K. Ullas Karanth: ‘We are slow to adopt science for conservation’

India’s leading tiger conservationist says the government should get out of the business of surveys and leave it to scientists and researchers

July 19, 2017 12:05 am | Updated December 03, 2021 05:07 pm IST

BENGALURU - KARNATAKA - 11/07/2017 :   Dr K Ullas Karanth, a conservation Zoologist and a leading Tiger expert and the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in Bengaluru on July 11, 2017.   Photo K Murali Kumar

BENGALURU - KARNATAKA - 11/07/2017 : Dr K Ullas Karanth, a conservation Zoologist and a leading Tiger expert and the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in Bengaluru on July 11, 2017. Photo K Murali Kumar

K. Ullas Karanth, an expert on tigers, is the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society-India Programme. In the early 1990s, Mr. Karanth pioneered the technique of using camera traps as a method to get an estimate of India’s tiger population. Despite having been on the boards of several government organisations, he’s also a trenchant critic of government’s conservation policies. In an interview, he explains why India shouldn’t be complacent about the success of ‘Project Tiger’ and how several areas of wildlife conservation in the country continue to be neglected.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has estimated a rise in the number of tigers killed in the first half of this year compared to the same period last year. Is it a matter of concern?

As a rough estimate, there are, say, 3,000 tigers in India, 1,000 of whom are females capable of breeding. They breed on an average once in three years and produce a litter of three. You are adding about 750-1000 tigers a year. Assuming that it’s a stable population, it should also roughly be the number (of tigers) dying. Moreover, we only detect a fraction of them (during census). Many die and you don’t even know they are dead.

The real concern is whether these deaths are due to poaching and if they are being killed inside protected zones where the breeding is taking place. This has to be monitored carefully with rigorous methods, and, unfortunately, the government authorities don’t do a good job.

Right now, at least in government circles, there’s a great sense of optimism about the rise in tiger numbers. The latest government figures estimate 2,226 tigers, which translates to 60% of the world’s tiger population of about 3,890.

What is the basis for this optimism? When we started ‘Project Tiger’ in the 1970s, we were supposed to have had about 2,000 tigers and after fifty years you have 3,000. Sure, it’s better than other countries but you can’t say you’ve done a great job.

What in your estimate would be a ‘great job’? Is there an ideal figure that we should have?

We have roughly 3,00,000 sq. km of forest suitable for tigers and we have only about 10% of it capable of holding them naturally. This can be much higher…

Last year the government announced plans to double the tiger count by 2022…

These are unrealistic statements. If we haven’t doubled them in the last 30 years, how can it be done in five years? It’s loose talk. To even begin achieving that, we have to expand the protected area network. It can’t be done by merely declaring areas where there are no tigers as tiger reserves. Several tiger reserves have no tigers. The NTCA (under the Environment Ministry) has become a bureaucracy, it seems.


We have done a good job in channelling more funds and putting in sincere efforts for tiger conservation compared to other Asian countries. This was specific to the 1970s and ’80s when there was no money. Now things are actually quite easy. Rural incomes have gone up… Hardcore poachers don’t hunt as much as they used to.

As someone now outside the government system, what do you think should be done?

Well, I don’t consider myself outside the system because I was on the National Wildlife Board and NTCA for many years and I have tried to change the way they function but I have failed. It’s an extremely rigid bureaucracy.

For one, we are spending too much money in too few places and that’s generally true of wildlife conservation in India, not only of tiger conservation. Some tiger reserves have budgets of ₹ 10 crore when the job can be done in ₹ 2 crore. This (lopsided funding) attracts the worst elements of bureaucracy to come here. Places like Bandipur, Nagarhole and Ranthambore reserves — these spectacular ones — are examples of those flush with funds and boast large tiger habitats.

You need money for, say, relocation and resettling of forest dwellers; but, beyond that, spending money on areas such as procuring water for reserves (during droughts). This needs to be fixed first.

