India’s Tigers: A threatened species is experiencing a rise in its population

Ullas Karanth has spent a half-century working to protect India’s endangered tigers. In an interview with Yale e360, he argues that with smart planning and the cooperation of its rural residents, the country could support five times the number of tigers it has now. 

Karanth, a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is one of the world’s premier tiger experts and a leader in the effort to restore India’s depleted tiger populations. Raised in the South India state of Karnataka, he has spent much of his professional life studying and working to bring back tigers there, starting in Nagarahole National Park in the foothills of the Western Ghats, and then across a 10,000-square-mile region of that mountain range.

Karanth’s emphasis on scientific methods has frequently brought him into conflict with India’s forest bureaucracy, particularly over its insistence on estimating tiger populations based on footprint counts. Karanth instead pioneered the use of camera traps for population estimates based on identification of individual tigers. That method belatedly became the national standard after a 2004 scandal, when Sariska Tiger Reserve, officially estimated to have 26 tigers, turned out to have none.

Karanth’s willingness to report illegal logging, cattle grazing, and poaching in protected areas — and to implicate corrupt officials in the damage — has also earned him enemies. In one incident, an angry mob set a fire that destroyed his car, laboratory, and eight square miles of forest. But Karanth’s persistence has helped reestablish the tiger population in the Western Ghats and fueled his ambition to see that success extended across India and to empty tiger habitat far beyond.

Yale Environment 360: India has managed to maintain a population of about 3,000 tigers for decades. What’s the potential population in a nation that’s also home to 1.3 billion people?

Ullas Karanth: There are at least 300,000 square kilometers of the type of forest in which tigers can live, which are still not converted to agriculture and which are under state ownership, protected as state-owned forest reserves. A subset of that, maybe 10 or 15 percent, is protected as wildlife reserves. So basically if all these 300,000 square kilometers were reasonably well protected and the prey base is brought up, we could have 10,000 to 15,000 tigers.

e360: Is there any chance that that will happen?

Karanth: I don’t see why not. It’s essentially a function of building back the prey base, because the forest cover is there. Some of the better-protected areas like Nagarahole and Bandipur national parks, where I worked, have densities of 10 to 15 tigers per 100 square kilometers. Even if we averaged only 5 tigers per 100 square kilometers in that 300,000 square kilometers, you’re talking about 15,000 tigers. 

“Up to now, the recovery of tigers has taken place in more fragmented forests in southwestern India and in parts of central India.”

e360: So why isn’t the prey base there already? Is it the bush meat trade?

Karanth: It’s not the bush meat trade in the sense that it’s hunted and sold in large markets, the kind of thing you see in Africa and in Laos and Burma. It is more hunting for consumption and selling to a few neighbors. Some of the most extensive forests are in central India, northeast India, eastern India, where there is very heavy illegal hunting of prey animals such as deer, antelopes, and wild pig by local people. So that’s where the scope for future recovery is tremendous. Up to now, the recovery of tigers has taken place in more fragmented forests in southwestern India and in parts of central India.

e360: So if you got the prey base back into those larger areas, you could have connected corridors for tigers?

Karanth: We have a fair amount of connectivity even now. But these are actually large blocks of connected forests in central India and northeast India. They’re devoid of prey, and devoid of tigers for that reason. Fixing that requires tough enforcement and intelligent planning of major projects to maintain connectivity.

e360: The current government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to be more interested in running highways through tiger habitat than in protecting that habitat.

Karanth: Narendra Modi’s government has an agenda for rapid economic growth, and a fundamental part of that plan is to improve infrastructure projects. So it certainly has tried to accelerate the rate at which new infrastructure projects are being put in place. But it’s not that they haven’t put money into tigers. In fact, money into tiger conservation also has gone up.

e360: Have you been able to stop proposed highway developments, like the one through the Pench Tiger Reserve, or the one in Corbett Tiger Reserve?

Karanth: It’s not one or two. There are dozens of cases. The problem is this: All the prime wildlife areas — tiger areas, let’s say — right now occupy 4 or 5 percent of the total national land area. So if you are putting in new highways, you can go around them. But the powerful arm of the government that’s in charge goes ahead and plans highways without giving any consideration for such options or for mitigating measures. Then the conservationists go to court and fight, because there are strong laws protecting nature, and the thing gets logjammed in court for 10 to 20 years. Then far too expensive mitigation measures are proposed. The lack of good science in all this is also a problem. I’m not saying every highway or every problem will be solved, but with innovation it is possible to avoid the courts.

Story by: Richard ConniffRead the full interview at Yale Environment 360

Source: Yale Environment 360