The fourth national tiger survey has generated much euphoria, whereas the first one in 2006 had cast a pall of gloom. However, missing from all the four survey reports are details necessary to assess the reliability of the tiger numbers. A brief history of India’s tiger censuses can shed some light on this issue. The tradition of reporting tiger numbers dates back to the 1970s. These numbers were based on the ‘pugmark census method’, which simple-mindedly assumed that the pugmarks of every tiger could be found, recognised and tallied. As scientific critiques showed, these assumptions failed, rendering the numbers meaningless. However, the forest bureaucracy (the Ministry of Environment and allied institutions) ignored the problem for decades.
In the 1990s, many tiger scientists and statistical ecologists working in collaboration developed robust new methods for tiger monitoring. These methods could estimate prey animal numbers using ‘distance sampling’ and the extent of tiger habitat employing ‘occupancy sampling of tiger spoor’. Critically, they could even directly estimate numbers, survival rates and and recruitment in each population employing ‘photographic capture-recapture sampling’. These methods were independently honed in tiger reserves across India and over 25,000 sq km in the Western Ghats harbouring 20% of India’s tigers.
By 2004, the new methods had rapidly been adopted worldwide for assessing populations of threatened cat species such as leopards and jaguars. However, the Director of India’s Project Tiger derided these as fancy sampling methods, inferior to India’s indigenous pugmark census.
Then in 2005 came the shocking revelation that all tigers in Sariska Reserve had been poached, even as the pugmark censuses claimed all was well. A Tiger Task Force (TTF) appointed by the Prime Minister discarded the pugmark census. The Director of Project Tiger performed a breathtaking backflip, now denouncing the pugmark census as “trash”.
I had hoped these dramatic events would lead to a serious revamping of India’s tiger monitoring methods. India’s remarkable conservation efforts had rescued the tiger from the brink of extinction; they deserved an honest evaluation to identify both successes and failures. The dire situation demanded technically rigorous tiger population surveys conducted by independent, qualified scientists.
However, blocking this progress was a serious conflict of interest: The same forest bureaucracy that managed tiger populations was also expected to assess its own successes or failures by monitoring tiger populations. This had led to the fiascos in Sariska and other places.
Changes in tiger numbers, survival rates, and recruitment in key tiger populations have to be monitored every year to track the fate of tigers in real time. Periodic assessments of colonisation and extinction of tiger populations across larger regions by employing the cost-effective ‘occupancy sampling of tiger spoor’ method are required. A public-private partnership framework led by qualified scientists is needed to conduct such independent monitoring. However, instead of calling for better monitoring methods, TTF ended up further strengthening bureaucratic monopoly over tiger monitoring. Inevitably, the new National Tiger Estimation method, also created by the forest bureaucracy, ignored or distorted critical elements underpinning the new tiger survey methods. These flaws were masked by misleading technical jargon, hype about advanced technologies and cursory reviews by ‘foreign experts’.
Consequently, in spite of all the effort and expenditure, four tiger surveys have not generated ecologically credible results. Nor are they practically useful. For instance, in spite of spending crores of rupees on official tiger research and monitoring, the government has failed to generate estimates of annual rates of changes in tiger numbers, survival or recruitment in tiger populations at key sites.
Plainly put, the tiger numbers reported are useful only to generate the media spin to meet the needs of the forest bureaucracy and to satisfy momentary public curiosity. This is clear from the 2006 survey report, which made a bold confession: India’s tiger numbers had collapsed by a massive 61% (from 3,642 to 1,411 tigers) in just four years! This made no sense because the first number was from the discredited pugmark census and the second from the wobbly new survey method.
However, this confession killed three birds with one stone. It gained public acceptance of the new “scientific method”; it set an unrealistically low baseline of 1,400 tigers, around which future claims could be tailored; and the National Tiger Conservation Authority walked away unblemished from tiger declines, blaming them on State governments.
The results of subsequent surveys show that the new methodology is flexible enough to generate increases or decreases in coarse-scale estimates of tiger numbers and habitat occupancy. And this is what seems to be going on now, in preparation for claiming a ‘doubling’ of India’s tiger population at the next Global Tiger Summit in 2022.
Over the past decade, independent researchers have published several critiques of the design, models and flaws in field implementation in India’s tiger surveys. Most of them had to rely on sparse information gleaned from skimpy survey results in the public domain. The magnitude of the problem that could be revealed by a deeper examination of actual survey data is mind-boggling. The forest bureaucracy, however, has stubbornly blocked qualified scientists from conducting any such deeper scrutiny. The astuteness with which it has maintained monopolistic control over tiger monitoring is a testimony to its political skills.
Nothing has changed
While releasing the 2010 tiger survey results, Planning Commission Member Montek Singh Ahluwalia suggested “aggregate tiger survey data” to be shared in the public domain. He pointed out how Economics had progressed through such data transparency. Unfortunately, nothing has changed since. The hiding of tiger data by the forest bureaucracy is in clear defiance of scientific ethics and public interest. Sadly, even larger conservation NGOs have not challenged this.
When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi set out to rescue India’s wild tigers, there were less than 2,000 left. Intense struggles of foresters and conservationists for five decades resulted in sporadic population recoveries at some sites, and continuing losses elsewhere. How many tigers should India now aspire for, given that habitat potential exists for 10,000-15,000 tigers? The current crop of forest bureaucrats, in spite of being flush with resources, believe we cannot have more than 3,500. Surely a nation aspiring to be a $5 trillion economy should set its sights higher? India’s political leadership recognises past successes achieved by infusing creativity and private enterprise in sectors like communication technology. These became possible only after jettisoning inefficient, over-funded, self-serving government monopolies, not by pandering to them. Conservation cannot be an exception.
K. Ullas Karanth is Director, Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bengaluru. Views are personal