Behind the beautiful number of 2,226 lie some distressing realities for India's tigers

Are wildlife figures meant to best reflect reality, or merely to keep saying 'all is well'?

Numbers are ostensibly the simplest indicators of success in wildlife conservation. A rise in numbers is greeted with much fanfare and jubilation. As a standalone factor, however, numbers can – or be adapted – to create an illusion of security.

Since last year, India has celebrated wildlife numbers on at least three occasions. First, India’s tiger population saw a purported 30% rise from 1,706 to 2,226. Then it was the leopard population in the country, which was estimated to be around 10,000-12,000. And finally, news came in just before the 3rd Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation earlier this year that the world’s tiger population had increased from 3,200 to 3,890 in just over five years.

While it may appear that everything is going right, reading between the lines tells a different story.

Throwback to the 1990s

“In the absence of relevant details, one cannot read too much meaning into any of these numbers,” said Ullas Karanth, Director for Science-Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society, in his essay “India’s Tiger Counts: The Long March to Reliable Science”.

After all, these numbers are estimates are derived by scientific methodologies. Improper implementation of methodologies is unlikely to generate numbers of practical value. Wildlife scientists of international repute, including Karanth, have questioned these estimates. This should have ignited scientific debates. Instead, their voices have been repeatedly ignored, raising doubts about priorities.

Are these figures meant to best reflect reality, or to keep saying “all is well”? And why?

This is reminiscent of India’s stubborn policy of the 1990s. Ignoring expert opinions and technical abilities, the country pushed on with the unreliable “pugmark census” method of counting tigers, resulting in an estimate of 3,642 big cats in 2002. Had this bubble not been burst by the controversy over Sariska’s missing tigers, we might have had “more” tigers today than ever.

False luxury

Sweeping numbers – over large geographic scales – also misrepresent or allow glossing over ground realities. These do not reveal the extreme threats that our wildlife faces on the ground.

For instance, these numbers tempt us to overlook dangers of “six-laning” Highway 7 and 6 to the critical Kanha-Pench forest corridor in Madhya Pradesh, the landscape that supports 10% of the world’s tigers. They also do not divulge much about unscientific backtracking by the government’s “scientific body” on necessary mitigation measures, nor the decade-long fight for justice by individual conservationists.

Numbers impress upon us a false luxury. Sadly, Kanha-Pench corridor is just one of many distressing realities for India’s national animal, hidden behind the beautiful number of 2,226.

Moreover, national or international numbers have little conservation implications at a local level, where wildlife issues need to be viewed and addressed in space and time.

A national population of 10,000-12,000 leopards seems a healthy figure, when unfairly (albeit unconsciously) compared with tigers. Notwithstanding the value of this estimate, experts are unwilling to back this figure given that leopards and people are killed in conflicts on an almost daily basis.

“I think acceptance of people towards the predators is a [greater] sign of conservation success,” said ecologist Dr Vidya Athreya, who has been a part of the Maharashtra forest department’s sustained efforts at facilitating leopard-people co-existence in a metropolis like Mumbai, among others.

Aggravating conflicts

Finally, without adequate viable habitats, our infatuation with high numbers can be extremely risky. We are already witnessing increasing instances of wildlife movement, even in drastically human-modified environments.

With habitats under siege from aggressive unscientific development drives, conflicts are only likely to get aggravated. Add to this unscientific handling of conflicts by bureaucrats and conservationists alike – risking public support for wildlife – and we have the perfect blend for a disaster.

None of this is new information. Post the Sariska controversy, during an introspective phase by the tiger bureaucracy, the Tiger Task Force (2005) even noted the need to build upon “democratic, inclusive traditions of science…to foster a healthy growth of wildlife biology in the country".

Yet, this and other recommendations of the task force remain neglected, as do scientists who ask inconvenient questions.

Wildlife research and conservation is an evolving field. The country can either allow it to grow with the times, or as before, rigidly maintain status quo till disaster strikes.

“Conservation is not a choice but an imperative,” said the prime minister. With its resources and leadership, India can find sustainable solutions for its wildlife and its people. However, this must begin with acknowledging the problems. The least we can do is to not let the problems be concealed by numbers.

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