India’s Biggest big cat count starts
New Delhi: India has launched a fresh tiger counting exercise, the world’s largest wildlife estimation effort, amid lingering concerns about poaching and the challenges of creating and protecting 32 corridors to help tigers move safely between protected areas.
Wildlife biologists and forest officials will in the coming months trudge through tiger habitats across the country, deploy over 14,000 cameras at strategic points in the wild and use mathematical models for a tiger population estimate for 2018, the fourth such exercise since 2006.
The earlier counts have shown slight increases in tiger populations – 1,411 in 2006, 1,706 in 2010, and 2,226 in 2014 – but sections of wildlife specialists had three years ago questioned the methodology, saying it used an outdated statistical technique for the estimate.
But officials with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and scientists with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, say the 2018 exercise – with a Rs 10-crore bill – will add precision to estimates through more cameras, higher sampling intensity and refined estimation strategies.
“The objective is to get as close to the truth as possible – but we cannot catch every tiger on camera,” said Yadvendradev Jhala, a senior wildlife biologist at the WII. “The estimation will also rely on signs of tigers and variables such as prey density and human presence.”
A senior NTCA official said more than 5,000 people were expected to be involved in the survey across over 400,000sqkm of tiger-bearing forests in 18 states.
The NTCA plans to enhance surveillance and the number of cameras in the northeastern states for more reliable estimates there than during 2014
The counting exercise comes amid persisting concerns that poaching remains the leading cause of death among tigers after natural causes. An analysis of 408 tiger deaths between 2012 and 2017 found 54 per cent due to natural causes, 22 per cent to poaching and 15 per cent to seizures.
NTCA officials believe the poaching is largely driven by a global market for tiger parts, primarily for Chinese traditional medicines, although the use of tiger bones was removed from the traditional Chinese medicine pharmacopoeia in 1993 when Beijing first introduced a domestic ban on tiger trade.
Despite India’s rise in tiger counts over the past decade, conservation officials say, there is not enough space for tigers. Scientific studies suggest that a population of 80 to 100 tigers with at least 20 breeding females requires at least 800sqkm of inviolate space.
“The corresponding average protected area is only about 212sqkm,” said Vaibhav Mathur, a senior NTCA official. “This is insufficient for a viable tiger population, hence we need to and are following a landscape approach to tiger conservation.”
While tiger populations are doing well in many protected areas such as Corbett, Ranthambore or Kanha, officials say, there is a critical need to create and safeguard corridors to allow tigers to cross over from one protected area into another.
“We’ve identified 32 tiger corridors across India,” Mathur said.
The corridors are not “no-go” regions, but areas where development activities need to take into account special measures to allow safe passage for tigers.
In the case of linear projects such as railway lines or roads, one option would be to create special elevated or underground passages to keep tigers and other wildlife away from the path of traffic.