In July, the tiger census report showcased a significant achievement for India’s conservation efforts. The population of the animal had gone up by more than 700 since 2014, according to the report. That India was home to nearly 3,000 tigers was a remarkable improvement over 2006-2007, when the population of the animal in the country had hit an all-time low of about 1,400. An investigation by this newspaper, last week, has, however, raised questions over this enumeration. It shows that the survey conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) over-reported the country’s tiger population by 16 per cent. The tiger numbers had, no doubt, gone up. But the investigation revealed the population of the animal could be 221 less than that claimed by the survey.
This is not the first time that questions have been asked of the tiger census. The crisis in Sariska in 2005, when this newspaper reported that all tigers had been wiped out from the national park in Rajasthan, shone a light on the flaws of the pug mark method used to arrive at the animal’s population. This method was highly subjective and riddled with the possibility of duplication, scientists argued. After 2006, a more rigorous three-phase method was adopted to count tigers. This involved collecting data on the presence of the tiger and its prey base. Satellite surveys were used to assess the state of the animal’s habitat. And, finally, camera-traps were set up in selected pockets to identify individual tigers. This method helped the country’s conservation authorities to arrive at more realistic numbers of the animal than those enumerated through the pug mark method. Questions, however, continued to be raised about the tiger audits. For example, the quality of the camera traps was a major issue in many tiger habitats. But the WII and NTCA worked on fool-proofing the census’s methods. However, the latest tiger census did not follow well-established norms of tiger population estimation. For example, population surveys typically disregard very young tigers because of their high mortality. But 46 tigers counted in the census were less than a year old. The survey also disregarded other protocols, including those used to identify the uniqueness of an individual animal through its stripes.
The Royal Bengal Tiger is the poster child of India’s conservation efforts. Its numbers are a matter of international prestige for the country. Confined largely to India, the animal sits at the top of the food chain of several ecosystems and its population is a good indicator of the health of these habitats. Institutions responsible for its enumeration must, therefore, be guided by ecological imperatives — and eschew the temptation of scoring immediate brownie points.