In a move welcomed widely by the conservation and scientific community, India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has adopted new refined protocols for intensive annual monitoring of tiger source populations.
The new protocol, based largely on research by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Dr. Ullas Karanth’s team and his collaborators in the academic community, will make India a leader in big cat monitoring leading to more accurate estimates of tiger population density, changes in tiger numbers over time, and other crucial parameters such as survival and recruitment rates in key wild tiger populations.
A key feature will allow India’s State Forest Departments to formally collaborate with qualified scientists to derive rigorous estimates that go beyond simple minimum numbers as planned earlier.
The new protocols have been developed over the past three years by NTCA and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), with the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bangalore, playing a key supportive technical role. The process of finalizing the protocol involved participation of qualified scientists and wildlife managers across the country.
This methodology, which relies heavily on camera-trapping, is expected to yield reliable estimates of tiger densities and numbers in all source populations being monitored.
Welcoming the new protocol, Dr Ullas Karanth, Director Wildlife Conservation Society-India Program and the Centre for Wildlife Studies, says: “If implemented fully, this protocol will put India’s tiger monitoring program well ahead of any other big cat monitoring program anywhere in the world.”
Karanth acknowledged the spirit of innovation shown by Dr. Rajesh Gopal (Member Secretary-NTCA) and the solid cooperation of Sri PR Sinha (Director-WII) in introducing these refinements, which has balanced science with the realities on the ground. He acknowledged the initiative provided by former Minister Jairam Ramesh to the process in 2009, as well as the support from the current Minister of Environment and Forests, Ms. Jayanthi Natarajan, in providing steady support thereafter. Karanth views the new protocol as a major step forward and said that the collaborative process envisaged is also expected to bring wider participation of qualified scientists, as well as greater transparency.
India has indeed come a long way since the flawed pugmark census followed for over three decades since the inception of Project Tiger in 1973.
“The ‘pugmark census’ was an extremely unreliable ad-hoc method, which allowed reserve managers to generate tiger numbers that often created a false sense of security,” said Dr. Karanth, who noted that in 2004, when the Sariska Tiger Reserve claimed a population of about 24 tigers as counted by the pugmark census, the tiger was already extinct in the reserve.
Dr. Karanth advocated capture-recapture sampling through the strategic deployment of automatic cameras in tiger habitats as an established, powerful method to photographically ‘catch’ samples of tigers from populations, in order to estimate numbers. He has developed these methodologies, along with fecal DNA mark-recapture, in Karnataka since 1990, in a series of research projects implemented in collaboration with the State Forest Department.
If rigorously adopted, the new protocol will help avoid future Sariska-like situations. A declining population will set off alarm bells, leading to timely corrective action, and thus stave off local extinction of a population.
India’s 41 tiger reserves cover about 50,000 sq km (19,305 square miles); the country is estimated to have about 1,00,000 sq km (386,102 square miles) of potential tiger habitat. However, only about 20,000 sq km (7,722 square miles) hold key source populations. If the new protocol is properly implemented in this source area, it will cover about 90 per cent of the country’s tiger population.
Intensive monitoring of this nature has already proven effective in Karnataka, where in association with the Karnataka Forest Department, CWS has developed and implemented a rigorous source population monitoring scheme. Currently, 4,000 sq km (1,544 square miles) of tiger source areas in five Protected Areas are being sampled using cameras traps prey surveys. These efforts have lead to individual identification of over 500 tigers over the years and estimates of vital population parameters in the studied area.
On the basis of this data, it has been ascertained that the tiger population in Karnataka is stable and even increasing in some areas like Bhadra Tiger Reserve and Kudremukh National Park.