Rising tiger numbers: Experts warn against premature celebration

While reported rise in numbers may bring momentary cheer, there are disputes over population estimates and conservation challenges waiting to be addressed

April 12, 2016 10:11 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 04:36 am IST



A day after the World Wildlife Fund and the Global Tiger Forum reported a worldwide increase in tiger population, conservationists have responded with a word of caution, highlighting the existing challenges in conservation and dispute over estimation methods, urging cheerleaders to exercise caution.

Reputed conservationist Ullas Karanth, Director for Science- Asia Wildlife Conservation Society told The Hindu that while tiger population has definitely increased in India over the past 40 years, the same cannot be claimed of other countries. He questioned the authenticity of the WWF-GTF report, which he said were not based on any estimates from intensive rigorous camera trap/DNA studies of source populations. “They are predominantly based on various kinds of counts of tiger spoor or in some cases simple guesswork. Spoor surveys are useful only for knowing where tigers are, and not for counting them reliably,” he pointed out.

Doubling: unrealistic goal?

With tiger range countries that met at the 3rd Asia Ministerial Conference on tiger conservation in New Delhi, starting Tuesday, committing to double tiger population by 2022, Mr. Karanth said that intensive, long-term camera trap studies conducted by WCS in India, Thailand and Russia had shown that tiger population recovery from depressed levels is a slow process, even in relatively better protected sites. “None of the populations have been observed to ‘double’ in 10 years, even under the best of protection,” he said. From the current levels of 3200 tigers in 2012, within ten years, a doubling of numbers would require increases of 27 per cent per year in ‘sink landscapes’ (outside source sites) from which tigers have been virtually extirpated. “This does not appear to be a realistic goal,” he noted.

In a note citing relevant review of literature on the matter, the conservation expert said that tiger ‘source populations’ that produce ‘surpluses’ occupy just 90,000 sq. km of the remaining 1.2 million square kilometers of tiger habitat in the world. About 90 per cent of all surviving tigers are confined to the small 7 per cent area, broken up into 40-50 source populations. “Tigers will certainly go extinct if we fail to protect these,” he cautioned.

According to the Global Tiger Initiative, tigers are the barometers of the well-being of our planet.

Conservation efforts paid off

He, however, agreed that India has definitely improved its tiger population over the years, thanks to fifty years of massive investments in setting up reserves, strong conservation laws, relocation of villages and substantial public support for tiger conservation. Four challenges, however, remain to be addressed: illegal killing of prey species, killing of tigers for their body parts by organized crime, excessive pressures on tiger forests by local people and increasing industrial and developmental activities.

Sanjay Gubbi, conservation biologist, working with the Nature Conservation Foundation allayed fears that countries such as India cannot inhabit more tigers due to shrinking forests. In a written response to The Hindu, he said that tiger numbers in any area are determined by two factors: availability of its choice of food, and space for young tigers to move out of their natal home range and establish a new home for themselves. Karnataka, for instance, still has 2,500 sq. km of reserved forests that could accommodate more tigers, he said based on his work in the state. “If the existing forests are added to the protected area network they would surely provide better protected space for tiger numbers to increase by at least 100 individuals,” he said.

Currently Karnataka has over 50 per cent of the state’s tiger numbers in one basket (Nagarahole-Bandipur). “Hence, from a long-term sustainable tiger conservation perspective it is important that we help improve tiger numbers in other areas that have the potential,” Mr. Gubbi said.

With planet earth being increasingly burdened with an expanding human population, and finite natural resources, some may question why wild tigers need to be allowed to expand territory. But as conservationists point out, the thriving of tigers on the planet point to broadly intact ecosystems with full complement of predators and prey. According to the Global Tiger Initiative, tigers are the barometers of the well-being of our planet. “These provide a variety of services such as future use of biological resources and genes, tourism, protection of watersheds, sequestration of carbon, etc.” Mr. Karanth said.

Also read: >Big cat population up by 690>

Human-wildlife conflict

To a question whether increase in the numbers of wild tigers could lead to increased conflict between man and tigers, Mr. Karanth responded that “our human population is too large and numbers killed by tigers and leopards in a year may be far less than numbers killed in motor accidents in a single day!”

Sanjay Gubbi himself was attacked by a wild leopard that had strayed into a school in Bengaluru in February this year, raising concerns about wildlife increasingly entering into human settlements, increasing conflict. However, the conservationist who is recovering from his injuries now noted that it is in the absence of suitable cushioning habitats outside the source habitats that conflict of wildlife with humans become imminent.

“In areas, where tiger source habitats are bordered by dry land agriculture suitable measures to strengthen livestock and human protection should be accorded. Any increase in human-wildlife conflict, especially that which includes serious injuries or human deaths can severely antagonise local communities against wildlife,” he observed.

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