India is among the few countries that still have the opportunity to nurture the health of their tiger populations. But estimating the number of tigers in the wild was a serious challenge for the Ministry of Environment and Forests until recently. Last year, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) acknowledged the need for the best science to come up with a credible population estimate; the census technique of the past, primarily relying on pugmarks, was accepted as faulty. The NTCA has now chosen to partner experts outside the government system in making the next assessment. In July, its consultation with scientists and other experts led to the conclusion that tiger presence is possible in a vast 310,000 sq km in India, with the core source populations of the cats spread over 40,514 sq km. Although tiger numbers have generally declined, a determined effort to secure habitat and end the poaching of tigers and their prey can help the populations bounce back. The value of good baseline data for effective conservation cannot be overstated. Since many States lack such data, success will depend on the readiness of their governments to start the process of assessing the health of forests from a wildlife perspective. For this, the field staff must become familiar with scientific sampling techniques such as camera-trapping, line transect sampling (for prey), and occupancy surveys (for all animals). These methods will produce credible estimates of tigers, co-predators such as leopards, and prey species — mainly deer, wild pig, and bison.
The Internet, remarkably, makes it possible to train field staff and students in far-flung areas in modern sampling methods at low cost. A good example is a training video titled “Monitoring tigers and their prey” produced with international support by research scientists K. Ullas Karanth and James D. Nichols, and filmmaker Shekar Dattatri. This visual resource, made available free by the producers on YouTube, should encourage forest departments of tiger-range States to start training the field staff immediately. It is important to remember that protocol-based sampling of large landscapes for signs (pugmarks, scat and tree scratch marks) to determine the presence of tigers requires validated techniques, not large funding. Conversely, intensive monitoring of reserves to arrive at population estimates needs investments in camera traps, and research support. The NTCA has been promised all the resources it needs to protect the tiger. It must deploy them fully to make the next status report on the tiger both comprehensive and accurate.