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SUNDARBAN TIGER RESERVE, India – At first, the numbers seem impressive: India's tiger population has gone up 30 percent in just four years. The government lauded the news as astonishing evidence of victory in conservation.
But independent scientists say such an increase — to 2,226 big cats — in so short a time doesn't make sense.
They worry an enthusiastic new government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is misinterpreting the numbers, trumpeting false claims of a thriving tiger population that could hurt conservation in the long run.
"The circus is not necessary," said tiger expert K. Ullas Karanth, science director for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Asia. "All of this tom-tom'ing and arm-waving, claiming we've had stupendous success, is ridiculous and unscientific."
The first numbers were released in January. Last week, the government offered details of the data.
Even as scientists begged caution in presenting the count, India's government doubled down. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar again boasted of a 30 percent population increase. And Prime Minister Modi rounded that up, saying tiger numbers had seen "about a 40 percent increase. Feels good to hear it!"
If only it were true. This census differs in an important way from earlier tallies: It estimates India's entire wild tiger population, while preceding counts focused only on cats in sanctuaries and reserves.
"I'd prefer to say there are 30 percent more known tigers, rather than say there is actually an increase in tigers. We might not have counted them all earlier," said Anurag Danda of the World Wildlife Fund in the Sundarbans, one of many groups that participated in the census.
A 30 percent increase within four years is implausible. Though tigers have high birth rates, they also have high natural death rates, and factors such as habitat loss and poaching haven't slowed. At least 110 tigers were killed in 2011-14, barely a drop from the 118 poached in 2007-10, according to the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
Globally, experts believe the best that can be hoped for is a 50 percent increase in the world population over 10 years — a much more modest rate of growth.
Such incongruities have happened before. India claimed a 17 percent increase between 2006 and 2010, even while tiger habitats shrank by some 40 percent.
But while Danda interprets the latest numbers more conservatively than some government officials, he agrees they show that conservation efforts appear to be working: "Otherwise, how come we have so many tigers outside the tiger reserves?"
India is by far the world leader in protecting tigers, spending more resources and money than any other country. For decades it has faced immense challenges, from habitat loss and human encroachment to poaching, disease and pollution. Still, India manages to keep about 70 percent of the world's wild tigers on less than 25 percent of the world's tiger habitat. That's partly a credit to its vast rural population, which long ago learned to live in relative proximity to the secretive beasts.
If India can protect tigers, despite a human population 1.26 billion strong, that proves any country can do it, conservationists say.
"But they can't relax. And that's my biggest worry about this latest census and the way it's being presented," said Alan Rabinowitz, head of Panthera, a New York-based big-cat conservation group. "The worst outcome of that is it allows development and business interests to say, 'We've been doing really well. We can pull back a bit.'"
Desperate to develop its economy and alleviate widespread poverty, India faces intense pressure to convert forests for roads or industrial use, or to allow polluting factories or mining operations near forest reserves and water supplies. Conservationists worry more of those projects will be green-lighted around tiger habitats if the cats are seen to be thriving. The government has already cut the Environment Ministry's 2015-16 budget by almost 25 percent, with funds for tiger conservation dropping 15 percent.
Over the weekend, the Supreme Court allowed for the widening of a 10-kilometer (7-mile) road between two tiger sanctuaries in central Madhya Pradesh — work its own appointed committee warned would irreparably damage critical wildlife habitat and invite heavy traffic that might mow the animals down.
When India says it now is home to 2,226 tigers, what it is giving is an estimate — a best-guess based on a technique called index-calibration that combines small-scale cat counts and, through complex calculations, extrapolates them to a national total. Those counts are conducted by various groups — forest rangers, independent scientists, tiger charities — through various means, including photographing individual tigers and analyzing tiger droppings and paw prints.
The technique, which India adopted in 2006, is by no means perfect. An Oxford-led study published in February by the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution suggested the data collection was too erratic for adequately predicting cat populations in areas outside census monitoring.
Scientists also question the absence of independent oversight in the government-organized census. And some say that one census every four years is not enough.
"The criticism of the census is rubbish," said Rajesh Gopal, who headed the government's National Tiger Conservation Authority from its beginning in 2006 until January, when he joined the Global Tiger Forum.
"Out of the 2,226 tigers estimated in this census, we have photographic evidence for about 1,500 individuals, or 70 percent. And the statistical models are state-of-the-art. The detractors are not being very fair," he said.
Gopal agreed, however, that the government is overstating things by saying the overall population had grown 30 percent. "These are just the numbers we know of right now. We can't say anything beyond that."
Experts praise India for maintaining corridors for the tigers to move between sanctuaries and cracking down on poachers, including giving some state forest rangers the right to shoot suspected poachers on sight. Patrolling has improved in the country's 47 tiger reserves, covering less than 2 percent of India's total land mass, or about 53,500 square kilometers (20,700 square miles).
But India could do more, scientists say, such as establishing prey populations and anti-poaching patrols on some 300,000 square kilometers (116,000 square miles) of unprotected forest that is otherwise suitable as tiger habitat.
India's greatest conservation strength may be its human population. Villagers long ago learned to live alongside the predators and appreciate their importance to maintaining order within an ecosystem — for example, by keeping deer populations in check so they don't devour trees and plants. Though they are among India's poorest people, many villagers would sooner adjust their own behavior in the forests than see the big cats disappear.
In the vast deltas of the eastern Sundarbans region, Nepal Sardar wears two faces while searching for honey — one trained to the trees and looking for bees, the other painted on a mask strapped to the back of his head staring down any tigers that might approach. The mask works, he explains, because the stealthy tigers generally prefer to attack from behind.
Another villager, Anita Mondol, echoed many others in saying she lives in terror of tigers roaming into villages and attacking livestock. The tigers will swim kilometers between islands and ambush people on land. She worries one might break through the woven-thatch roof of her hut, enter her home and carry someone away. It has happened before to villagers she knows. She is certain it will happen again.
Still, "if it weren't for the tigers, there would be no forest," the 41-year-old said. "And with no forest, there would be no place for us."
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