India’s tiger count to take a beating

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India’s tiger count to take a beating

Jaideep Hardikar / DNAFriday, January 8, 2010 1:56 IST

Mumbai: What is the population of tigers in India? 2010 is expected to throw up a realistic answer. The year will see forest departments across the country conduct an intense field data-collection exercise, which would be a departure from the usual tiger census. It will be the first time that forest machinery across the country, with guidance from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII), will follow the WII manual to count tigers and their co-predators.

“The new method is scientific and has less chance of fudging the outcome,” conversationalists said. According to them, the tiger population estimates might take a beating when the figures are released later this year.

Maharashtra will finish the data-collection process, which is called ‘Monitoring Tigers, co-predators, prey and their habitats’, in three-phases before the February first week deadline. “We have already started the process of training officers and beat guards and are making the ground preparation,” AK Saxena, chief conservator of forest (wildlife), said. Ten middle rank officers from the wildlife wing were trained for two days in Ranthambore in October, 2009, and they in turn trained the forest guards and their supervisors for the data-collection process, Saxena added.

More than 4,600 beat guards from 11 wildlife and four territorial circles, who will be manning an area of 5 square kilometres each, will trudge the state’s forests in a ten-day exercise later this month in the first phase of data-collection. The guards will use GPS devices to collect data and lay what is known as transects – a virtual 2-4 km line in beat area along which to look for the samples.

“Beat guards will sample for tigers and co-predators, ungulates, vegetation and human disturbance in the ten days,” Saxena said.

In the second phase, the WII experts will extrapolate the data that is received from all over the country. Then comes the third phase, in which the state forest departments would collect more evidence with camera traps, to help the WII and NTCA synthesise the analysis and draw an inference.

The WII and NTCA’s inference would depend on the authenticity and accuracy with which the beat guards report the data. “The chances of fudging the figures are less,” Nitin Desai, tiger conservationist from the Wildlife Protection Society of India, said. “The final figures are expected to be low.”

The exercise holds importance, conservationists said, because of the wide difference in the figures quoted by the WII and the forest departments of the respective states. In 2007, the WII said there were 1,411 tigers in the country when the combined total of the state forest departments stood at 3,000.

“The annual census focused on direct and quantitative evidence; this one also brings in qualitative data – such as the nature of habitat, the kind of trees, the human interference and other such factors that are important for policy formulations,” a forest official said.

Also, the state hasn’t held the tiger census for the last two years, for the precise reason that the WII rejected the existing method of conducting the tiger census. More than 80 tigers have been killed in one year – a fact expected to reflect in the outcome of this project. The three phases of data-collection, according to NTCA and WII, would be completed by March 2010.

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