Paper Tigers?

Written by  //  June 17, 2011  //  National Politics  //  3 Comments

1411, or 1706.

Which side are you on?

In 2007, a scientific tiger estimation, spanning a majority of tiger reserves across India, estimated that Indian forests hold 1411 tigers, a mean value. This year, the second major tiger estimation, armed with camera trap pictures, tiger ‘signs’ and with another national, massive exercise, the number comes to about 1706, again, a central value. Crucially, these are numbers based on probability, simply because you can’t catch every tiger by the tail. Numbers are guesstimated through camera trap records, and by tiger signs—the number of chitals in a forest, scratches on a local tree, and scat.

The day 1706 was launched with fanfare in the Central Capital, the international press pointed out, in gleeful, emotive terms, that India may be winning the battle against tiger poachers and habitat loss. A few days later, the enthusiasm—or the opportunity for a critical appraisal of state-level conservation, which I argue such a massive exercise should engender, was gone.

Two camps are locked in a fierce argument about the validity of the exercise. One is the Wildlife Institute of India and the National Tiger Conservation Authority, who set and executed the blueprint for the new scientific estimations. The other is helmed by India’s oldest and best known tiger scientist, Ullas Karanth, who is also the head of the Indian chapter of the New York headquartered Wildlife Conservation Society. Quotes have been given to the press and papers published, on how the estimation is faulty, how data is not being shared, how the stats are wrong, and therefore the numbers cannot be trusted. With the allegations flying thick and strong—Karanth has been dubbed an old “tiger”, not wanting to give up his (scientific) territory, and Karanth has made a public statement on how the government has a “monopoly” over tiger monitoring—you can be forgiven for believing that we still have tigers closer to the 1411 mark, or no mark at all.

There are two things to remember here. The tiger estimation is not a census. It can never be, as every tiger in a landscape will never knock into a camera trap set up in the vicinity. Unlike the fables that tiger reserves spin—that you can have a “tigershow” here and a tigress-with-cubs encounter there, tigers also don’t line up to be counted by researchers. Every ‘count’ then will always be probabilistic, irrespective of the occupancy model and statistics used. The lesson to take away then, is that 1411 and 1706 are less numbers, than they are indicators.

Second, we have to think about whether we want a numbers game, a tiger race, if you will, amongst states that vary seriously on the quality of reserves. The last estimation set the tone for a battle on the state with the most number of tigers. But if 2007-08 was laced with the dregs of cold fury—Orissa, for example, claimed that it had many more tigers than the “census” showed—this year’s estimation is blistering with barbs, insults, and a media that is unsure whether it has been conned or not

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. Which should be the tiger state? Where should be the tiger Capital? Are the numbers farcical?

These are precisely the concerns we should not be having.

It is useful to debate better statistical tools and whether we are setting the right estimations. The estimation, in its current form, is also the only valuation of tiger landscapes which can show where populations are expanding/contracting at a national level. I will also argue that taking part in an estimation which is national, lends a certain accountability to highly disparate states. But a hubris on numbers can only lead to tragedy. The more the numbers are made the showpiece, the more we are missing the mark.

Estimations of a cryptic, glamourised carnivore are valuable indicators of where populations are, where conservation needs to be more focused, where more guards are needed—and given that tigers are poached without vigilance, if tiger reserves need to expand.

Also, a national estimation undoubtedly raises the aspirations—and profiles—of states who want more tiger reserves in their name. Thus Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Orissa have asked for one tiger reserve each, with the formalities of setting up a comprehensive conservation plan being finalised. While the scientific debates look at tiger populations as numbers that go up or down, the creation of a tiger reserve, or the willingness of a state to participate in a pan-Indian exercise, is more political and sociological.

The tiger does not sit within a scientific box, and the analysis paralysis created by quarrels over statistics need to be debated at common meetings, not in questioning, as a surrogate, the validations of conservation itself. The tiger occupies many frames, the scientific not the least of them, but its conservation is sensitive to messages from the Centre, silly competitions on which is the tiger capital, and the ultimate ‘insult’—as many states see it—of whether tiger numbers have gone down in their backyards. While we need some sense of numbers, we also need to acquire a sense of where conservation, geopolitically or otherwise, needs to take place. Any Central scheme runs the risk of being cold-shouldered by states. If Project Tiger—which always was a political/ internationally-aimed move by the Congress to establish leadership over, and ownership of, a flagship animal—is to escape that fate, it has to pick its fights well. Decentralization of the estimation has started, but like the Board exams, perhaps we need a move away from pitching solid numbers, or at least numbers as being all-important, and move towards grades. With new reserves coming up, and new areas being lost, we are in a way, starting a new report card each time, and conservation planning has to compensate, with a push—not a competition—aimed at states.

Let us take a step back. If 1706 has to mean real, sociological, biopolitical, and valued tigers, then we need to go back to what the estimation was to do—guide policy and administrative co-operation, not unleash un-counted paper tigers.

3 Comments on "Paper Tigers?"

  1. Suhrith June 17, 2011 at 3:58 pm ·

    Nice piece, Neha. You make many important points. I think this obsession with numbers is a global problem not restricted to the realm of wildlife. Take even an analysis on poverty, for instance. We are constantly looking at the numbers, when what we need to concentrate on is the policy initiatives that must be put in place. This is an paper by John Harriss, seemingly unrelated to the subject of your post, where he argues that ‘understanding social relations matters more for policy on chronic poverty than measurement’. (
    I’d imagine the same can be said in relation to tiger conservation – the obsession with numbers must give way for a more nuanced understanding of social relations, which in turn must drive policy initiatives.

  2. Neha June 22, 2011 at 5:54 am ·

    Thank you Suhrith:
    interested in the way the author asserts it is hard for social science to always be predictive. In the rather political (and also social-and-conflict-ridden!) tiger conservation scenario, it is worth giving a thought to whether conservation derives legitimacy from numbers. And since the Central Government does give so much importance to numbers, it is imperative to counter-balance that with all that is behind the numbers, or realising how conservation is so much more complex than estimation.

  3. Tory August 7, 2011 at 6:17 am ·

    I’m quite pleased with the infortmoain in this one. TY!

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