With the recent announcement of India’s latest tiger population figures, the striped cats are in the news again. But the discerning might wonder, how credible are these numbers? How does India really fare when it comes to saving the national animal? What could we do better to ensure the tiger’s long-term survival? A leading tiger expert, Dr K. Ullas Karanth, has already tackled these questions, and more, in his November 2022 book, Among Tigers: Fighting to Bring Back Asia’s Big Cats (Chicago Review Press). The book has received high praise from people like George Schaller, Valmik Thapar, David Quammen, and Thomas S. Kaplan, and it is easy to see why. Among Tigers grips you from the beginning, skillfully drawing you into the challenging world of a tiger scientist.
In 1990, Karanth became the first biologist to radio-collar wild tigers in India. Years of following them around, day and night, allowed him to systematically peel away the layers of secrecy shrouding the life of the solitary predator. But it also landed him in hot water when disgruntled parties falsely attributed some tiger deaths to his research. Undeterred by controversies, and never shy of speaking truth to power, Karanth, who is Emeritus Director at the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru, continues to soldier on at 74, combining a formidable intellect with rigorous training in science and decades of field experience.
Whether you are a casual fan of the big cat, or a conservationist fighting to save it, you will find Among Tigers an insightful roller coaster of a read, peppered with acerbic wit. In an interview with Frontline, Karanth shed light on aspects of the book and the finer nuances of tiger conservation. Excerpts:
How different is Among Tigers from your other books, The Way of the Tiger (2006) and A View from the Machan (2007)?
The Way of the Tiger is a popular science book about tigers. A View from the Machan is a collection of essays on my experiences and some conservation topics. Both were written years ago.
Among Tigers is more ambitious, covering my decades of scientific research, as well as my successes and failures in tiger conservation. The last two chapters are prescriptive, with insights on how to save tigers more effectively.
As a schoolboy, you feared that tigers would go extinct before you had a chance to see one in the wild. You must be pleased that this did not come to pass…
I grew up in the Malenadu region of Karnataka in the 1950s and 1960s, just as the last wild tigers were being shot, snared, or poisoned by local villagers and licensed hunters. Extinction seemed inevitable. Yet, 50 years later, the same region has about 350 tigers, with the potential to hold three times more. This remarkable tiger recovery started with the enactment of the Wildlife (Protection) Act in 1972 and the launch of Project Tiger in 1973, which led to stricter protection by a generation of dedicated foresters. Subsequently, economic development has led to the reduction of some forest dependencies such as wild meat consumption, fuel wood removal, and livestock grazing.
Despite vast expenditure, and the declaration of over 50 tiger reserves, India’s tiger population reportedly stands at just 3,167 in 2023, up from the 1,800 or so estimated about 50 years ago. But you believe that our forests can sustain over 10,000 tigers. How is this possible?
India still has 380,000 square kilometres of potential tiger habitat. However, presently, less than 20 per cent of this area is protected adequately to support tigers in reasonable densities. A few well-managed reserves have attained densities of 5-10 tigers per 100 sq km. So, even assuming a modest rise in population density to 3 tigers per 100 sq km across the country’s tiger habitats, we can easily reach 10,000 tigers.
Instead of wasting money on civil works and unscientific habitat manipulations in the reserves that are performing well, what we need is to use the available funds over a wider area, for stricter anti-poaching protection, substantially increased voluntary village relocations from key tiger habitats, addition of more Protected Areas, and establishing better connectivity between them.
This needs a science-based plan of action.
Most people believe that tiger poaching to supply the illegal international trade in skins, bones, and other body parts, is the most serious threat to tigers. But you have shown through your research that there are other, less visible factors, that pose a greater threat…
The direct killing of tigers for trade or to protect livestock is, of course, an important factor. However, the persistent and widespread illegal hunting of the tiger’s prey species, such as deer, antelope, wild pig, and wild cattle by local people plays a major role in depressing prey numbers below the levels needed to support reproducing tiger populations. When this happens, the “supply” of new tigers gets switched off, but tiger mortalities continue at their natural high rate of about 20 per cent annually.
Tiger population collapses, which have led to tigers now occupying a mere 7 per cent of their former range across Asia, resulted primarily from human encroachment of tiger habitats and hunting of prey animals well before trade became a threat.
You have been a staunch votary of voluntary resettlement of villages from within reserves, and believe that this is a win-win solution for both people and wildlife.
Can tigers and people coexist in, say, Karnataka? Yes, of course they can, and do. Can they coexist within a district in the State? Again, the answer is yes. But can reproducing tiger populations coexist at high densities within our relatively small Protected Areas alongside human settlements, farming, livestock raising and relentless exploitation of forest products? Science and data show that the answer is “no”. Indeed, if “harmonious”, cheek-by-jowl coexistence were possible, the tiger’s range across Asia would not have shrunk by 93 per cent in just 200 years.
Just as important, today many forest living communities and families are voluntarily seeking relocation away from a hard life within conflict-prone wildlife reserves. With aspirations for better jobs, healthcare, education, transportation, and communication facilities, they are demanding the fruits of development that the rest of us take for granted. I believe that these aspirations should be met through well-planned, fair, and generous voluntary relocation projects that are facilitated and closely monitored by independent organisations.
