‘I do not buy the claims that Project Tiger has been a spectacular success in recent times’

Official claims that tiger numbers are now maximal and need to be “capped” should be rejected because expenditure on tiger conservation has gone up tenfold or more

August 22, 2023 09:00 am | Updated 06:44 pm IST - Bengaluru

 Dr. K Ullas Karanth.

Dr. K Ullas Karanth. | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

“We should have clear-cut goals and aim for that and have measurements to show if we are heading towards the goal or not,” believes leading tiger expert Dr. K. Ullas Karanth, who was part of the recent Nature inFocus Festival, a three-day event in Bengaluru, celebrating nature, wildlife and conservation.

Karanth, the first biologist to radio-collar wild tigers in India back in 1990, has never had any qualms about expressing his opinion, even unpopular ones such as the need to get rid of a man-killing animal immediately, rather than attempt to capture and translocate it. “Conservation is about saving rare species,” he points out. “It is not about saving every individual animal. We must have that clarity,” says the Emeritus Director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bengaluru.

In an interview with The Hindu, he talks about his scepticism about current tiger conservation strategies, the complexities of human-animal conflict and why the cheetah project was doomed from the start.

You have discussed how our ambition for the tiger project isn’t enough, and that we could accommodate a lot more tigers in India. Can you tell me a little about why you think so, on the heels of the recent All-India Tiger Estimation (AITE) report that claimed that the tiger count in Karnataka has risen to at least 435 tigers?

You need to start by understanding the potential carrying capacity of a habitat i.e., the number of animals that a given habitat can sustain. Not all habitats have the same carrying capacity. In the Russian far east, for instance, you can have only 1-2 tigers per 100 sq. km since prey densities are naturally low because it is cold and not a productive habit for prey animals like deer and wild pigs.

In productive habitats, such as the deciduous forests or grasslands in the Himalayan foothills in India, tiger density is much higher because you have a lot more prey. In a multiple-year study published in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2004, we showed that tiger densities in India can go up to 15-16 tigers per 100 sq. km. This is eight times what is possible in Russia, because of the higher prey densities that exceed 50 or more animals. In both places, the predator-prey ratio is about 1 tiger to 500 prey.

According to the government’s own statistics, the type of forests where tigers can live is around 3.8 lakh sq. km in India. But the reality of it is that only a little over 10-20% of that area is well-protected. All I am saying is, if you push up the protection in the remaining forest area, you can still have 10,000 or more tigers, even if we can attain densities of 5 tigers per hundred sq. km.

Official claims that tiger numbers are now maximal and need to be “capped” should be rejected because expenditure on tiger conservation has gone up tenfold or more. Either spend less money or take all this money and have 15,000 tigers. They cannot say, ‘Give us these huge sums of money, and we can only have 3500 tigers.’ It shows a lack of ambition and financial prudence. When the potential is 15,000, why are your expectations so low? Taxpayers are not here to feed this growing bureaucracy. They want their money to go and feed the tigers and let their numbers rebound.

At the beginning of Project Tiger, places like Nagarahole, Bandipur, and Kanha were all in a miserable state. Through effective protection in the first twenty-five years--part of which involved some village relocation, stopping all hunting, and controlling livestock grazing drastically—the tigers came back. It doesn’t happen immediately, took almost 25 years, but it happened.

From 1970 to 2000, we had this recovery in 10 percent of our tiger habitats which were the first ones to be protected. The budgets were extremely low in those first few years, but the government did a terrific job of protecting the tigers with meager resources, and they came back.

But now, in the last 25 years, we have sunk so much money, and we have not seen commensurate returns. We have not seen the cost-effective progress we did in the first 25 years. Yet, claims are being that Project Tiger has been a spectacular success in recent times. I do not buy this.

Do you feel too much wildlife funding goes into the preservation of charismatic species like the tiger and elephant and not enough trickles down to other animals? Or does having them as umbrella species automatically protect the entire ecosystem? What are your thoughts on this?

There are different components in the answer to your question. In certain types of habitats, ranging from the Terai grasslands to the deciduous forests of India, the tiger is the apex predator. So, when you invest in tigers, you are not just investing in tigers alone. The benefits go to prey species, vegetation, frogs…everything that is there in the landscape. So, to that degree, it is not wrong to focus on the tiger as a flagship species in certain habitats.

But if you want to protect riverine systems in Bihar, you should be promoting the Indo-Gangetic dolphin as a flagship species. If you want to protect the Himalayan lower slopes and the fantastic ungulate fauna there, you can’t use the tiger as an icon. You have to use something like the snow leopard. If you want to protect the arid habitat of Rajasthan, use the wolf or great Indian bustard.

Yes, the focus on tigers and elephants has been useful in protecting extensive habitats. But it is also true that, in the process, we have not focused on some of these other flagship species. In some sense, the tiger has been a distraction and monopolised conservation funding.

I think that needs to be remedied. I do agree with the fact if you have ₹100, 90% should not go to the tiger. But the species-centred approach with iconic species is something I strongly believe in: we have seen success with the rhinos, Asiatic lions, tigers, and elephants. Let us expand it to other charismatic species to cover other habitats.

