Sunday, November 26, 2017
Sunday, November 19, 2017
The estimation indicated a 30 percent increase in the tiger population over the last census of 2010, with an estimate of 2,226 tigers
This article is an exclusive extract from the author’s forthcoming memoir, Environment Through Finance Eyes.
Today, tigers have indeed become a hugely conservation-dependent species. The major threats to tigers are: poaching that is driven by an illegal international demand for tiger parts and products; depletion of tiger prey caused by illegal bush meat consumption; and habitat loss due to the ever increasing demand for forested lands. To gauge the success of conservation efforts as well as to have a finger on the pulse of tiger population and their ecosystems, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in collaboration with the State Forest Departments, National Conservation NGOs, and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) conducts a National assessment for the Status of Tigers, Co-predators, Prey and their Habitat every four years.
The methodology used for this assessment was approved by the Tiger Task Force in 2005. The first assessment was done in 2006. It had estimated 1,411 tigers (lower and upper limits being 1,165 and 1,657) and the last country level estimation of 2010 had indicated a figure of 1706 (lower and upper limits being 1,520-1,909 tigers). However, the 2010 assessment also showed a decline in tiger occupied area. This decline in tiger occupancy was recorded in areas outside of tiger reserves, indicating loss of habitat quality and extent – a crucial element essential for maintaining genetic connectivity between individual tiger populations. To address this vital conservation concern, the NTCA in collaboration with the WII had delineated the minimal tiger habitat corridors connecting tiger reserves for implementing landscape scale tiger conservation. All tiger reserves began managing their tiger populations based on a tiger conservation plan (TCP), which addresses specific prescriptions for core, buffer, and corridor habitats.
Also Read: The Full Tiger Series by Sudhansu Mohanty
The NTCA and Project Tiger’s moment of glory came in January 2015. The third round of country level tiger status assessment had been completed in 2014, and the team had put together its findings. Now the estimation indicated a 30 percent increase in the tiger population over the last census of 2010, with an estimate of 2,226 – the lower and upper limits being 1,945 and 2,491 respectively. Looked another way, it suggested that India now was home to around 70% of tiger population amongst the 13 tiger-range countries in the world. India’s long history of conserving the species through Project Tiger had come of age. A thrilled Prakash Javadekar who released the estimation report and wrote out the number – 2,226 – on the white board in front of a packed audience, went on to delightfully say that India now was also prepared to export tigers to any country of the world that was interested in conserving this flagship and charismatic animal in the wild!
Every success brings with it dollops of imaginary skepticism and gobs of jealousy from fellow practitioners or those who archly pretend to be one. The intent often is malicious and sinister to trash and fluff the study, and least to do with questioning data on scientific basis. It was hence no different even in the tiger-land. Soon a nattering group of biologists questioned the reliability of India’s recently released tiger population estimation published in a journal from Oxford. I was surprised when I first heard about it. And I wondered: Was it a case of envy and neglect or lack of visibility or all of the above that seeded this and prompted them to question the assessment? I checked with people who were in the know of things. I wasn’t far off in my surmise. The issue went on for a few months. Eventually, it was the team of two outstanding scientists of the Wildlife Institute of India, Yadvendradev Jhala and Qamar Qureshi, who nailed the lies in an article in the April 2015 issue of Sanctuary Asia. I can do no better than let the duo speak in their words and explain it best.
“The reliability of India’s recent tiger population estimation has been questioned by a paper published in a scientific journal by authors from Oxford.
Since 2005, a group of biologists led by Dr. Ullas Karanth have been critical of India’s tiger status assessments. The paper published by his student from Oxford is a reiteration and synthesis of these views. Essentially, the paper criticises the very basis of sound ecological relationships using theoretical statistical models that are based on reducing the quantum of sign intensity of tigers to mere presence or absence. The paper and subsequent press releases consider the use of double sampling in estimating tiger numbers as flawed. The paper further states that the logic of presuming that there should be more tigers in areas where we find more tiger signs is not reliable, though we have demonstrated such relationships with data repeatedly.”
Also Read Part-I: e-Eye Of The Tiger
Then they explain step by step, how the tiger estimation is carried out across the country; the scientific and the pragmatic rationale and the processes involved; the other option of camera trapping all areas for greater accuracy that’s financially costly and in pockets of low tiger numbers even unreliable, compared to the present scat-based DNA analysis.
