Still losing tigers: What the numbers really say

No, the tiger is not out of the woods. If numbers presented ahead of last week’s global tiger meet in New Delhi showed minor gains due to better counting methods, they also revealed massive losses.

No, the tiger is not out of the woods. If numbers presented ahead of last week’s global tiger meet in New Delhi showed minor gains due to better counting methods, they also revealed massive losses. (Reuters)

On April 11, a day before ministers of 13 tiger range countries assembled in New Delhi to pledge support for the big cat, a statement by the WWF-International and Global Tiger Forum claimed that the global tiger count was on the rise for the first time in a century. The global media went into a tizzy with the press release, and the delegates at the tiger gala looked suitably proud.

The claim is little more than a mockery of both science and sensibility. It is like concluding that the number of stars in the sky has gone up just because the invention of better telescopes has led to the discovery of faraway, hitherto invisible, celestial bodies.

Better enumeration methods through refined camera trapping and DNA analysis, etc. now increasingly account for animals that were either missed or not identified as separate individuals previously. Yet, given that the elusive tiger’s habitat includes some of the most remote and hostile terrain on earth, the truth is that we simply do not know — and may never know — exactly how many tigers there are in the wild.

The new global figure of 3,890 is an aggregate of what each tiger country has claimed as its tiger population. It has no benchmark for accuracy, as different countries use different counting methods, ranging from refined extrapolation based on sophisticated camera trapping to rudimentary spoor (pug mark tracks, droppings, even scent) surveys. In fact, even the 2010 global tiger population of 3,200, against which the current figure of 3,890 is being compared to claim a gain, was only a guesstimate (See chart).


At different points and going by different ‘authoritative’ sources, the tiger population during 2009-11 could have been anything between 3,000 and 4,000. Somehow, the global consensus was to settle for 3,200, with a goal to double the number by 2022. Halfway to the deadline, some ‘encouraging’ data was perhaps in order.

The claim has already drawn flak from a number of tiger scientists, including some who were not invited to last week’s jamboree. While it is easy to attack the claim on numbers, some have questioned the feasibility of doubling the world’s tiger population by 2022, the goal of the Global Tiger Recovery Programme (GTRP), built on the foundation of all 13 National Tiger Recovery Priorities (NTRPs).

GTRP had itself modified its ambitious target and eventually settled for a 60% increase — from 3,643 to 5,870 — by 2022. Though a tall order, achieving the goal is not a theoretical impossibility. A landmark 2010 study had identified 42 ‘source’ forests that contain almost 70% of all remaining wild tigers. The remaining populations are found in fringe habitats — ‘sink’ forests — that are typically fragmented and unsafe for the big cat.

The 2010 study went on to say: “Even source sites, however, have depressed tiger populations. Only five, all of which are in India, maintain tiger populations close (>80%) to their estimated carrying capacity. Thus, the recovery of populations in source sites alone would result in a 70% increase in the world’s tiger population.”

However, some of the authors of that study have now cautioned that doubling of the world’s tigers in 10 years was not a realistic proposition because 70%-90% of tigers were in ‘source’ populations with slow growth, and it was unlikely that the ‘sink’ populations would multiply rapidly.

In fact, few were ever hopeful of meeting the target of the ‘TX2: Double Wild Tigers’ programme. Likewise, the celebratory claim about a global rise in numbers for the first time in a century deserved no more than a chuckling dismissal. But for the timing. It came a day ahead of the Third Asian Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation where Prime Minister Narendra Modi, among others, pledged support for conservation.

It also came at a time when India’s forests and its 2,000-odd surviving tigers are faced with an unprecedented development spree under a government committed to rapid single-window clearance for destroying forest land.

And at a time when successive governments at the Centre and in the states have succeeded in getting institutions such as the Wildlife Institute of India and National Tiger Conservation Authority to dilute their stand so that national highways can trifurcate the forests of central India without having to undertake adequate mitigation measures necessary for the tiger to have its right of way.

Since 2010, tigers may or may not have increased in numbers across the world. But they have certainly disappeared from 40% of the forests they roamed until 10 years ago. For all practical purposes, they are extinct in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Vietnam and China. In India, the tiger habitat has shrunk by more than 25% in the last decade. This is certainly not the time for an orchestrated ‘All is well’ chant. And that is why this toast is in rather poor taste.

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