammals are among the most threatened with 25% of species therein facing extinction, and 50% staring at declining populations. Mammals of crowded South Asia are among the most threatened.

Questions arising for study and scientific investigation are several. Among them: can some species persist in areas with high human population densities? Which species can or cannot adapt to human-modified landscapes? How do human cultural attitudes affect species extinctions? Are carnivores more vulnerable to local extinction than herbivores? How does the likelihood of extinction vary with body size, diet and geographical rarity among mammalian species?

If you think a bit, it becomes clear that the genesis of these questions, the presentation of a case to conserve, and the efficacy of methods adopted will, at some point or other, involve estimation of wildlife populations. Tracking those numbers is what the book focuses on. It has case studies, statistical models, data analyses and sharing of field experience relevant to the subject.

Cast the way it is, this book is bound to interest scientists and researchers, those who have reason to dive unhesitatingly into its depths. It will also attract nature enthusiasts serious about conservation. Aside from material that is of direct use to researchers, there is much in the book that falls in the realm of practical tips for a committed enthusiast (the subject of camera traps is an example).

The book’s preface explains the context of its birth. In 2011, to address the problem of his scientific articles appearing in foreign journals and thereby being less accessible to the domestic audience, Dr Karanth had compiled 20 such articles into a volume: The Science of Saving Tigers. The book was well-received. In Science and Conservation of Wildlife Populations, he probably has a similar book, but one that covers a wider range of predicaments. The articles on the craft of estimating wildlife populations presented in it cover a variety of terrain, and the animals covered range from the elephant to the striped hyena and the Indian giant squirrel, along with Dr Karanth’s favourite animal, the tiger, ever-present in the backdrop.

That said, the problem with science and technology is that, when told as such, it engages some parts of the brain, making other parts feel left out. At a reader level, it then becomes a question of what your strong faculties are. Are you the numbers sort, or are you the story sort? For those attracted to read by the strength of narrative, this book may fail to connect despite its relevance to world in our times. It is neither a story nor a fireside sharing of personal experiences from life spent tracking wildlife. It is more a reference book, a tool for the researcher and the field worker. Is that a shame?

The answer would be yes and no.

On the one hand, it felt unfortunate that some of the observations couldn’t be grasped by a reader with strengths in the wrong side of the brain. Statistics and science denied me story for connect. On the other hand, the author has written what may be called ‘popular’ books, and Science and Conservation of Wildlife Populations doesn’t quite fall in that league.

Further, I suppose, if there isn’t material to engage the scientifically minded conservationist first, how will there be material for the conservationist to engage story-loving lay readers? This is a book for those doing the hard work before story.


Science and Conservation Of Wildlife Populations
K Ullas Karanth
Natraj
2017, pp 451
Rs. 895

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