Lack of scientific debate and involvement of all stakeholders will not help Project Tiger succeed

As we envision the next 50 years of Project Tiger, it is imperative to build on the lessons learned and address the gaps identified

In 2023, India commemorated the 50th anniversary of Project Tiger, a landmark initiative in wildlife conservation that has long been touted to have bold and visionary measures. Its success stories, frequently highlighted by conservation stalwarts, have become a source of national pride. However, the narrative around Project Tiger needs a deeper, more nuanced understanding. Despite its early accolades, some observations suggest that the changes in tiger populations and their habitats over the past two decades have perhaps been more modest than often claimed. This discrepancy between public narrative and on-ground reality calls for a critical assessment of Project Tiger’s strategies and outcomes.

The reported growth in tiger numbers from 1,411 in 2006 to 3,682 in 2022 demands careful examination in light of ecological principles and methodological discrepancies. Each assessment has seemingly led to unreliable conclusions, casting doubt on the monitoring programme’s efficacy and its success narratives. The national tiger monitoring initiative is underpinned by “model-based inference” as defined by scientists. Following the prohibition of the pugmark census method in 2004—due to its failure to detect the disappearance of tigers in Sariska and later in Panna—India’s official tiger population monitoring strategy changed course to involve the application of photographic capture-recapture methods in key areas (reserves) and index-based assessments (such as tigers, prey and human-related signs), synthesised together with a straightforward model to generate population estimates at the state and national levels. The credibility of population estimates is contingent upon the robustness of the model. However, specialists in quantitative and tiger ecology have over time demonstrated severe instability in the model being used. When these issues are acknowledged, the reported rise in tiger numbers is called into question until adjustments are made.

Consider the analogy of a car in New Delhi’s heavy traffic with a speedometer reading of 200 km per hour. One would not accept this reading without question; similarly, the reported tiger numbers should not be accepted until the data has been re-evaluated.

It is equally important to understand that the essence of tiger conservation extends beyond mere reporting of tiger numbers. It involves a deep understanding of tiger population ecology and the mechanisms to necessitate their conservation. The concept of the occupancy-abundance relationship, crucial in ecology, has to be invoked so that as a species’ population naturally grows, its required habitat also expands correspondingly. However, the focus in India, especially in recent times, has disproportionately been on increasing tiger numbers within confined reserves, often by neglecting the simultaneous need to expand tiger habitat in a corresponding manner. Such a scientifically counterintuitive approach has reportedly led to unnatural habitat modifications within confined reserves (such as increased view lines and creation of grasslands specifically targeting chital population rise) without making sufficient room for tigers and prey and potentially leading to increased human-wildlife conflicts, beyond natural levels. It has also brought into discussion the previously unnecessary need to manage tigers between functionally disconnected reserves.

Clarify human impact on tiger conservation

Tiger populations face various threats that can lead to their decline, such as elimination of their prey, direct killing, and encroachment and conversion of tiger habitats for other uses such as agriculture or industrial activities. It is crucial to understand that from the tiger’s perspective, the identity of the perpetrator is irrelevant. Whether it is a local village resident hunting for sustenance or as a pastime, or a poacher from a larger, organised illegal wildlife trade network, the impact on the tiger depends entirely on how many of the big cats or prey are being removed from a local population. Likewise, whether forests are cleared for agriculture, or industrial purposes, the detrimental effect on tiger habitats is simply a function of the area lost. However, discussions within tiger conservation circles often focus more on who is causing the damage rather than the extent of the harm. This perspective has been costly for conservation efforts for big cats globally.

Currently, wildlife conservation discourse often divides stakeholders into two broad categories: local communities and the forest department. This bipartite division can be counterproductive. A more effective approach would be to recognise just one category: people. All people, irrespective of their background, should collaborate on unified policies to save wildlife. This simplifies negotiations and strategies for tiger and habitat conservation. In an ideal scenario, especially in a country like India, individuals interested in wildlife conservation should be encouraged and enabled to contribute, regardless of their background. Similarly, local community members seeking opportunities in urban areas should be supported. There is a valid argument that current tiger conservation practices, largely managed by the forest department, could benefit from involving more stakeholders and refining existing practices.

Need for critical, science-based approach

Despite widespread belief that the tiger is a very well-studied species, the reality is that our understanding of their ecology is surprisingly shallow. Significant funds are allocated to tiger conservation science, particularly for periodic population monitoring, yet the insights yielded often muddy our understanding rather than clarify it. For instance, we are encountering paradoxical trends such as the inverted relationship between tiger occupancy and abundance. Moreover, alongside growing evidence of inbreeding in certain populations, there is an increase in their numbers within the same habitats, a complex scenario to untangle. Such contradictory conclusions could misguide future conservation efforts if used as a basis for policy decisions.

Furthermore, the lack of vibrant scientific debate and questioning within the Indian conservation and scientific community is a significant concern. Unlike other scientific fields, where progress is marked by constant questioning and re-evaluation, the progress of tiger conservation in India has seen little of this dynamic. The prevailing acceptance of increasing tiger numbers, without substantial discussion, points to a need for a more robust scientific discourse in the field.

Tigers, being a globally important species, have traditionally attracted the involvement of several large international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in conservation efforts. Many of these organisations also have a presence in India. It is crucial for these NGOs to actively shape and guide the scientific discourse. However, a major issue arises when these large institutions refrain from criticising or show support to the existing tiger conservation narratives in India even when the scientific findings suggest the contrary. This scenario often leaves little room for robust scientific debate, essential for effective conservation and may dissuade smaller institutions from contributing to the debate. In such circumstances, it might be more prudent for international NGOs involved in tiger conservation and operating in India to reconsider whether and how they can contribute meaningfully to the scientific discourse.

As we envision the next 50 years of Project Tiger, it is imperative to build on the lessons learned and address the gaps identified. The project must evolve to incorporate advanced scientific methodologies, foster a culture of critical inquiry, and ensure that conservation strategies are responsive to ecological realities. There must be a sound scientific basis for tiger conservation, which can be modelled along the lines of other rigorous programmes in India, for example, space research.

Arjun M Gopalaswamy is founder and scientist at Carnassials Global, Bengaluru, a science advisory firm

This was first published in the State of India’s Environment 2024 published by Centre for Science and Environment and Down To Earth Magazine

Source link

Most Popular

To Top