Poaching of tigers is still a big threat in some parts of India and, despite massive funding, the science underlying their monitoring is poor. Reason: Forest managers who dictate how monitoring should be done and by whom.
These are the startling views of Ullas Karanth, one of the world's best-known tiger biologists and Director of Science, Asia, of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
"Camera trapping being done by government officials in India to monitor tigers in the wild is of very poor quality, with major violation of underlying statistical tenets being often the case. This leads to unreliable and often inflated tiger numbers," he said in a candid interview with IANS.
"That's good news for managers, but not for the tigers," said Bengaluru-based Karanth, a critic of the government's conservation policies and one who believes in rigorous tiger audits.
A book, "Methods for Monitoring Tiger and Prey Populations", published this month by Springer of which he's a co-author, provides in-depth answers to critical questions on the assessment of the tiger population such as why, where and how to monitor animal populations.
The book is a culmination of decades of research partnership by Karanth and US Geological Survey statistical ecologist James Nichols.
Karanth, whose other popular books are "A View From the Machan" and "The Way of the Tiger", believes India is pumping too much money into tiger conservation and a reduction would improve things.
"I think too much money is being pumped into too few tiger reserve areas. Moreover, (the money) being spent on needless things is the problem now. A cut in funding for some of these expenses would improve things," Karanth said.
"India claims to monitor tigers successfully. The science underlying the monitoring is poor and has failed the peer review process. The reason is the domination of the forest managers who also dictate how monitoring should be done and by whom," he said.
By giving the tiger too much attention, we are neglecting other species. "Of course, other threatened species need support too. The obsession with spending massive (amounts of) money on visible tigers in a few reserves is detracting from that need."
On the rise in tiger population in India, he said: "These all-India and state-wide numbers are all flawed and not too reliable because of poor methods used in the context of almost impossible challenges: Biological, logistical and statistical."
"In reality, 90 per cent of tigers are in a few reserves and counting them accurately is the real need and that is poorly done as a government monopoly."
As per the latest official count, India is home to 2,226 tigers, representing 70 per cent of the global population.
Poaching of tigers and prey is still a big threat in some parts of India and over much of their global range outside. A big grey area here is the mission drift from serious protection of nature towards excessively interventionist, expensive and leakage-prone management interventions, Karanth said.
Karanth had pioneered in the early 1990s the technique of using camera traps as a method to get an estimate of tiger population and this led to the abandonment by the government of "pugmark tiger census".
Community-based measures are the best option for the long-term conservation of tigers.
Karanth said many rural communities and families now aspire for a better life, employment and incomes, and access to roads, schools and hospitals. There are thousands of families willing to move out of tiger habitats if they are given better livelihood options.
"The best way to do community-based conservation of tigers is to meet the needs of such families, which will also expand tiger habitats and make more room for tigers and mitigate conflicts. A win-win solution," he said.
To check the declining numbers of the tiger, the government launched Project Tiger in 1973. India now has 50 tiger reserves that cover 2.12 per cent of the country's geographical area.
From 1974 to 1990, Karanth said, Project Tiger was a surprising success. From 1990 to 2000 it held on, but without achieving its full potential; from 2000 to now, it has been an expensive, poorly performing and bound in red-tape.
It's time to let private enterprise, creativity and independent science play a key role in tiger recovery by winding up this anachronistic government monopoly, Karanth said.