Reviewing a book by K. Ullas Karanth, one of India’s leading tiger experts, is an education. The book uses the apex predator, the tiger, around which most conservation efforts in India hinge, and who better than Karanth to tell us about it.
In 26 chapters, divided into three sections, with Karanth as co-author in all, he sets about educating us on how to protect our animals. The first section, comprising three chapters, briefly tells us about the tools, techniques and analysis for the study of carnivores—although later chapters also deal with elephants and the giant Malabar squirrel which suggest that these also have application for non-carnivores as well!
The second section, which forms the bulk of the book (15 chapters in all), deals with population studies for wildlife biologists, conservationists and managers. The principles discussed here are central to the book and provide guidance on how to conduct field surveys, from simple count studies, camera ‘traps’, pathological analysis of what the animal ate last (diet study), isolating DNA from scat, to name a few.
Section three comprises eight case studies which provide practical insights for the reader; these include relocation of communities out of core areas (Nagarhole and Bhadra are discussed), re-wilding efforts in Kudremukh and the politics, cost-benefit and ethics of tiger tourism.
Past, present, future
I particularly enjoyed reading Chapter IV ( The Shrinking Ark: Patterns of Mammal Extinctions in India ) which looks into the past to predict the future. It analyses 30,000 records to map extant and local extinction in 25 mammal species ranging from mouse deer to the lion, and plots the rich data in small grids using the time-elapse model for the entire country. Putting it very simply, the study found that in general, and not as rule of thumb, habitat specialists like mouse deer, Nilgiri tahr, rhino and swamp deer are more vulnerable to extinction than habitat generalists like leopards and wild pigs.
The paper further refines the distinctions and offers insights for planning conservation efforts and predicting factors that can push species to extinction. I wish that the volume could have included colour-coded grids, as it has for the tiger on page 95, for all mammals, fully knowing that the journal in which this paper had appeared would not have given the authors the space. It would have helped conservationists—and the few policy-makers who read—to be better informed about possible future trends by species.
The three subsequent chapters (Occupancy modelling of tigers, elephants and ungulates respectively at the landscape scale) provide invaluable practical information for field biologists and conservationists on the range occupied by large mammals and inform us on designing conservation spaces. The case studies at the end of the book are also enlightening.
The volume provides a discussion on a wide range of issues in the science and practice of conservation, and points to areas which need to be studied to understand nature. Development experts often rue that papers by ecologists do not deal with ‘real’ issues behind the decline of tigers, like hunting and trade of tiger parts, poisoning, accidental deaths among others, but focus on modelling studies based on forest fragmentation, habitat destruction, declining prey population and human-animal conflict. Karanth is mindful of this. He does not shy away from pointing to the impact of mining, ecotourism, translocation and other such issues. He discusses the flaws in census methods and questions the enumeration of tigers in two elegant essays—a shorter comment (chapter 19: Counting India’s Wild Tigers Reliably ) followed by a longer scientific critique ( India’s Tiger Counts: The Long March to Reliable Science ) both published in 2011.
But I have to admit I was a tad disappointed with the volume. These peer-reviewed papers are the essential works of Karanth since 2008. An earlier collection of his papers, which we are told in the preface was well-received and hence this book, was published in 2011. Some of these papers are available as open-access online. The only addition to this compilation of papers is a foreword by Melvin E. Sunquist, a stalwart in mammal studies and a mentor to Karanth; and the preface by Karanth.
Since these papers have been in the public domain for some time, what would have enriched this interesting though a bit academic collection of essays would be the letters, correspondence and criticisms that appeared in journals where these were published.
More on policy
An additional commentary about how these research papers have impacted policy would also have made this volume a lifelong keep than it being just an educational read. I would have been delighted to see a concluding essay of how Karanth foresees the future of the tiger, the current policy framework and perhaps even an outline of the research agenda for the next decade.
These small additions would have lent this volume a voice and soul. Nevertheless, it is a compilation of excellent papers and should find a place in bookshelves of doctoral students of ecology and every respectable library. This volume will also serve as an essential text for practitioners and amateur wildlife enthusiasts who want to understand the science behind conservation.
Science and Conservation of Wildlife Populations ; K. Ullas Karanth, Natraj Publishers, ₹895.