 Tiger at Bannerghatta Zoological Park in Bangalore.

Tiger at Bannerghatta Zoological Park in Bangalore. | Photo Credit: K. Bhagya Prakash

What are your thoughts about tiger tourism? Is there a way to redefine the way we look at nature tourism and change our approach to it as a consumer?

Being interested in nature is such a fulfilling all-round experience. For the first 17 years, I wandered in the forest without seeing a wild tiger because they were so rare. But I was never bored because there were other things that kept me enthralled.

We are not building that sort of love of nature in our education system or in the wildlife sanctuaries. It is no longer a nature absorption experience. It is a dozen people in a van with a guide, completely oblivious to the beauty of nature. They are simply pestering this guy to show them a tiger so that they can get a photo. The fault is as much on the consumer’s part. They should be better educated, and it shouldn’t be their life’s aim to take a photo of a tiger and put it up on social media.

But I think we also have a fundamental problem at the school education level onwards. As a culture, we don’t have an interest in nature as in the West, whether it is our textbooks or our teachers.

Children have a natural instinct for watching animals, but it is killed by our school system. The interest in wildlife needs to be kindled when you are a child. I got interested as a child and never lost that fascination.

What are your thoughts about increasing man-animal conflict in the country, and the way this conflict is viewed so differently in rural communities—where people are directly affected—and urban ones?

There are many approaches to mitigating the conflict. But the first thing to understand is that--because it involves big dangerous animals-- we have a tendency to exaggerate the scale of the conflict. The scale of tiger-related annual mortalities is about 20-25 human beings across the country. Even if you look at elephants, which do kill a lot more people, it is only around 400 people a year. If we look across India, feral street dogs are killing more people than tigers, but we are feeding them to proliferate even more.

Conflicts escalate when tiger densities reach very high levels. This happens in well-protected parks where prey density is unnaturally high, reaching levels that are not normal. This is partly because of drastic habitat manipulation, where they have created water holes, put solar pumps, created large, fertile grasslands, and so on. This artificially bumps up the prey density, and once that happens, you will have the occasional problem of surplus tigers.

There is often no ecological thinking behind wildlife management in India. Yes, there will be dry seasons where wildlife mortality is higher, but these are natural fluctuations and a part of their evolution.

Prevention is better than cure when dealing with such conflict. If people in critical wildlife habitats are willing to move out, that can be a permanent solution. Otherwise, you need to create barriers, trenches, basically something to isolate people from the conflict.

But if the conflict escalates, and a man-eating tiger emerges and starts killing people, it needs to be killed immediately. You cannot wait for the 3rd, 4th, or 5th human killing to take a decision. Also, the idea of taking them and dumping them somewhere else does not work. First, catching and tranquillising them is very hard, and takes days or weeks during which more people are killed by the cat. Then, even if you capture and release them somewhere else, they end up killing and displacing an existing tiger or will get killed by an existing tiger. You will not “save” tigers either way.

This is a complicated problem with multiple facets, involving society, highly threatened species, growing economy, so you need to take a deeper, nuanced approach to it. If a killer is stalking your neighbourhood, you can’t say he is cute and be sentimental about it and say let him rampage. The rural person is reacting from fear, loss of livelihood and life. The educated, urban people who have no skin in the game, on the other hand, are often driven by this idea of “saving every tiger’”. This comes from an animal rights perspective, where they believe that every individual animal has the right to live.

We cannot practice conservation with that as the guidepost. Conservation aims at species recovery, building healthy populations of wild, free-ranging animal species: killing a man-eater will not impact the overall population levels. Every individual tiger is not important in that sense, and fighting for this is not ecologically sensible.

What are your thoughts about the cheetah reintroduction project?

As someone interested in nature, I am definitely a supporter of restoring species that used to exist in the past to their former range in India. There are several species like this, the cheetah is only one of them. There is also the bustard, lion, wolf, Javan and Sumatran rhinos, Banteng, Manipur brow-antlered deer, and so on.

I am not opposed to the idea of using the cheetah as a flagship to restore arid and semi-arid landscapes, but there must be a method to this madness. It is a tough goal that requires 2-3 decades of planning, modelling, and understanding the biology of the cheetah. Also, this goal needs to be pursued in a non-bureaucratic manner, with all qualified ecological scientists playing a key role. The problem is the present cheetah project never had all this applied to it right from the beginning in 2010 and has meandered rudderlessly since then.

Right now, it is being done in a haphazard manner. They are dumping cheetahs trying to attain densities that are 3-4 times more than what can be sustained. Then, they are corralling them, chasing them back in if they wander off, driven by their instinct, and feeding them captured deer.

Cheetahs need large spaces; in the wild, their population is less than 1 cat per 100 square kilometres. For 20 cheetahs to live inside the 750 sq km Kuno Park, according to the goal set by the WII-NTCA population model is impossible. Their social system does not allow them to survive in these circumstances. This failure of the project is unfortunate because any better attempt in the future to restore cheetahs on the spatial scale necessary will be set back by this doomed example. This is not a natural restoration project. It has now turned into just another glorified zoo, as I had predicted a year ago.

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