The tiger riddle from India: A census raising more questions than credible answers
Saikat Kumar Basu, Lethbridge, AB Canada – these are the author’s own views
The recent census on the tiger population of India indicating 30% rise is a path breaking, welcome news for wildlife enthusiasts across the globe. There is no doubt tiger conservation has been greatly successful in India and government initiatives must be applauded for this monumental success. Furthermore, tiger resides at the top of the food chain and is considered as a flag ship species. A healthy tiger population is an indicator of an affluent prey base including several herbivores and is also reflective of the general good health of the local ecosystem.
It is important to note that the level of human-animal conflict between tiger and remote, rural, forest-fringe resident human populations is much less (with the exception of the Sunderban belt) compared to those recently reported for human-elephant and human-leopard conflicts across the country. This could have contributed to the better survival rates for wild tigers. Furthermore, poaching incidents on wild tigers have considerably gone down compared to several other wildlife species such as the one horned Indian rhinoceros. Yet an abrupt increase of 30% for the entire nation is questionable.
Whether the population figure of 2,226 provided by the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change can be accepted with credible statistical confidence; based on the natural breeding rates of wild tiger subspecies reported across the world and alarmingly high rate of habitat degradation needs serious introspection. If by chance the figures are inflated or flawed due to errors in the sampling and recording process; tiger conservation could be seriously impacted on a long term basis based on the prejudices of false success rates.
Had this assessment been done by an independent agency with global reputation in surveying wildlife populations across the world, the figure provided could have been cheered for trumpeting the success of conservation efforts in India. However, we must remember that for decades Indian forest officials using the age old pug mark survey methods provided erroneous figures of tentative tiger population of the nation which have been severely criticized by the international communities for grossly inflated or erroneous values.
The multiple-camera imaging method is much better; but not considered full proof for high level of accuracy in projecting tentative census figures and hence the current figure is strongly contested. The best option would have been the latest DNA sampling from tiger scats, furs, teeth, blood, saliva, skin and other tangible body parts across the nation and maintaining a comprehensive, national tiger DNA database register.
The challenge of such sampling process and expenditures would be much higher; however, the numbers estimated would have been much closer to the true population of wild tigers. A judicious combination of camera trap method and DNA sampling would further add to the credibility of the results projected in the future. In addition, it will be also important to survey the population dynamics of different local prey species to corroborate the findings of wild tiger populations to analyse if the projected census figures are closer to the truth.