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Tiger Estimates: Try This Number

 

by N.S. Ramnath
Forbes - India

A new, more refined method adopted by the NTCA to estimate India’s tiger population is bringing cheer to conservationists

In the world of conservation, bigger fights have been fought around measurements and estimates than around intent and policies. Reports and data on environment issues often span decades, even centuries, capturing long-term trends. Its acceptance depends on faith in scientific methods—and even a small dent there could provoke deep emotions.  

By comparison, knowing the number of tigers that go around our forests would seem relatively easy. But it is not. Any amateur photographer on a tiger safari knows how difficult it's even to spot a tiger. In India, for a long time, forest officials have been using a proxy—pugmarks. But that was unreliable and prone to manipulation. In 2004, in Sariska, officials said there were 24 tigers based on pugmarks. It turned out there was not a single tiger. A year later, India discarded the pugmark technique, and started following a more refined system, one that relied on strategically-placed, automatically-triggered cameras. The stripes on the tigers are as unique as finger prints, so photos help in better estimates.

Still, the system followed by National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) suffers from a few drawbacks. The first is that the scientific survey happens only once in four years; and in a fragile system that is a long gap. Secondly, it's not really a census because the output is just an estimate.

When Jayaram Ramesh, then the environment minister, released the tiger population number last year, it was accompanied by a sense of triumph and it was followed by a series of optimistic headlines (Tiger population up by 20 percent to 1,706). However, many missed the fine print. The number 1,706 is an estimate, an average of 1,571 and 1,875—the lower and upper limits. The lower limit in 2010 was actually smaller than the upper limit four years back, which means there is a chance that tiger population could have actually gone down. Besides, Sunderbans was not assessed during the previous estimate, and that contributed to additional 90 tigers (average, again). Most importantly, the number of individual tigers that were actually captured by camera was a mere 550. The number—1,706—is a result of sampling, regression and averages. Much of the cheer that followed the announcement might have been misplaced. 



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