Faulty Counts May Have Hurt India Tigers, Experts Say

Pallava Bagla in New Delhi
for National Geographic News
August 7, 2003

Decades of counting India's wild tiger population by studying pug (paw) marks in the earth have come to nil. Indian and United States researchers have concluded that the technique is misleading. The data collected in this way has led to wrong estimates of the size of the population of the country's wild tigers and, as a result, to "poor conservation practices," the experts say.

The findings of the investigation has already spurred India's Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) to launch a new 1.1 million dollar (U.S.) hi-tech tiger habitat and population monitoring mechanism, which not only hopes to gather data by using India's remote-sensing satellites but also endeavors to prepare a geographical information system (GIS)-based tiger atlas for the entire country.

India's traditional tiger census method, and the numbers it has produced, has long been a matter of debate in conservation circles. Using the pugmark technique, the current official tiger population in the wild in India is placed at 3,624— not one more or less.

The method used to count the numbers of this elusive, nocturnal animal that survives because of its brilliant camouflage, has always been controversial, but this is the first time a scientific paper establishes exact reasons for criticism.

Recognized as the last sanctuary for the wild population of the Royal Bengal Tiger, India today has 27 designated Project Tiger Reserves that, according to official estimates, support 1,576 tigers.

Considered a jewel in the crown of the Indian conservation movement, Project Tiger had a budget of seven million dollars (U.S.) last year. In a rare admission that things were not right, T. R. Baalu, India's environment minister, recently said the tiger population in the country had declined from 3,836 in 1997 to 3,642 in 2002.

India has traditionally estimated tiger numbers by laboriously collecting and then comparing impressions of tiger footprints, based on the assumption that each tiger pugmark is unique.

Now, writing in the latest issue of the British journal Animal Conservation, published by the Zoological Society of London, a nine-member team of scientists categorically states that "three decades of tiger monitoring has basically failed in India, despite being backed by massive investments and best of intentions."

The Indo-American team of wildlife biologists that made the finding includes top names like K. Ullas Karanth, carnivore ecologist from the Wildlife Conservation Society, New York; A. J. T. John Singh, wildlife biologist from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun; John Seidensticker, wildlife biologist at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Washington, D.C; James D. Nichols, bio-statistician at the U.S. Geological Service, Maryland; Eric Dinerstein, chief scientist World Wildlife Fund-US, Washington, D.C.; Charles McDougal, anthropologist of Tiger Tops, Nepal; and Valmik Thapar, a well-known tiger expert.

They suggest that conservation of India's wild tigers would be better served by adopting sampling-based approaches rather than trying to fix exact numbers.

The authors of the paper say there is deficiency of science in the conservation practice in India, especially in the procedure universally adopted in the country for estimating tiger populations, which is the three-decade-old pugmark census approach. This approach involves taking plaster casts or tracings of pugmarks and then, based on data collation and analysis, exact tiger numbers are calculated.

The investigating scientists say the pugmark approach is nonsense, since of the 300,000 square kilometers of tiger habitat in India only an "unknown fraction" is searched intensively.

Continued on Next Page >>


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