The annual national tiger census that has begun in Tamil Nadu is being criticised by volunteers who point to some major and sometimes bizarre irregularities in the process, and are questioning the reliability of data collected under these circumstances.

The exercise was described as “chaotic” by volunteers who took part in the tiger census in Mudumalai National Park from May 3 to 8. While the demands of ‘VIP' volunteers were pandered to, the scientific briefing was poor leading to violations of guidelines with people using mobile phones while on the survey.

The main task of the census operation — organised by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department along with NGOs WWF and Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association (NWEA) — was to use the line-transects method to determine the density of tiger prey and habitat abundance.

Only one volunteer was meant to be part of each line-transect survey (along with a forest guard and anti-poaching watcher), but organisers were pressured into taking on many more volunteers who “pulled strings” to enter the critical tiger habitat otherwise out of bounds to people. “So some groups had as many as three volunteers… Such a group size will only scare away animals,” said a volunteer who did not want to be named.

‘Briefing inadequate'

With no scientist available, the briefing given to volunteers on methodology was poor and basic guidelines were omitted such as not to wear bright coloured clothes. The volunteers did not really know how to handle the equipment such as range finders and compass, he added.

Another volunteer relates this incident: “One member of my team ran after an elephant with his camera phone to get a better shot. That could have been terribly dangerous for all of us.” In contrast to the commitment of the anti-poaching watchers and forest guards, some volunteers “competed” over ‘good beats' i.e. transects where tiger sightings have been historically good compared to buffer zones near towns, for instance. Worse, some volunteers carried in alcohol and partied loudly all night, volunteers alleged.

NWEA secretary S. Jayachandran, however, denied the allegations. “The only irregularity we noticed was that one of the volunteers was smoking in the national park. But he paid a fine of Rs. 2,000 and gave us a written apology too.”

Rajiv Srivatsava, field director and Chief Conservator of Forests of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, said that he was aware that an unsustainable number of volunteers were taken on for the survey in the adjacent Nilgiri North Division. “Having a crowd in the national park during the survey is not a good thing,” he said. He, however, added that he had not heard of any complaints of drinking or revelry during the survey, and maintained that the briefing to volunteers was adequate.