How do you count tigers? India’s national tiger count

By 9th April 2022May 23rd, 2023Blog

Tiger populations plummeted from around 100,000 individuals in the early 20th century to 3,000 individuals in 2010, occupying just 7% of their original range. We were facing the very real prospect of losing tigers from the wild forever.

Confronted with this dire situation facing wild tiger survival, world leaders and conservation practitioners met in 2010 to discuss strategies for tiger recovery. This meeting was a first in human history where country leaders converged to discuss the conservation of a single species. It was a big deal. The outcome was a Global Tiger Recovery Program that outlined strategies to double tiger numbers by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022.

And here we are, it’s 2022. 12 years have passed and what happened to that goal to double wild tiger numbers?

Listen to the episode below

In this blog we take a deep dive into India's big tiger count

As this blog is being written, tiger range countries are undertaking their national tiger counts in preparation for the 2nd Global Tiger Summit in September this year. But we wanted to know how these countries even go about counting one of the most elusive big cats on the planet.

Dr. Jhala, the Dean and a Senior Professor at the Wildlife Institute of India is the perfect person to ask. Dr. Jhala is a large carnivore expert and has worked on India’s Project Tiger for many years where he has helped with the design and implementation of the national population assessments for tigers. The last national assessment Dr. Jhala conducted in 2018/19 was awarded a Guinness world record for the largest wildlife survey ever with camera traps.

Historically, India was one of the only countries which had some semblance of a method to count large carnivores which came from counting lions for the sake of hunting. The local community who used to assist the hunters mastered the technique of using pug marks to identify individuals. This technique was then applied to tigers by a forester who knew this fieldcraft and would look for idiosyncrasies in the footfall, the crevices of the pad and the shape and size of the pugmark. However, this technique was malpracticed by bureaucrats which led to paper tigers in the country. Subsequently, estimated tiger numbers were highly inflated in India and extinctions happened without people realising. Nowadays, experts rely on the unique stripe patterns of tigers to fingerprint them using remote cameras. Once you have the image of a tiger it can be put through software called Extract Compare which matches it to other images of tigers and the human eye is used to confirm or deny this.

India has come a long way from counting paper tigers. During the last tiger count in 2018–2019 nearly 27,000 camera trap locations were sampled resulting in over 34 million photographs of which, 76,651 photographs were of tigers. This effort has been acknowledged as a Guinness world record. So what is so special about India that led it to be a leader in population monitoring?

Why is India a leader in population monitoring?

Dr Jhala believes this is due to the administrative hierarchy of the forest department which makes it easy to place camera traps. He also explained how India is wealthy enough now to spend money on conservation and monitoring tigers is deemed a conservation priority as only when you know where your resources are can you ensure their future. The tiger count in India allows the government and scientists to monitor almost all biodiversity under the umbrella of the tiger monitoring program. The images are then used to infer the status of these other species allowing policy and conservation management decisions to be based on science.

Dr Jhala also emphasised that the conservation of animals in India is driven by the people of India. It’s not just the bureaucrats, the politicians or the forest officers and conservationists that are driving the protection of its biodiversity. It is engrained in the ethics of the people of India as many religions teach Ahimsa which means non-violence. Humans are also looked upon as custodians of biodiversity and not as the dominions of biodiversity which is vastly different to Christian teachings. As a custodian, you are responsible for conservation and that culture is what has allowed an almost intact community of large carnivores to persist in India.

Dr Jhala goes on to describe a large workforce of over 44,000 people who help conduct the survey across the 350,00km2 area. The scale of such a survey would not be possible for many countries that may not have as many people to call upon to help. The only habitat that therefore poses a challenge is the mangrove forest of the Sundarban. Here he described how difficult it is to place camera traps because humans are on the menu for tigers. “If you walk around you sink knee-deep in the swampy marshes and anything which moves or makes a sound is tiger prey in that landscape.” So instead of putting the camera traps where the tigers were, they lure the tigers with bait to the cameras which can be placed via a boat.

What outcomes have arisen from the national tiger count?

All the images that have ever been taken of tigers during the national tiger counts have been uploaded to a large database covering India, Nepal and Bangladesh. This database holds almost 100,000 images of tigers. This helps check new tigers coming into the population it also helps to identify where a tiger has been poached from by comparing tiger skins to the database of images. This then helps to identify the origins of poaching and where the trade routes are so that illegal wildlife crime networks can be closed down.

Positive conservation outcomes have also arisen from the science through changes in policy and changes in law for example the Wildlife Protection Act was amended following the tiger surveys to account for the ideal size of tiger reserves.

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