A mockery of both science and sensibility: What’s wrong with the tiger numbers

No, the tiger is not out of the woods. If numbers presented ahead of last week’s global tiger meet in New Delhi showed minor gains due to better counting methods, they also revealed massive losses.

Written by Jay Mazoomdaar | Updated: April 19, 2016 12:43 pm
tiger, tiger population in india, tigers in india, project tiger, global tigar count, Global tiger forum, tiger population, tiger population in india, tiger conservation in india, india tiger population, India news Big cats in Ranthambhore. Tigers have disappeared from at least 40 per cent of the forests they roamed 10 years ago. (Picture: Dharm Khandal)

On April 11, a day before ministers of 13 tiger range countries assembled in New Delhi to pledge support for the big cat, a statement by the WWF-International and Global Tiger Forum claimed that the global tiger count was on the rise for the first time in a century. The global media went into a tizzy with the press release, and the delegates at the tiger gala looked suitably proud.

The claim is little more than a mockery of both science and sensibility. It is like concluding that the number of stars in the sky has gone up just because the invention of better telescopes has led to the discovery of faraway, hitherto invisible, celestial bodies.

Better enumeration methods through refined camera trapping and DNA analysis, etc. now increasingly account for animals that were either missed or not identified as separate individuals previously. Yet, given that the elusive tiger’s habitat includes some of the most remote and hostile terrain on earth, the truth is that we simply do not know — and may never know — exactly how many tigers there are in the wild.

The new global figure of 3,890 is an aggregate of what each tiger country has claimed as its tiger population. It has no benchmark for accuracy, as different countries use different counting methods, ranging from refined extrapolation based on sophisticated camera trapping to rudimentary spoor (pug mark tracks, droppings, even scent) surveys. In fact, even the 2010 global tiger population of 3,200, against which the current figure of 3,890 is being compared to claim a gain, was only a guesstimate (See chart).

tiger

At different points and going by different ‘authoritative’ sources, the tiger population during 2009-11 could have been anything between 3,000 and 4,000. Somehow, the global consensus was to settle for 3,200, with a goal to double the number by 2022. Halfway to the deadline, some ‘encouraging’ data was perhaps in order.

The claim has already drawn flak from a number of tiger scientists, including some who were not invited to last week’s jamboree. While it is easy to attack the claim on numbers, some have questioned the feasibility of doubling the world’s tiger population by 2022, the goal of the Global Tiger Recovery Programme (GTRP), built on the foundation of all 13 National Tiger Recovery Priorities (NTRPs).

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GTRP had itself modified its ambitious target and eventually settled for a 60% increase — from 3,643 to 5,870 — by 2022. Though a tall order, achieving the goal is not a theoretical impossibility. A landmark 2010 study had identified 42 ‘source’ forests that contain almost 70% of all remaining wild tigers. The remaining populations are found in fringe habitats — ‘sink’ forests — that are typically fragmented and unsafe for the big cat.

The 2010 study went on to say: “Even source sites, however, have depressed tiger populations. Only five, all of which are in India, maintain tiger populations close (>80%) to their estimated carrying capacity. Thus, the recovery of populations in source sites alone would result in a 70% increase in the world’s tiger population.”

However, some of the authors of that study have now cautioned that doubling of the world’s tigers in 10 years was not a realistic proposition because 70%-90% of tigers were in ‘source’ populations with slow growth, and it was unlikely that the ‘sink’ populations would multiply rapidly.

In fact, few were ever hopeful of meeting the target of the ‘TX2: Double Wild Tigers’ programme. Likewise, the celebratory claim about a global rise in numbers for the first time in a century deserved no more than a chuckling dismissal. But for the timing. It came a day ahead of the Third Asian Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation where Prime Minister Narendra Modi, among others, pledged support for conservation.

It also came at a time when India’s forests and its 2,000-odd surviving tigers are faced with an unprecedented development spree under a government committed to rapid single-window clearance for destroying forest land.

And at a time when successive governments at the Centre and in the states have succeeded in getting institutions such as the Wildlife Institute of India and National Tiger Conservation Authority to dilute their stand so that national highways can trifurcate the forests of central India without having to undertake adequate mitigation measures necessary for the tiger to have its right of way.

Since 2010, tigers may or may not have increased in numbers across the world. But they have certainly disappeared from 40% of the forests they roamed until 10 years ago. For all practical purposes, they are extinct in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Vietnam and China. In India, the tiger habitat has shrunk by more than 25% in the last decade. This is certainly not the time for an orchestrated ‘All is well’ chant. And that is why this toast is in rather poor taste.