“We first establish relationships of tiger abundance with tiger habitat extent and quality, prey abundance, human pressures and intensity of tiger signs from areas where we have very reliable information on tiger density through camera traps. We subsequently use this relationship to predict tiger abundance in areas where camera traps cannot be deployed, but are known to have tigers. The Oxford paper in the Journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution and press releases offer few alternatives to our approach at estimating tiger abundance at the landscape scale. The paper talks about using joint distribution modelling of covariates, without realising that this approach too is a form of double sampling – the same principle used by us and ingrained in ecological and statistical theory. Often ‘occupancy analysis’ is considered as an alternative to population estimation.
Occupancy provides estimates of where tigers are found, or more importantly, are likely to be found. We estimate tiger occupancy as a probability of a forest patch to harbour tigers. But occupancy does not tell us anything about how many tigers there are – just that tigers are likely present. Clearly, occupancy is not a solution to estimating tiger numbers.
Also Read Part-III: Tigers’ Wellness Is Our Wellness Too
All this understandably ends up confusing the public and even decision-makers. Differences of opinion are essential and can be positive to conservation. But as we see it, the only theoretical alternative that might serve the purpose even better than what we have been able to achieve for the latest tiger status assessment would be to camera trap all areas where tigers occur. This would unquestionably provide a more precise estimate, but the resources required would be too large, and in some areas that have very low tiger numbers, camera trapping itself would prove to be an unreliable data gathering tool, when compared, for instance, to scat-based DNA analysis. There is the additional problem of stolen cameras (and consequent data loss) that virtually every field biologist has come to terms with when working in human-dominated areas.
The bottom line, in our view, is that this approach may be ideal, but it is impractical. Until scientists are able to camera trap all tiger occupied areas, we cannot currently see a better option to our approach, which uses the best available science and technology to provide reliable estimates of tiger numbers in India. It should be noted that 77 percent of our estimated mid-point of 2,226 tigers came from camera trap data (1,570 individual tigers photo-captured). The remaining 23 per cent were estimated from faecal DNA, plus models based on sound ecological relationships. The actual number of tigers in India are anywhere between 1,945 and 2,491, signifying a major conservation success story.”
Also Read Part-IV: Environment vs. Development: Who Wins?
Succinctly put, Jhala and Qureshi stopped short of calling it a glaring instance of intellectual dishonesty, but to the discerning it was nothing but just that. I’m fairly confident that the duo will soon enough irrevocably nail the lies peddled in a scientific journal to discredit the national tiger survey results as inaccurate and muddling the readers mind. I guess tigers in the wild not only evoke lots of thrill but also oodles of jealousy and heartburns for the also-rans, and consequentially plenitude of shenanigans. I call these aberrations the tiger politics in India where, like any areas of high visibility, the two-legged creatures who fall by the wayside outshone by others on merit and hard yards put in, bristle in green envy and take periodic shambolic potshots at others who strictly follow the ethics of scientific methodology and NTCA’s protocol for tiger population estimation and tiger conservation management. And if I may add in a lighter vein, notwithstanding the fact that despite their leonine persona, the tigers exhibit “secular” values, and are “democratic” in their outlook and behaviour – something truly admirable in today’s fraught times of polarised outlook!
[… to be concluded on Sunday, Nov 26th]
(Reproduced from Indus Dictum, 19.11.2017)
By the time I visited the Kanha Tiger Reserve the first time in May 2014, I had dug deep into important issues of conservation & natural regeneration.
This article is an exclusive extract from the author’s forthcoming memoir, Environment Through Finance Eyes.
By the time I visited the Kanha Tiger Reserve the first time in May 2014, I had dug deep into important issues of conservation and natural regeneration – the need to let nature go about its own unique way and repair the damages wrought on it. My myriad discussions with Rajesh Gopal, Himmat Negi, and SP (the first two are former Field Directors of Kanha Tiger Reserve) in the Ministry, and with the many visiting Field Directors of TRs had helped allay my misgivings.
Village relocation was another abiding issue that just refused to go away. Simply put, it meant families staying in the core areas need to be relocated outside to make the Tiger Reserves inviolate. The natural regeneration of the vacated spots – despoiled by man – lets the area to slowly lurch forward, gathering pace as it went along, and in 3-4 years it’s restored to its unsullied, pristine form. I heard this from experts but didn’t believe them wholly, though I thought it would be impolite to say anything to the contrary. But my disbelief stayed. The compensation package of Rs 10 lakh for a family was attractive enough for these people otherwise denied the benefits of modernisation, to decide and move out. The amount needed was huge, the fund allocation rather small.
It was Jasbir Singh Chauhan, the Field Director of Kanha TR who put my doubts to rest. Jasbir is an ebullient forester, a no-nonsense man and full of beans. He knew not only Kanha’s terrain and topography and the roads winding up and down the meadows and ravines like the back of his palm, but also the numerous personnel who manned the vastly sprawled out reserve. Driving under the tall imperial sal forests climbing into high heavens, past the ubiquitous spotted deer, barking deer, sambar, four-horned deer, gaur, swamp deer, and the hard ground barasingha on either side of the road, as we reached the spot and alighted from our Gypsy, my first impression was that of a restored and rejuvenated body taking baby steps in its path to recovery during a difficult period of convalescence.
It still looked a medley – a legacy of human habitation where the pure is made to turn impure and the good into bad – and contrasted sharply with the grasslands that lay just beyond in eye-catching distance. But a little deeper look and it promised to be getting there. That was gratifying. There was a mass of people who had congregated in anticipation of our visit, both forest officials as well as a few evacuees. I spoke to them seeking out an evacuee to know how life’s been in the civilization and if he had settled in to a secure life. He beamed at me and said, “Yes, it’s been good!” Looking at the motorbike he rode in on, he narrated how it was his first buy from the compensation amount he had received, and how it now carries him to places he wishes to go. Someone standing close by chipped in, “He even hired a driver in the initial days since he didn’t know how to drive, and he rode pillion!” The evacuee smiled hugely, blithely acquiescing with the statement.
Kanha Tiger Reserve follows the National Tiger Conservation Authority protocols and the standard operating procedures to the tee. They keep records of all relocated families, keeping tabs on them, helping the evacuees to resettle and start a new life in alien surrounds. My eyes swept right, then swept left, and then swept over the entire landscape that travelled yonder, and my mind drew a photomontage of how pathetic and sore the rolling landscape would’ve looked when humans inhabited the place and (mercilessly) pillaged for a better living! My reservations were getting weaker by the minute. But doubt still lingered and stayed quite the course. Only on the drive back, I discussed this issue with Jasbir wondering how nature’s self-limiting capacity, like the human body’s, too restores and returns the land to normalcy. So vitiated our modern vision has become with contamination and adulteration, that the virgin and the pristine and the pure seem beyond our seeking!
I sought this out as gratification for my eyes on my second visit to Kanha after the rains some seven months later, in December 2014. It looked restored, almost nearly so, and at peace with the surrounds. “Three good rains do the trick!” exclaimed Jasbir, a sense of pride and satisfaction suffusing his cherubic face. “After it’s restored, the land merges with the adjoining areas and forms one whole for our conservation programme – as grassland, or as experimental plots parceled out, depending on the need, or at times receiving fire treatment including cold fire, if so needed.” I was getting my tutorials on conservation in the wild, and shrinking my personal world of abject ignorance.
Tourist pressure in core area continues with Kanha. In a way, it’s natural. If you’ve a beautiful thing to offer why grudge others wishing to partake of the yummy pie! But there are limits on the number of tourists who can visit the reserve every day and the demand seems to be billowing. No conservationist would like tourists to flood the park and ravage it. I remember vividly one evening as we sat discussing the management action plan of Kanha TR, Jasbir Chauhan picking up his throbbing mobile. “I’m sorry there’s no vacant room,” he said. “Am sorry there isn”t any available for me to spare. Am sorry,” he said, an edge of anger suffusing his voice, and called off. It was a judge of some nearby High Court calling, with a request for a room, as a State guest. Jasbir was upfront and forthright.
“Why can’t they pay instead of freeloading?” I asked.
“They’re like that!” Chauhan snapped again at the imaginary Judge, now with greater vehemence. “They want to be treated as State Guests – always!” His voice was dispirited, though tinged with sarcasm, and his face was screwed up. His grimace said it all.