The success of tiger conservation in certain reserves has also led to an increase in conflict with humans. Despite being one of the tiger’s greatest champions, you have consistently advocated that in the interests of conserving the species, it is better to eliminate a man-eating tiger rather than try to “rehabilitate” it.
Tiger conservation is about saving the tiger as a “species” rather than trying to save every individual tiger. Even under the best protection, we lose 20 per cent of the tiger population every year to old age, territorial fights, and other factors. If we protect the tiger’s habitat and its prey base, new births will more than make up for these losses. And that’s what we must focus on.
However, urban “tiger lovers” who have not taken the trouble to understand the biology or population dynamics of tigers, wrongly believe that it is vital to save every individual tiger, even when one turns to deliberately and repeatedly killing helpless local people living near nature reserves. They also naively believe that man-eaters can be quickly and safely captured every time and should be released “somewhere else” to live peacefully.
This will merely result in transferring the problem to another locality, leading to more human deaths, and creating local hostility towards all tigers and conservation efforts. “Love” for every individual tiger, without understanding ground level complexities, does not help the tiger’s cause in the long run. Forest officials must educate the public, their political bosses, and the judiciary about these matters rather than succumb to pressure from well-meaning but ill-informed “tiger lovers”. I have discussed this issue in greater detail in Chapter 8 of my book.
- “Even assuming a modest rise in population density to 3 tigers per 100 sq km across the country’s tiger habitats, we can easily reach 10,000 tigers.”
- “To manage each key tiger population adaptively and effectively, we need to estimate its density, numbers, survival rate, and recruitment of new tigers, rigorously and reliably, on an annual basis.”
- “Science alone cannot save the tiger. Deep passion for conservation, hard work, and standing up against pressures, hold the key.”
- “At least 10 per cent of India’s 3.2 million sq km land area should be set aside for threatened umbrella species, including the tiger, elephant, snow leopard, and rhino.”
The National Tiger Conservation Authority, which conducts an All India Tiger Estimation every four years, recently announced that the national tiger population has increased to 3,167. Your comments?
To manage each key tiger population adaptively and effectively, we need to estimate its density, numbers, survival rate, and recruitment of new tigers, rigorously and reliably, on an annual basis. There is no point in monitoring a tiger population once in four years, because of the high annual rates of population turnover. As to the credibility of government tiger figures, the fact is that the raw data and analyses from the six population surveys conducted between 2006 and 2022—spending crores of rupees from taxpayers’ funds—continue to remain unavailable for independent scrutiny by qualified scientists.
The fundamental problem with tiger and other wildlife monitoring programmes in India is that the same bureaucracy that manages the reserves also counts the tigers, evaluates its own management, and gives itself a pat on the back once in four years. Without independent ecological audits, we will go on celebrating these “successes” with no course corrections whatsoever.
Given your emphasis on science-based conservation, is science alone enough to save the tiger? What else is needed?
Rigorous science most efficiently leads you to your goal, be it research or conservation. Without science, what you have is a hit or miss venture. However, science alone cannot save the tiger. Deep passion for conservation, hard work, and standing up against pressures, hold the key. In general, the social ability to work with, and inspire other stakeholders, is necessary to accomplish conservation goals that endure.
“Science alone cannot save the tiger. Deep passion for conservation, hard work, and standing up against pressures, hold the key.”Dr K. Ullas Karanth
The wildlife tourism industry in India often claims credit for helping to save the tiger. How much credence do you give to these statements, and what would make the tourism sector a valuable, long-term ally of the tiger?
The tourism industry usually arrives on the scene after a tiger population has recovered following decades of hard work by forest officials and conservationists. In some cases, a few thoughtful tourism operators have subsequently assisted local people and small enterprises to prosper alongside them. But this is far from enough. To me, the real potential of an enlightened wildlife tourism industry lies in working cooperatively with local farmers—on a profit-sharing basis—to switch land use around wildlife reserves from crops to wildlife habitat.
Although complicated, if the economics of such conservancies can be made to work, it can lead to large-scale expansion of tiger habitats beyond the already overused government reserves. It will also create millions of local stakeholders who will have a profit-driven motive for expansion of tiger habitats. If the tourism industry at large can shed its present blinkered views, this is possible in several places.
What would you say to those who believe that wildlife conservation is an impediment to development, and that it comes in the way of economic prosperity for all?
“Development” is being demanded by most people, including forest dwellers, and we cannot turn the clock back to some imagined “golden age” without modern technology to save the planet. I believe in the concept of “sustainable landscapes”, which proposes wisely partitioning land use into areas of intensive development, areas of strict nature conservation, and “multiple use” areas such as agroforestry. This should be our basic template. At least 10 per cent of India’s 3.2 million sq km land area should be set aside for threatened umbrella species, including the tiger, elephant, snow leopard, and rhino. The ecosystem services provided by this biodiversity and nature will go a long way towards enhancing India’s long-term security and prosperity.
Shekar Dattatri is an award-winning wildlife and conservation filmmaker, and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife.