The All-India Tiger Estimation, 2018 exercise promises not just to be hi-tech, but will also be far more accurate and precise than ever before. Officers from National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and scientists from Wildlife Institute of India explained how the current assessment uses Android phone-based application and desktop version of M-STrIPES (Monitoring System for Tigers-Intensive Protection and Ecological Status) for collecting, archiving and analyzing data.
The phone application automatically records the track log of surveys and line transects, as well as authenticates the recorded data on signs and animal sightings with geo-tagged photographs. With increased camera trap density and the use of android technology, estimates arrived at are likely to be more robust – both in terms of accuracy and precision. This becomes evident from the fact that compared to the exercise conducted in the year 2006, when 9, 700 cameras were put up, the 2018 Estimation will use nearly 15, 000 cameras. It was also pointed out that it is not possible to count the photograph of every tiger in the camera trap.
The Tiger Estimation exercise is the world’s largest wildlife survey effort in terms of coverage, intensity of sampling and quantum of camera trapping. An amount of Rs. 10.22 crore will be invested by the Government in the fourth cycle of All India Tiger Estimation. Financial assistance to the tune of Rs. 7 crore will be provided to the States through the ongoing Centrally Sponsored Scheme of Project Tiger.
A robust Phase IV monitoring protocol is in place to assess tigers annually, which has been archived in a National Repository of Camera Trap photographs of tigers. It helps Field Directors to have prior knowledge about resident tigers. This process is complemented by the quadrennial All India Tiger Estimation. The Government and NTCA have also carried out an economic valuation of tigers in mitigating the adverse impact of climate change. Such interventions and processes have been operationalised through a legally mandated Tiger Conservation Plan to ensure that it is institutionalized.
In his address, Director General, Forests and Special Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Dr. Siddhant Das pointed out that tigers need to be counted, as they are an indicator of the health of the eco-system, are linked to water security of the area and assessment of co-variates such as signs of tiger, prey density, human interface and capturing tigers through camera traps.
India conducts the All India Tiger Estimation every four years. Three cycles of the estimation have already been completed in 2006, 2010 and 2014. These estimates showed estimates of 1, 411, 1, 706 and 2, 226 tigers respectively. The methodology has remained the same in the three cycles in terms of concept, but latest scientific developments in the field of animal abundance estimation have been incorporated and the best available science to evaluate tiger status has been used.
For the national status assessment 2014, Spatially Explicit Capture Recapture (SECR) in a joint distribution approach, with ecologically relevant covariates was used. This approach makes use of two samples – the first sample is collected by the forest staff of 18 tiger states and is constituted by structured protocols that are easy and economical to generate information on the presence of tigers and relative abundance, along with information on prey, co-predators, habitat and human impact. The second sample is carried out by trained wildlife biologists who collect information using camera traps on tiger, leopard and prey abundance. Individual tigers and leopards are identified using a customized software that uses the stripe and spot patterns (similar to human fingerprints) to identify individuals.
In 2014, over 70% of the estimated tiger population was through camera trapping, where 1686 photographs of individual tigers had been obtained. The remaining 30% of tigers were from areas that had tigers, but had not been camera trapped and were estimated by using robust statistical models, where ecological covariates of prey, habitat and human impact were used.
The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 was amended in the year 2006. Since then, the Government has taken several initiatives in the field of tiger conservation. Tiger conservation was given statutory backing. The newly-created NTCA was mandated to carry out estimation of population of tiger and its natural prey species and assess status of their habitat.
The Tiger Task Force realized that a major lacuna in tiger conservation was the absence of a credible, scientific national monitoring protocol that will inform policy-makers and wildlife managers on –
a) Spatial extent and the size of tiger population in India;
b) Welfare factors in these and neighbouring habitat (prey status, human pressure, other wildlife species, status and habitat conditions);
c) Trends in the population and area occupied over time.
Following discussions and consultations with international experts, it was decided that the Wildlife Institute of India will be mandated with the task of developing and implementing the status assessment every four years under the direction of NTCA and in collaboration with State Forest Departments, civil society and NGOs.
The decision was based on a pilot study conducted by WII on a large landscape (Satpura-Maikal > 20, 000 sq km in Madhya Pradesh) wherein, the Project Tiger and WII had developed protocols that combine simple, yet scientifically robust protocols for data collection by field forest staff, in combination with rigorous statistically sound methods like camera trap based capture-mark-recapture models, implemented simultaneously by trained wildlife biologists. This approach was found to be best-suited for field conditions in India, where the field staff provides large manpower for survey across the 400, 000 sq km of tiger-bearing forests across 18 Indian states.
The national status assessment exercise provides details such as the size of tiger population, extent, covariates of prey, co-predators, habitat and human impact. It has been observed that tiger population in India has increased at an average rate of about 5.8 per cent since the year 2006.
Secretary General, Global Tiger Forum (GTF). Dr. Rajesh Gopal, ADG & Member Secretary, NTCA, Dr. Debabrata Swain, DIG, NTCA, Shri Sanjay Kumar, DIG, NTCA, Shri Nishant Verma and Scientists, Wildlife Institute of India, Dr. Y.V Jhala and Shri Qamar Qureshi were among those present on the occasion. Dr. Y.V. Jhala and AIG, NTCA, Dr. Vaibhav Mathur made detailed presentations on various aspects of tiger conservation efforts.