A compromise to keep the tourists’ desire and TR’s needs should help. I had often thought about it every time I stepped into a reserve, and had got no answer. Till the day when shortly after a late lunch, around three in the afternoon, Jasbir drove us to what they called the Rewilding Centre. The moniker itself appeared an oxymoron: what kind of rewilding there could be, and where’s the need for all that in the midst of wilderness, where wild animals anyway romped and frolicked freely to their heart’s content, and the carnivores gorged on the ungulates and preyed limitlessly to their heart’s content? It was hot and gummy, and I was tired and deadbeat after the long winding early morning round that had gone on well beyond noon. I was also feeling enervated and sleepy, and didn’t ask Jasbir to apprise me beforehand the activities they do at the Centre. It was only when we pulled over that he started telling me the things they do there.
“Many years ago, infighting or death of mother-tigresses in the Kanha TR gave rise to a piquant situation: rearing orphaned tiger cubs,” Jasbir explained. “They were too precious to be left to the vagaries of the wild when they were not wild enough to hunt! That’s when the idea of rearing and rewilding the orphan cubs took roots. A specially designed in-situenclosure typical of a tiger habitat with water body and large enough to mimic the natural wild was built here in the Mukki range. When small, these cubs were fed on milk, egg and meshed meat, even small live goats. Later, as they grew bigger they’re released into the enclosure to run and hunt ungulates let in this arena to gorge on natural prey base. This was a period of learning and training – rewilding – for them.”
Soon enough the success of the facility helped to innovate some more. “Now injured ones are picked up, apart from the orphaned tigers,” Jasbir continued, “for treatment and put here. Some are restored to normal health soon enough, but the seriously injured ones take considerable time to get fit and ready to live on their own off nature. They’ve to hunt and fend for themselves in the wild and it isn’t easy unless they’re normal and on a roll. Also, long periods of food served to them during recovery make them lose their natural ability to hunt. Hence the need to rewild them.”
This was something I’d never heard before. My mind drooping till then suddenly awoke with a thud. We enthusiastically climbed the tall steps to view the rewilding arena where little by little the tigers are put through their paces to help revive their natural instinct and gain confidence. I rolled the thoughts in my head: Rather than offering preys on a platter as during periods of convalescence and recovery, the preys are let into the enclosure where the tigers chase and hunt to have their fill; and once they – injured or infant – regained the skill to hunt, they’re let out in the wild. This was quite intriguing for my novitiate’s mind.
I didn’t know this experience would set off a wild thought in my head. When we met in the evening to discuss the day’s happenings, I asked SP and Jasbir – my ideas still inchoate, still in an embryonic state and still wrestling to hammer out the details in my disembodied mind – if it wasn’t possible to propose a tiger safari in the buffer or fringe areas, going by and taking a cue from what one had seen today – rewilding of tigers! I asked gingerly, my voice low and lacking in self-belief and conviction, not sure how my ideas would sound to wildlife experts and practitioners, but I said it nonetheless, to get it off my chest. Both responded positively, even with alacrity, with SP pitching in that the NTCA protocol provides it too! I asked him why the hell he hadn’t told me this before! I could’ve spared my dunderhead from being put through the wringer!
It was a Eureka moment. We discussed in great detail if Kanha could experiment on this. Funds were least of the problems, the National Tiger Conservation Authority could bankroll it; in any case it involved a small amount of 2-3 crore rupees, largely for the wired fencing in 4-5 hectares of land and laying out the jeep driveway. The aged tigers could be lodged in here and feed off the ungulates available naturally in the fringe forest land. The safari, preferably on solar power-driven vehicles, could be an hour long. Sighting was assured. That would satiate man’s craving. And, the return on investment fairly quick; over time, it could even supplement the Tiger Reserve’s coffers. Visualising this scenario, I was beside myself with joy.
Soon thereafter, I was delighted to learn that the Madhya Pradesh government had begun work with great fervour to get the tiger safari off the ground. It was the realisation that the global community’s passionate interest in tigers held a unique window of opportunity to educate and spread awareness that architected creation of International Tiger Center. Much effort went into its making to turn it into much more than a safari – using the charismatic tiger as a metaphor for ideal environmental engagement with tourists. But, sadly, as I write these lines now three years since, I understand there hasn’t been much progress after the initial burst of interest. Such a pity!
(Reproduced from Indus Dictum, 12.11.2017)