Eye on the Tiger!

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The forest bureaucracy ensured that information from tiger surveys were kept from independent scrutiny.

A lot of euphoria has been generated by the fourth national tiger survey, whereas the first one in 2006 cast a pall of gloom. Nevertheless, details are essential to evaluate the reliability of the tiger figures that are missing from all four survey reports.

A short history of Indian tiger censuses on this problem can shed some light. Dating back to the 1970s, the tradition of reporting tiger figures, these figures were based on the ‘ pugmark technique of census, ‘ which simply presumed that each tiger’s pugmarks could be discovered, recognized and tallied.

These assumptions failed, as scientific critiques showed, making the figures irrelevant. For decades, however, the forest bureaucracy (the Ministry of Environment and allied institutions) overlooked the issue.

New Methodologies

In the 1990s, many collaborative tiger researchers and statistical ecologists created solid new tiger surveillance techniques. These techniques could assess the numbers of prey animals using ‘ distance sampling ‘ and the magnitude of tiger habitat using ‘occupancy sampling of tiger spoor’.

Critically, even numbers, survival rates, and recruitment could be estimated directly in each population using ‘ photographic capture-recapture sampling. ‘

These techniques were tailored separately in tiger reserves across India and harboring 20 percent of India’s tigers in the Western Ghats over 25,000 sq km.

The fresh techniques for evaluating populations of endangered cat species such as leopards and jaguars were quickly embraced globally by 2004.

The Director of India’s Project Tiger, however, derided these as fancy sampling techniques, lower than the Indian pugmark census.

Then came the shocking revelation in 2005 that all tigers in Sariska Reserve had been poached, even as the pugmark censuses claimed that everything was fine. The pugmark census was discarded by Tiger Task Force (TTF) appointed by the Prime Minister. Project Tiger’s director performed a stunning backflip, denouncing the pugmark census as “trash.”

I had expected that these drastic occurrences would lead to a major revamping of India’s techniques of tiger surveillance. India’s notable conservation efforts had saved the tiger from the brink of extinction; to recognize both achievements and failures, they deserved an honest assessment. The dire scenario requested that independent, skilled researchers conduct technically strict surveys of the tiger population.

However, blocking this advancement was a severe conflict of interest: By tracking tiger populations, it was also anticipated that the same forest bureaucracy that managed tiger populations would evaluate their own achievements or failures. This had led to debacles in Sariska and other places.

Changes in tiger numbers, survival rates, and recruitment in important tiger populations must be tracked annually to monitor the tiger’s destiny in actual time.

However, TTF ended up further enhancing bureaucratic monopoly over tiger surveillance rather than calling for better surveillance techniques. The new National Tiger Estimation technique, also developed by the forest bureaucracy, inevitably ignored or distorted critical aspects that underpin the new techniques of tiger study. These shortcomings have been masked by ‘ foreign experts ‘ false technical jargon, the hype about sophisticated techniques, and cursory reviews.

Clearly, the reported tiger figures are only helpful for generating media spin to meet the forest bureaucracy’s requirements and satisfy the public’s current curiosity. This is evident from the 2006 survey report, which made a bold confession: India’s tiger numbers had collapsed in just four years by a huge 61% (from 3,642 to 1,411 tigers)! This was meaningless as the first number came from the discredited pugmark census and the second from the wobbly new technique of study.

This confession, however, killed three birds with one stone. It gained public recognition of the new “scientific technique;” it set an unrealistically small foundation of 1,400 tigers, around which future claims could be tailored; And the National Tiger Conservation Authority faultlessly walked away from the decline of tigers, blaming state governments for the same.

Nothing has changed so far

While releasing the outcomes of the 2010 tiger survey, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Member of the Planning Commission, proposed sharing “aggregate tiger survey information” in the public domain. He pointed out how economics had advanced through such transparency of information. Sadly, nothing has changed since then. The forest bureaucracy’s hiding of tiger data clearly defies scientific ethics and public interest. Unfortunately, this has not been questioned by even bigger conservation NGOs.

When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, set out to rescue the wild tigers of India, less than 2,000 remained. For five decades, intense forest and conservation struggle led in sporadic population recovery at some locations and ongoing losses elsewhere.

Given that habitat potential exists for 10,000-15,000 tigers, how many tigers should India now aspire for? Despite being flush with resources, the current crop of forest bureaucrats believes that we can’t have more than 3,500.

Surely a country that aspires to be an economy of $5 trillion should higher its sights? India’s political management recognizes past accomplishments in sectors such as communication technology by infusing creativity and private enterprise. These only became feasible after inefficient, overfunded, self-serving monopolies of government were discarded, not by pandering to them. There can be no exception to conservation.

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