‘Not amrit kaal for tiger science in India’: K. Ullas Karanth

The tiger conservation expert stresses the need for scientific management of tiger reserves and discusses the increasing tiger-human conflict.

Published : Mar 07, 2024 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

Tiger reserves are not meant to be zoos where animals are fed and watered or more prey are brought in, says K.Ullas Karanth.

Tiger reserves are not meant to be zoos where animals are fed and watered or more prey are brought in, says K.Ullas Karanth. | Photo Credit: K Murali Kumar

K. Ullas Karanth is one of the world’s leading tiger conservation experts and has been studying the majestic animal since he began to regularly visit Karnataka’s Nagarahole National Park in the 1960s. He has authored several popular books and innumerable scientific papers on tiger conservation; his most recent book is Among Tigers: Fighting to Bring Back Asia’s Big Cats (2022). In an interview with Frontline, Karanth weighs in on tiger-human conflict around the national parks of Bandipur and Nagarahole.

Edited excerpts:

According to figures with the National Tiger Conservation Authority, there are close to 300 tigers in Bandipur and Nagarahole. Does this mean that the ecological carrying capacity of these forests is saturated as far as the tiger is concerned?

The exercise of establishing “official” tiger numbers is meaningless because these are not measured accurately. Earlier, they counted tigers using the flawed pugmark census, and even after switching to camera traps in 2006, the official statistical analyses and survey designs continue to be deeply flawed. The forest department is not a scientific agency nor are their advisers sufficiently independent or competent.

I studied tiger numbers scientifically in Nagarahole and Bandipur for two decades before tiger counting became a government monopoly. My data showed that the density of tiger populations naturally fluctuates, rather than continuously rises as is being claimed. This is because the number of cubs born to females that breed each year and the numbers surviving vary each year. In Nagarahole-Bandipur our data show that average tiger densities per 100 sq km fluctuate between seven and 14 tigers, or about 100 to 200 tigers for the area. These are extremely high densities, and the recent claim of 20 tigers per 100 sq km within these two reserves is the result of poorly collected data and flawed analyses.

The ecological carrying capacity for tigers depends on prey density, which in turn depends on the quality of the habitat and management measures. After 2005, the Forest Department has been aggressively making artificial interventions, such as enhancing water supply and creating extensive grassland habitats. Consequently, the density of spotted deer in some areas is unnaturally high, at 70-100 deer per sq km, or about three to five times the natural densities in these types of forests. This excessive prey density reduces natural mortality rates of tigers and raises their numbers to unnaturally high levels. Since the forest area is not expanding, the numbers of tigers dispersing to find new territories outside have shot up, driving up human-tiger conflict and tiger deaths significantly. We need to reverse these unscientific interventions because they also impact other species and habitats in ways that we do not even understand fully.

Also Read | Why the tiger-human conflict rages in Bandipur and Nagarahole

What is the most important intervention that can be done to prevent human-tiger conflict?

We should aim to maintain habitats in more natural conditions by drastically reducing all these interventions. Animal populations regulate themselves naturally through mortalities. Practices such as creating too many water holes, using bulldozers for civil works, and even clearing undergrowth should all be stopped as they are altering the long-term natural composition of the forest.

This was not the goal of Project Tiger. Tiger reserves are not meant to be zoos where animals are fed and watered or more prey are brought in. The problem is that there is no scientific vision, but there is a lot of money to be spent. The available money should be spent on moving out hundreds of families living inside Nagarahole who have been begging for relocation. This important work has been entirely stopped in the last one decade. We are now seeing tiger predation on humans even in settlements deep inside the forest. Is this where we should be heading.

What about tribal families who do not want to relocate?

I am specifically talking about the resettlement project in Nagarahole. It was initiated because forest dwellers requested the then Chief Minister S. Bangarappa (1990-92) that they be resettled. Out of about 1,200 families, 800 were resettled satisfactorily, and there are pending applications for voluntary relocation. The living conditions of resettled families are far better than those who continue to remain deeper in the forests and are denied most amenities and employment options. Unfortunately, after 2012, government officials have lost interest in helping these people relocate (which requires hard work and sensitivity) and are focussing their energies on needless activities because a lot of funds are available.

