Do these numbers tell a story?

CONSERVATION

Do these numbers tell a story?

Recently another wildlife census made headlines. The Forest Department staff and several volunteers put in their valuable time counting elephants in the forests of southern Indian states. One of the most interesting factors of wildlife conservation to the public, conservation managers and wildlife biologists is their numbers. Everyone is interested in numbers. How many tigers or elephants do we have?

Do numbers matter?

Are these numbers so important? Yes, they do matter. It is the direct audit of our conservation efforts. For the Forest Department, it depicts effectiveness of their patrolling, management policies and practices, and for the civil societies it’s an indirect result of their activism endeavours. These numbers also act as benchmarks for future direction of conservation activities. Huge investments both from the government and civil societies have gone into saving wildlife. Hence it becomes prudent to measure the ‘profit’ and ‘loss’ of conservation efforts that are illustrated by these numbers.

However what animals interest us? Does knowing how many mynahs live in Bangalore city arouse our interest? No, it is largely flagship wildlife species that are used as icons of wildlife conservation that get the focus of attention. Tigers, elephants, snow leopards, rhinos are some of the species that hog attention. However it is critically important to know the numbers of other lesser known but endangered species such as the Siberian crane, Indian wolf or the hog deer. Knowing numbers of these species that are on the brink of losing out can help us adapt and solve conservation problems to enhance their numbers. Nonetheless wildlife researchers do this enumerating exercise on a variety of other species as varied as their size and the place they inhabit. Dolphins to whales, slender loris to lions have all been the focus of population estimation research themes.  

Total counts or sampling?

Wildlife census is a common terminology used to depict counting of animals. The traditional method of censuses involves counting all animals in a given area. But an important question arises in wildlife biology. Is it possible to count all animals in the vast, dense jungles of India? The answer is an assertive no.

We cannot tally the exact numbers of wild animals due to various reasons including dense vegetation cover, secretive behaviour of some species and movement of animals. Very importantly, all animals look alike. Other constraints include inaccessible geographical terrain and time limitations. This apart, census methods have several methodological and design weaknesses. Hence in wildlife biology, a sampling based approach is followed. This is one of the most important lessons one learns in wildlife biology courses.

These sampling based approaches give us densities of animals. Animal numbers are expressed as population density which would be the number of animals in a unit area at a given time. In the recent example, it was the number of elephants in a square kilometre of Bandipur or Nagarahole forests. Though no one can give exact numbers, sampling-based approaches supported by statistics and computer programmes can give us fairly reliable estimates.

Population trends

Nevertheless, in the larger interest of conservation and for conservation managers the most important aspect should be population trends. Have the numbers gone up, come down or remained stable? This should help them set protocols to augment animal numbers by suitably planning to reduce harmful activities that are inimical to wildlife populations.

Population trends would allow managers to correlate relative animal abundances with factors such as hunting, forest fires, habitat fragmentation, harvest of forest produce and several other threats to wildlife. This can help them in course correction in their practices.
Do animal populations always increase or decrease? This depends on management practices and protection provided to them. When adequate protection is provided their numbers increase and could reach their ecological carrying capacity.

The two most important ecological parameters that dictate the carrying capacity of wildlife populations are resources and space. Food and water availability are the two vital resources, and extent of habitat available for the animal to survive and propagate its genes is the second most important aspect.

We will be unable to pack more animals in a given area if the above ecological parameters are not met with. Hence if densities of any species remain stable (with some minor variations) at its ecological carrying capacity it can be termed as a successful conservation effort.

Once an area reaches its ecological carrying capacity what happens to the surplus animals? These animals either weed out existing residents or move out in search of new territories.

If there is no connectivity for the surplus animals to migrate and establish new territories, they are forced to shift to human habitations and get killed due to conflicts. Hence it is very important to have landscape connectivity where these surplus populations can move out and establish themselves in new areas.

This will result in a few clusters of breeding, well-protected populations and other forested landscapes that would either act as sink or provide habitat connectivity to other source populations.

Monitoring - how often?

The final question is: how often does one need to monitor wildlife populations? This largely depends on resource and manpower availability. But monitoring populations in key, critical wildlife areas and for important species such as tigers, yearly monitoring is pertinent. In other areas monitoring could be carried out on a periodic basis depending on need and resource availability.

Nevertheless systematic sampling is a tedious, time-consuming effort. It needs dedication, scientific capability and resources.  So who should carry out the art of counting numbers?

Currently, this exercise is carried out by both the Forest Department and scientific research organisations. But the Forest department is already burdened with the colossal task of protecting forests, dealing with human-wildlife conflicts, day-to-day management of staff, budgets and other administrative duties. Hence it may be prudent not to burden them with the additional duty of finding numbers. It is best carried out by trained wildlife biologists.

Finally, we all need to understand that there is no magic wand to find wildlife numbers and absolute numbers is a utopian idea. The art of counting animals is an applied science as physics or chemistry and a measure of good science is peer-reviewed publications which bring in both national and international credibility. 

They all add up

* Where: All elephant bearing forests of Karnataka including protected areas such as Nagarahole, Bandipur, Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Sanctuary, Bhadra, Bannerghatta, Bramhagiri, Dandeli and others. Reserved forests such as B R Hills, Dubare, Maldhare, Mavukal and others. Wild elephants within private coffee estates were taken into account as well. Similar exercises were carried out in forests of Kerala and Tamilnadu.

* When: May 15, 16, 17, 2010

* Results: The Forest Department has reported sighting a total of 2,400 elephants on these three days. These figures are for 50% of the elephant bearing forests in Karnataka. However it reports that same figures were reported during 2007 census when 30% area was sampled. A total of 1,000 animals were reported from Bandipur, Nagarahole and Bramhagiri, 82 from Bhadra, 60 from Bannerghatta and 179 from Pushpagiri and Talacauvery.

(The author is the Assistant Director, Wildlife Conservation Society-India Programme.)

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