India's Government Insists Their Tiger Population Has Doubled. Wildlife Experts Aren’t So Sure.

Photographing tigers and counting the photos seems like a bad data collection technique.
July 30, 2020, 2:08am
tiger india national park
Photo courtesy of Syna Tiger Resort / Unsplash

A decade ago, 13 tiger range countries, including India, came together to acknowledge that one of the world’s favourite big cats was facing extinction. They signed an agreement to try and double the number of wild tigers by the year 2022, and the day of the signing (July 29) was declared International Tiger Day.

Now, on the same day in 2020, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) has recirculated a report from 2019 claiming that they’ve managed to double India’s tiger population—a whole four years before schedule.

The country’s “Status of Tigers, Co-predators and Prey in India" report claims the country is now home to 2,967 tigers. It also states that 70 percent of the world’s tigers including one-third of the Royal Bengal Tigers—or Panthera tigris tigris as the Indian sub-species is called—exist in India’s small swathes of wilderness.

So all of this is good news right? Right, except experts have repeatedly raised concerns about the authenticity of these numbers.

An investigation by the Indian Express found that counting of tigers was mainly achieved via photo sightings, which means that at least one in seven tigers could have been a “paper tiger,” which is an individual that’s been photographed twice or more.

A study released November last year also criticised the government’s political agenda. Instead of bolstering tiger populations for the sake of biodiversity, the authors suggested the Indian Government might have been quick to claim success for the benefit of positive PR. The study went on to explain that the government’s data gathering techniques were so flawed that there could have been no genuinely scientific motivation.

“The criticisms levelled so far have ranged from fundamental mathematical flaws, design deficiencies and manipulation of photographic data, and a total lack of transparency in data-sharing with independent scientists capable of reliably reviewing the analyses and results,” said the release.

Ullas Karanth, director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru and one of the authors of the study, told Nature that the surveys were collected by ill-trained workers who didn’t know how to do accurate counts. “When I walked with forest guards doing surveys in a reserve in May, they said they felt pressured by local officials to record positive tiger signs,” he said. The result is that there is little consensus on India’s tiger population between scientists and the government officials. For now, scientists can say only that the animals might be thriving in some places, but are doing poorly elsewhere.

Across India, tigers are increasingly becoming isolated in small reserves—the 50 reserves the ministry takes pride in—for these reserves are primarily designed to accommodate tourists. But historically, tigers here have moved unhindered through long forest corridors. But due to heavy industrialisation these forest corridors are rapidly disappearing.

“This [the increase in tiger numbers] is because of the Indian ethos of treating nature as part of life, in sync with human existence,” said the Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar—ironically also the Minister of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises—in a column for The Times of India. The dangerous Environment Impact Assessment 2020 draft that the MOEFCC is pushing does little to support his claims either.

Javadekar also credits the success in the rise of numbers to increased vigilance. “Almost all organised poaching rackets have been dismantled; a good example is the central Indian landscapes where organised poaching by traditional gangs has been minimised considerably in the last six years,” he wrote in the same column.

However, a recently released United Nations World Wildlife Crime Report contradicts his statement. It states that India is among the main source countries for illegal tiger products—India and Thailand were the top two countries where they could trace the illegal tiger shipments to. Additionally, out of the 155 cases where the nationality of the trafficker was identified, 14 percent of them were Indian.

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