“There are 4 lakh sq km of tiger habitat in India. Of this, only 20 per cent is reasonably well protected. We need to restore prey and tigers in the remaining 80 per cent by creating more protected areas under natural conditions.”

Has the composition of the forest not changed because of invasive species like lantana and chromolaena?

These exotic plants arrived a century ago and spread because of two reasons: there was excessive grazing by livestock, which removed palatable species, and massive timber and firewood logging that opened the canopy for these sunlight-demanding plants. If you just leave the forest alone for a few decades for the canopy to close, these invasives will get eliminated. Trying to mechanically remove them has failed year after year, but that is where money is being spent. I have seen these experiments fail not only in Nagarahole-Bandipur, but also in many other reserves across India, yet the government spends crores meant for compensatory afforestation on this futile activity instead of using it for improving protection and voluntary relocation efforts, which are critical needs.

We often blame forest dwellers for habitat loss. What about the coffee plantations and other massive commercial ventures that eat into forests?

Local people, both rich and poor, are often involved in negative impacts on forests and wildlife, through hunting, cattle grazing, firewood and timber removal, and forest encroachments. This is a reality urban ‘greens’ often do not understand.

It is the arresting of these factors, after 1974, that led to recoveries of prey and predators in 2 to 3 per cent of India’s land within protected areas. Most of the large commercial coffee/tea plantations are outside the 17 per cent of India’s area legally marked out as reserved forests in late 19th century. Forestry plantations cover about 14 per cent of Nagarahole and even less area of Bandipur. I have worked for 30 years with rural and tribal people also in my conservation career. I have clearly identified logging (official timber operations by the forest department) also as a primary driver of the past spread of exotics.

Also Read | Mizoram’s Dampa: A tiger reserve without tigers

A suggestion from the forest department is to move excess tigers to areas where there is a low density of the animal. Is this a workable solution?

What will these tigers eat when there is no prey in the new location? They will eat cattle or people! For every successful tiger translocation, dozens have failed, causing intense conflict problems. We now have dozens of tigers that have dispersed and settled in farmlands around Bandipur and Nagarahole, which are already causing havoc. This tiger translocation proposal reeks of ecological ignorance and scientific arrogance.

The original idea when Project Tiger was launched was protection of habitat, followed by natural prey recovery, and subsequent tiger recovery over two-three decades. We have seen this work in Bhadra [Wildlife Sanctuary] following a successful village relocation project a quarter century ago. Now this traditional wisdom of Project Tiger has been abandoned: the cart is being put before the horse. The same flaw is evident in the doomed cheetah reintroduction project. In fact, if there is a conflict situation where human beings are hunted systematically by a few tigers; these tigers must be immediately killed. The forest department does not do that because of objections from urban ‘tiger lovers’ living far away at safe locations. As a result, local hostility towards conservation is increasing. Not a single major protected area has been implemented in Karnataka in the last 10-15 years due to objections of local people and elected representatives.

Through unscientific management of our major tiger reserves, the forest department has stalled the creation of more protected areas.

There are 4 lakh sq km of tiger habitat in India. Of this, only 20 per cent is reasonably well protected. We need to restore prey and tigers in the remaining 80 per cent by creating more protected areas under natural conditions. We can have 10,000 or more tigers across India, but only at reasonable tiger densities; not just in a few of the super high-density tiger hotspots that are creating new problems and conflicts. There is no long-term science-based vision in forest departments any more.

Independent wildlife scientists are not allowed any more to explore and research charismatic species or serious conservation problems. This is because of a fundamental conflict of interest. Wildlife officials are avoiding independent ecological monitoring and audits of their practices by conveniently employing underqualified or unqualified “scientists” who are under their control. This whole situation is sustained by locking away and hiding all raw data collected spending cores of taxpayer money over the past two decades. It is certainly not amrit kaal for wildlife science in India.

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