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jay.mazoomdaar@expressindia.com

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  1. T
    Tiger
    Apr 19, 2016 at 5:33 am
    There are more than 5000 tigers in Texas alone.
    Reply
    1. P
      Pitviper
      Apr 20, 2016 at 12:40 am
      When we talk, we talk about wild tigers, not tigers in captivity and tiger farms. Infact these tiger farms of China are major problem for tiger conservation
      Reply
      1. D
        Dinesh Shah
        Apr 19, 2016 at 2:57 pm
        Since long,almost since the day or at least the year it started ,the various reserves are neglected,Poachers are allowed to romp with impunity and wrong measures are contemplated and introduced and scarcely right measures are encouraged or implement Ed.lt;br/gt;Last when Illegal poaching and subsequent depletion from Ranthambhor was found lot of hoopla was created but no concrete measures.Unless punishments become a doe and automatic actions the wrong anywhere is not going to be mended.lt;br/gt;The state government and the conservation authorities must be accounted for violation of norms and for failure to Improve upon their methods.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt;Le
        Reply
        1. G
          gopal
          Apr 19, 2016 at 3:59 am
          Tiger Scientists..we might have rhino scientists.. lion scientists..anyway we have lot of rat scientists.. time IE reports better.. Tiger numbers will always be disputed...you cannot make all the tigers stand in line and count them...some partially realistic and some guess work used to count tigers and this has been the case always.. time to write stories sensibly.
          Reply
          1. F
            freethinker
            Apr 19, 2016 at 9:44 am
            THIS IS A BIG PACK OF LIES. NOTHING MORE AND NOTHING LESS. WITH A FAST SHRINKING HABITAT AND POACHING IT IS NOT POSSIBLE FOR THE TIGER POTION TO INCREASE ALL OVER THE COUNTRY.
            Reply
            1. J
              J.K.Ahuja
              Apr 19, 2016 at 8:10 am
              I had been to Harbin , a big Chinese city in northern China bordering East Russia. There in Harbin is a huge Siberian tiger sanctuary and I was told that there are over 400 tigers in it ( infact I saw atleast 50-60 tigers while viewing the tiger show). Also I was informed that a couple of more such Siberian tiger sanctuaries exist in China, having similar number of tigers. But I am surprised to see the table mentioning only 7 tigers exist in China. So where does this 1000 odd Siberian tigers existing in the sanctuaries of north China go,in which category they fall. Can some one enlighten me? I request Mr Mazoomdar one of the country's most knowledgeable forest experts to elaborate on this point.
              Reply
              1. K
                keerkar
                Apr 19, 2016 at 7:39 am
                I think it is good that the tiger poted countries can come together on one platform and pledge for its conservation. Tiger count figures may be disputed for its accuracy, but if it is on the increasing side, we could keep it aside for the moment and focus on the conservation efforts. No point being so pessimistic about the w thing. The author could have been more constructive in his arguments, give suggestions on how to effect tiger conservation, rather than just list the faults of even having the countries come together to talk about it.
                Reply
                1. P
                  P Kaster
                  Aug 20, 2016 at 4:51 am
                  Almost all of them poached or smuggled illegally for the demands of people like you. Most of them abused, IL treated or abandoned when they don't look or behave like cute little kitties anymore. FYI - Tiger and every other big cat is a wild animal and an apex predator. A fact most 'Texans' probably don't ever learn. Shows your ignorance and sheer arrogance, if that is your atude to everything in life.
                  Reply
                  1. P
                    P Kaster
                    Aug 20, 2016 at 4:44 am
                    What is the point of this article? Tigers are not endangered because the number is 3000 and not 1500? Is there anything that 'The Indian Express' is suggesting here or providing as a solution for endangered species? Or is this the typical media language these days? - mockery, sarcasm and ic?
                    Reply
                    1. G
                      goldenfig
                      May 7, 2016 at 10:08 am
                      The tendency in India is to prioritise the rights of the Tiger over the human beings instead of treating all life as having equal rights. See Dwelling on Morichjhanpilt;br/gt;When Tigers Became ‘Citizens’,Refugees ‘Tiger-Food’, ANNU JALAIS, Economic and Political Weekly, April 23, 2005.pp 1757-1762. And see A Dirge for the Dammed, Keerti Ramachandra, hachette-india,2014, p 328-341. What a man cannot do for marrying off his daughter with dignity! Please governance is the need, truth for sustenance. Stop modern civilization in its tracks now.
                      Reply
                      1. S
                        Samir
                        Apr 19, 2016 at 4:05 am
                        Very analytical and superb report by Jay Mazoomdaar.
                        Reply
                        1. V
                          Varun
                          Apr 19, 2016 at 12:54 pm
                          The Siberian Tiger Sanctuary at Harbin is in reality a tiger farm, not a sanctuary as claimed. The number of tigers there do not count towards wild tiger potion estimates.
                          Reply
                          1. S
                            Sphinx
                            Apr 19, 2016 at 12:21 pm
                            They carry Russian pport. They keep on visiting China on tourist Visa.
                            Reply
                            1. Y
                              Yousef
                              Apr 19, 2016 at 2:56 am
                              The Indian yo-yo. BJP provides Bijli, sadak, pani. BSPA and Tigers. Then Congress comes and destroys all gains.
                              Reply
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