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Tracking the tiger



INDIAN EXPRESS
Neha Sinha, 8th September, 2009

New Delhi : How does one count India’s tigers which straddle wetland, grassland, mountains and mangroves? With 90,000 people, Rs 8 crore and two years of hard work.

The world’s biggest-ever count for the big cat the All India Tiger Estimation is unfolding shortly. Currently, instructions and methods of data collection are being translated into regional languages Assamese, Bengali, Kannada, Oriya, Hindi, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam for forest staff. In October’s first week, training of forest staff through workshops in different parts of India will be held.

In 2007, using cameras and modern tiger-tracking techniques for the first time for counting tigers, Wildlife Institute of India (WII) had come up with a startlingly low number of wild Indian tigers: 1,411 only. This time, the census, to be conducted by WII with the help of NGOs, will be much bigger. It will include the uncounted mangrove tigers in Sunderbans and give an accurate count of tigers in the Northeast. Also, 60 students/researchers will be recruited by WII for the census.

A new software which will be key in basic field observations by field guards in a digital format is being used this year.

The exhaustive tiger census will be conducted in three phases. In the first phase, tiger signs will be searched for. Data collection for this phase will start in November. In the second phase, remote-sensing techniques will be used. In the third phase, camera-traps will be used to photograph tigers. In each camera-trapping exercise, one set of two cameras, triggered off by tiger movement, is used to capture both sides of the tiger. One camera is used every 4 km in high-density tiger areas.

“We are starting training workshops for forest staff. By May 2010, we hope to finish phase I over central India, Terai, Northeast and Sunderbans. By the time of the Global Tiger Summit, we will have the distribution, numbers and occupancy of tigers over major tiger landscapes in these areas,” says Yadavendra Jhala, from WII who is one of the scientists conducting the census.

India will host a Global Tiger Summit in October next year in Ranthambhore. By then, a basic count of major breeding tiger populations high or low will be readied to announce to the rest of the international participants at the summit. This comes at a time when tiger numbers are at an all-time low.

In a recent estimate, the National Tiger Conservation Authority has found that out of the 37 tiger reserves in the country, 16 have poor tiger density. In the last one year, above 60 tigers are estimated to have died. The new number the census will unearth is unlikely to be cheerful but will also lay to rest grossly exaggerated tiger numbers which state forest departments have estimated.

The challenge posed by difficult habitats the mountains in the Northeast, the mangroves in Sunderbans and dense grasslands in other areas had limited the scope of the 2007 census. The tigers of Sunderbans, which straddle inhospitable mangrove habitat, were not counted at all. There was only a preliminary tiger count for the Eastern and Northeastern tiger reserves like Kaziranga (Assam), Namdapha (Arunachal Pradesh) Dampa (Mizoram) and West Bengal’s Buxa tiger reserve. This time, tiger populations from all tiger reserves with the possible exemption of some Naxalism-ridden areas like Indrawati (Chhattisgarh), Palamau (Jharkhand) and Simlipal (Orissa) will be counted.

The count will put to rest claims that many states make on having “hundreds of tigers”. West Bengal has long maintained that Sunderbans has “200-300 tigers”, a fact scoffed at by tiger experts. At a recent all-India summit of field directors in Sariska, Buxa field director claimed his park had 200 tigers. Orissa, too, claims to have nearly 100 tigers.

But currently, as many as seven tiger reserves, which face problems of insurgency and poor tiger density, just don’t know how many tigers they have, or if they have any tigers at all. These are Indravati, Simlipal (Orissa), Palamau (Jharkhand), Manas (Assam), Namdapha (Arunachal Pradesh), Dampa (Mizoram) and Buxa (West Bengal).

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