On Wednesday, newspapers across the world reported widely that the population of wild tigers had grown from 3,200 in 2010 to 3,800 in 2014 which has been steadily dwindling for 100 years.
Quoting a joint report from The World Wildlife Fund and The Global Tiger Forum the news came ahead of the three day International Union for Conservation of Nature Conference of 13 countries in New Delhi.
The WWF-GTF report should have brought much cheer to conservationists, however, world renowned conservation zoologist and leading tiger expert based in Bengaluru, Dr K Ullas Karanth, Director for Science-Asia for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), was quick to release a critical response to the WWF-GTF report.
Stating that these were his personal views and may not reflect that of the WCS, Dr Karanth said, “The various country-wide, regional, and landscape level tiger numbers reported in the WWF-GTF report are not based on any estimates from intensive rigorous camera trap/DNA studies of source populations. They are predominantly based on various kinds of counts of tiger spoor or in some cases simple guesswork.”
He also stated, that “Some tiger numbers cited in the GTF-WWF report have been generated by demonstrably flawed statistical extrapolations. Consequently these numbers are not reliable or useful metrics for assessing the fate of wild tigers, unlike the rigorous methods.”
We reached out to Dr Karanth to find out more.
Firstpost: So does this report call for celebration or is it a call too soon?
Dr Karanth: Neither, these numbers are all derived using poor methods or in some cases, guesswork.
Firstpost: India has the best numbers — 2,226 tigers. Cambodia on the other hand has zero tigers. What did we do better than the other countries?
Dr Karanth: India certainly has more tigers than any other country, for the past 50 years we have invested more money, man power, and political backing for tiger conservation and the results are showing.
Firstpost: Has the tiger population really grown or is it that our survey methods are better? For instance you have pioneered the radio telemetry and also the Camera trapping techniques. How have these newer methods vis-à-vis pug mark method changed in the tiger population census?
Dr Karanth: Tiger population in India has grown from the lows of 1960s, but the growth is uneven across the country.
His response to the report clarified this further: Tiger ‘source populations’ that produce ‘surpluses’ occupy just 90,000 sq km of the remaining 1.2 million square kilometers of tiger habitat in the world. About 90 per cent of all surviving tigers are confined to small 7 per cent area, broken up into 40-50 source populations. Tigers will certainly go extinct if we fail to protect these. Because of this these source populations should be monitored using the most rigorous methods that employ camera trap/DNA surveys at advanced statistical models.
The Pugmark method was abandoned in 2005 and camera traps are being used increasingly now, although not always using the best statistical design or analyses. These aspects need more attention.
Firstpost: You and the Centre for Wildlife Society (CWS) have done a lot of work in the Nagerhole National Park and in saving the Bengal tiger. How did this work help in conservation and preservation of tigers?
Dr Karanth: The WCS supported work in Nagarahole for over 30 years and has many components: development of new methods to monitor tigers and prey; gathering basic knowledge about their biology using these methods, supporting fair voluntary relocation of people who want to move out of the reserve and citizen science to develop local conservation leaders. All these have delivered gains, I think.
Firstpost: What can we look forward to gaining at the upcoming 3 day International Union for Conservation of Nature Conference of 13 countries at Delhi?
Dr Karanth: Such tiger summits have been held regularly for the past 10 years at great cost to the tax-payer… I do not think they have been very useful in practical terms.
Firstpost: Whither 2022 and what are the goals you hope to achieve by then?
Dr Karanth: I do not believe the goal of doubling tiger numbers by 2022 is realistic. I hope the country will infuse more rigorous science into its already substantial investments in tiger conservation.
‘Focus of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been on doing such advanced monitoring of number of key source populations across tiger range. Rigorous, intensive, long term camera trap studies conducted by WCS in India, Thailand and Russia show that tiger population recovery from depressed levels is a slow process, even in these relatively better protected sites. None of the populations have been observed to ‘double’ in 10 years, even under best of protection.
If that is the case, simple back of the envelope calculations show that to double global tiger numbers from 3200 tigers in 2012 within ten years, would necessarily require increases of 27 per cent per year in ‘sink landscapes’.
This does not appear to be a realistic goal.
Firstpost: Predators are increasingly appearing in human habitats like the recent incidents of a leopard getting into school in Bangalore and a tiger that was killed in Nagaland. With increasing encroachment of forest land, how can we prevent these kinds of human-animal conflict for habitat and right to life?
Dr Karanth: Tigers are at high densities and producing surpluses in some well protected reserves, so such conflicts are inevitable on the edges and need to be managed scientifically so that local people living around the reserves do not turn hostile to them.
The notion that these tigers are coming out because there is no food for them inside is not correct. If there is no prey, tigers cannot raise cubs and the population dwindles.