More trouble for tiger

More trouble for tiger

Deepak Gidwani / DNA
Friday, July 10, 2009 2:57:00 AM

Environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh may be fretting over poachers pushing the tiger to extinction in Panna and Sariska forest reserves. But the next big shocker could come from Uttar Pradesh where the tiger population could slide into double digits.

Officials of the UP forest department (UPFD) are busy preparing for an exercise which has been steeped in controversy over the past decade — the biennial (two-yearly) tiger census. Data relating to the survival of the big cat have been a sensitive issue as foresters and conservationists slug it out every time a census is done.

This time, the debate focuses on the efficacy of the double camera trap technique, used to estimate the tiger population for the first time in 2007. While UPFD disputed the figures, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) brushed aside all reservations, insisting it was the most reliable method available.

“The camera trap method is an advanced technique but it does have its drawbacks,” says UP’s chief Wildlife Warden (CWW) BK Patnaik. However, he hastens to add that since it has been accepted by the NTCA and the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII), which conducted the last census, there is no point in arguing over the matter anymore. “When we are talking about wildlife and that too tigers, no method can be 100 per cent accurate… at best, it’s an estimation,” he said.

The UPFD was up in arms as soon as the last figures were declared in 2008. It was a major embarrassment as the state’s tiger count had taken a nosedive from 273 (UPFD’s 2005 census) to 109 (WII’s 2007 census). The UPFD dashed off its objections to the NTCA expressing strong reservations over the WII report. The NTCA overruled all protests.

“Tiger conservation should not get bogged down by statistics alone,” says Dr Diwakar Sharma, associate director, Species Conservation Programme, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), India. He told DNA by phone from Ranthambore that the camera trap is a more sophisticated technique than the traditional pugmark method. “Lack of training (of forest department staff) could be a major drawback,” he said.

Thereby hangs a tale. While WII conducted the 2007 census, this year it is to be done by the state forest services. A senior UPFD official said no formal training for the camera trap method had been given to any of the staff who would be handling it.

UPFD officials point out other handicaps of the camera trap method. The cameras placed at a height of about two feet would miss out the cubs. Besides, the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, which has close to a hundred tigers, is surrounded by dense sugarcane fields known to be a thriving habitat of tigers. But no cameras can be placed in these fields due to practical difficulties.

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