Even a glimmer of positive news is enough to get the heart racing these days.
Word that tiger populations in India have grown by a third in recent years was greeted with understandable enthusiasm in the mainstream press, with BBC World News among the respected media outlets that gave the story prominent play this past week.
And why not? This wasn’t the work of some bunny-hugging conservation NGO, after all, with a feel-good agenda to push. This was an official tiger census by the government of India, conducted over a four-year period and involving the latest in camera and GPS tracking technology.
We’re living in a post-facts world, though, where low-information voters have decided referendums and presidential elections in any number across the developed world. Healthy skepticism is warranted. Not cynicism exactly, but a questioning attitude. By now we’ve learned that, even when verifiable facts are involved, not everything is as it seems. Spin is everything. It’s not the story that matters anymore but how it’s presented that counts.
First the facts, as reported by BBC and others. India is now home to 3,000 tigers, roughly a third more than it had just four years ago, according to the latest tiger census there. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented the findings on Monday. Tiger populations in India increased in 2018 to 2,967 from 2,226 in 2014, Modi told reporters. India is “now one of the biggest and most secure habitats of the tiger,” he said.
India is home to around 70% of the world’s remaining wild tigers.
Much of this is verifiably true. India is home to most of the world’s surviving tigers — no news flash there — and it home to the world’s most famous tiger parks, from Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, a few hours’ drive south of Delhi, to Bandhavgarh National Park in central India, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. All true.
Field biologists — and anyone who knows the nitty gritty of wildlife censuses — were immediately taken aback by the specificity of the census’ estimates of tiger numbers, though. Counting wild animals is a tricky business at the best of times. Even herd animals, such as elephants, range over vast territories, and it can be easy to count the same animal twice. Big cats, especially those, like tigers, that hide in deep forest canopies, are not that easy to spot, let alone identify, and are impossible to spot from the air.
(Most elephant counts are conducted from light planes, often over flat savannahs where it’s possible to take in the wide view. Even at that, some field biologists will tell you that elephant counts are not always 100% reliable, the most recent controversy being in Botswana, on the heels of that country’s decision to lift its hunting ban.)
Field biologists and conservationists will also tell you that the biggest crisis facing India’s tigers is not the numbers — 3,000, while sounding like a lot, is a small fraction of the 40,000 tigers that roamed India at independence, and a tiny fraction of the 100,000 tigers that roamed India in 1900 — but rather shrinking habitat, the constant encroachment of surrounding farms and mining on protected land and the painful reality that India is increasingly a dry, overcrowded subcontinent with a handful of tiny green islands or “hotspots,” surrounded by a sea of humanity and parched fields. The climate crisis isn’t helping.
Tigers need vast territories not just to hunt but to find mates, raise cubs of their own and maintain the integrity of a shrinking gene pool.
It’s worth noting, too, that Modi, like many national leaders, is well aware that a feel-good conservation story, especially one involving a charismatic, iconic species like the tiger, plays well to a jaded public increasingly restive over other issues, like running water and reliable electricity.
Another issue is human-wildlife conflict. Too many tigers in a confined space will inevitably drive some tigers outside protected areas, in order to hunt and find food. Conflict with subsistence farmers and cattle herders is inevitable, especially when those farmers are living a precarious existence as it is.
“It would be awesome if the reports were true,” a friend told me, yesterday. “But there’s a lot of healthy skepticism. I don’t think they inflated the 30%. But I believe (wildlife biologist and tiger specialist K. Ullas) Karanth and others are right in that the census methods need to be improved to really get an accurate count. . . . Sadly, at this point, even if the report is accurate, the protected habitats will have to be enlarged if there is to be more population growth.”