Recently, the government has got the go-ahead from the National Board of Wildlife to interlink the Ken and Betwa rivers by building a dam and a canal. This will inundate a portion of the tiger reserve but the government holds that there are no tigers in that particular stretch of forest and that the water needs of the drought-prone Bundelkhand region have to be kept in mind too.

We have 90% of the country for river interlinking. I’m saying: please think carefully before you undertake major projects in the remaining 10%. The fact is we have tapped out our hydropower potential and are going on developing more and more… Reserves like Panna are among our last few. We need more water-use efficiency and cannot just dam every river.

So having a dam over there is a threat to the tiger habitat?

Well, it won’t wipe out the tigers there but the proposed reservoir is massive and Panna is among the few good reserves that we have. So we should have seen if there were alternative locations or if a suitable alternative site could have been established to compensate for the loss of forests.

Is poaching as big a threat to tigers — and other wildlife — as it was a few decades ago?

Law enforcement has worked to an extent, else we wouldn’t have had any tigers left. However this efficiency is again uneven. In the Northeast, for instance, law enforcement is practically non-existent. This is due to a number of social and cultural factors. The attention should be over there rather than pumping more and more money into reserves where there are enough resources in place.


In places such as Kaziranga, we have poachers who come in with AK-47s. In some States like Madhya Pradesh, forest officers even today don’t have a right to bear arms… this is ridiculous. What are they going to do with sticks? While the threat of poaching has dramatically reduced, in the east of India it’s still as bad as it was in the 1980s.

Is it because government has failed to step up policing in these regions?

That and also due to cultural practices. A vast majority of the people hunt and also management systems don’t have adequate control… in Nagaland, as it’s well-known, government officials have to pay protection money to rebel groups. In such a social environment, how can wildlife conservation be prioritised? They have legal power but no effective power.

Do you think too much money is being spent on tiger conservation and not on other wildlife, say leopards?

Leopards are smaller (than tigers) and spread over a much-wider area. I would disagree with “too much” money being spent on tigers but there is certainly a lack of attention to several other key species. These include, for instance, wolves and the bustard because they don’t share a tiger habitat. There’s some truth to it but not a black and white situation.

Is it ever possible that we would go back to less than 1000 tigers given developmental pressures in India? Are those days well past?

My own sense is that we are well past those days. When I was growing up in the 1950s in the Western Ghats, tigers were gone. You wouldn’t see a track… the pressures were immense. Wage labour was ₹ 3 for a man, there was no protein in diets and people hunted because they needed meat, logging was rampant. Now the scenario has dramatically changed. The number of people dependent on land has come down, wages have improved, there are other sources of meat. You have chicken and don’t have to walk miles to hunt a civet. Today, there are developmental pressures, such as the Ken-Betwa project, but development has also served to reduce pressures on wildlife.


However, that said, we are the 10th largest economy in the world, so much science… we should have at least 5,000-10,000 tigers and not pat our backs with 3,000.

What is a major obstacle to achieving this?

That government is slow to adopt good science for conservation purposes. I invented the technique of using camera traps for counting tigers in 1993 and it’s only now that it has become a standard practice. It took a commission, chaired by the Prime Minister, where forest officials were ordered to stop the previous methods of estimation (such as counting pugmarks). However, it is still not being done the right way. They combine data from incomparable data sets. Basically, the government should get out of the business of surveys and leave it to scientists and researcher institutions. The other key hurdle is the lack of access to data. Organisations like the Wildlife Institute of India (an autonomous institute under the Environment Ministry and based in Dehradun) have unbelievable amount of money given to a dozen scientists. I know this as I used to be on the Governing Board. They end up monopolising all research, from bustards to tigers... nothing substantial seems to result from it.

However, researchers from non-governmental, reputable institutions such as the National Centre for Biological Sciences and the Indian Institute of Science face great difficulties to get permissions (to visit parts of forest) for research. Recently, a young scientist from IISc collected a dead skink, or a similar animal, and he was arrested. It’s not just me alone but there is a general barrier to research.

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