Wildlife experts hope for positive outcome in tiger census

The second all-India tiger estimation study will be released on Monday.

New Delhi: Ahead of the release of the much-awaited tiger estimation results, wildlife experts and officials are keeping their fingers crossed hoping that a "positive outcome" will help formulate better policies towards conservation of the country`s dwindling wildlife resources.
The second all-India tiger estimation study carried out in the designated 39 tiger reserves across the country will be released tomorrow by Minister of Forest and Environment Jairam Ramesh, who had already expressed hope of a positive result this time.

Wildlife experts and officials involved in the tiresome process of counting the wild cats said the results this time are expected to be better than the 2007 census, which claimed that only 1,411 wild cats are left in the country`s forests.

"We have worked very hard this time and it should yield in some good news," said Y V Jhala, senior wildlife biologist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in Dehra Dun.

"I am not authorised to divulge the details of the final estimates, but I can certainly say that the results will be positive," Jhala told.

A senior official privy to the estimation process said the numbers are likely to go up as figures from Sundarbans that was left out last time have also also been added this time.

"Also, no big fluctuations in tiger populations were found in major tiger habitats across the country. And moreover, the numbers from the southern belt are quite encouraging.

These are indicators of a positive census," he said, requesting not to be named.

Echoing similar views, Anil Kumar Singh of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) said the overall counting process has been "very encouraging" and it would result in some new and good policies towards the conservation of the big cats.

Singh and his team have participated in the tiger enumeration exercise in four places such as Valmki tiger reserve in Bihar, Achanankmar wildlife sanctuary in Chhattisgarh and Dudhwa and Kishanpur tiger reserves in Uttar Pradesh.

Belinda Wright, founder of Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), however, said tigers are "elusive and difficult to see", so the methods being used to count them can give only an estimate. "They cannot give a digit-accurate figure for the number of wild tigers in India."

About 88,000 forest officials, wildlife activists and volunteers had been assigned to comb up the 5,000 square km of forest area known to be tiger habitats of the country.

The officials had to walk at least 15 to 20 km a day to collect tiger habitation signs such as pug marks, scratch marks on trees, their preys, among others.

Hi-tech cameras have also been installed at strategic points like water bodies in the forests to collect information about the presence of the wild cats.

Among the other techniques involved in the counting of the animals were DNA analysis, biometric data analysis, block counting, radio collaring, digital pugmark prey base indicators among others.

"The DNA approach could be especially useful for estimating tiger numbers in locations where setting up cameras is very difficult and their numbers are known to be very small," said Jhala.

In this method, DNA samples are taken from tiger scat and then analysed in a laboratory. It gives an authentic information whether the samples are of one tiger or belong to different animals.

Finally everything has been put together to reach an overall figure.

Although everybody is hoping for a positive outcome, experts say there are a lot to do for their safety and conservation.

According to them, the threat from poaching is highlighted most of the times as the major threat to the wild cats but the real danger for their survival is the falling prey numbers, which is the result of disappearing habitat.

"Organised poaching continues to remain a big threat. But the biggest danger the tigers face in India is their declining prey base and growing human encroachment," said Singh of WTI.

"In the past few years, many efforts have been made towards wildlife conservation, but there are still scopes for improvement," said Jhala of WII, an autonomous institution of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

WPSI`s Wright, who has spent almost her entire life working for wildlife issues in India, contends, saying: "Unless concrete steps to stop poaching, secure inviolate spaces for tigers and raise awareness among the people about wildlife issues are taken, things are not going to change as we aspire."

"I am sure the government wants to save the tiger, but at the same time I am not convinced that it is willing to make the necessary political compromises in order to achieve this."