When the Ministry of Environment and Forests assessed the status of tigers, other predators and prey in India in 2006 and 2009, it wanted the exercise to become a robust baseline for future conservation programmes. The results published in 2010 claimed an improvement in estimated tiger numbers, at 1,706 individuals compared to 1,411 in 2006. Yet, there appeared to be a contradiction in this, as the geographical area occupied by the charismatic cat was reported to have decreased in some ranges, notably in some Central Indian States and parts of the Western Ghats. A fresh exercise to count the country’s tigers led by the National Tiger Conservation Authority has now been launched. This is an important project, given that India hosts the most number of tigers in the wild. What is interesting is that a mere 10 per cent of the habitat today hosts 90 per cent of the reproducing populations of the big cat. It is this area that needs rigorous monitoring on an annual basis, and not a general count once in four years. Also, the methods used should be open to independent scientific scrutiny, perhaps by a consortium of scientific institutions. Conservation science has come up with credible ways to estimate the density and occupancy of tigers and needs to be used rigorously. The NTCA already has access to research strategies formulated by leading tiger scientists for a focussed monitoring protocol to track source populations of tigers — those that are crucial for the survival of the species. It should employ them fully.
One of the criticisms of the scheme to sample tiger densities — which cost about Rs.12 crore in 2006 according to published accounts — is that it is likely to ignore sharp and rapid declines in populations. The methodology being used since 2006, including camera traps is, of course, an improvement over the unscientific analysis of pugmarks employed for nearly three decades. But the monitoring should be a targeted annual exercise that yields good data to inform policy. At present, although a lot of information is generated for the entire tiger habitat, it does not yield insight into areas of high density. A scientific consortium approach may therefore prove rewarding. Karnataka, for instance, has benefited from involving top scientists in conservation. Given the limited scientific resources at the disposal of the Environment Ministry, and the large external pool of science-based conservation organisations, there should be no hesitation to broaden the scope of monitoring. It is equally important to involve local communities, choosing volunteers who can be trained and deployed along with scientific personnel.