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Saving tigers in India

How to save tigers in India

How to save tigers in India:
Q&A with Dr. K. Ullas Karanth of WCS-India

Rhett A. Butler,
November 8, 2007

Over the past century the number of tigers in India has fallen from about 40,000 to less than 4,000 (and possibly as few as 1,500). Relentless poaching and clearing of habitat for agriculture have been the primary drivers of this decline, though demand for tiger skins and parts for “medicinal” purposes has become an increasingly important threat in recent years.

However the news is not all bad. Research published last year showed that if protected and given sufficient access to abundant prey, tiger populations can quickly stabilize. With India’s large network of protected areas and continued funding from conservation groups like the Wildlife Conservation Society, the findings provide hope that tigers can avoid extinction in the wild.

Camera trap shot of a tiger in India’s Nagarahole National Park. Photo by U. Karanth/Wildlife Conservation Society.

Now a new study offers further evidence the tigers can be saved. Writing in the journal Biological Conservation, a team of scientists showed that parks in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal can sustain nearly twice the number of tigers they currently support if small conservation measures are adopted.

Dr. K. Ullas Karanth, a leading tiger expert and one of the authors of the study, answered some questions about the recent findings as well as the overall state of tigers in India.

Mongabay: What are the biggest threats to tigers in India?

Dr. K. Ullas Karanth: The biggest threat to tigers in India is depletion of their chief prey like deer, wild pigs and wild cattle by local people. As a result although about 300,000 square kilometers of tiger habitat still remains, much of it is empty of tigers because there is not enough food for them to survive and breed successfully.

Mongabay: Your new study suggests that tigers can be protected within relatively large and suitable parks but what about the bulk of reserves that are too small to support tigers?

Dr. K. Ullas Karanth: What the new study shows that the bigger chunks of empty tiger forests in north-east India need urgent improvements to even reach “reasonable management” in protected areas that we have assumed in the study. The much smaller deciduous forest reserves in south and central India of 500-1000 square kilometers size can actually hold very high densities of tigers under reasonable management. At this point in time, it is these mid sized reserves in Western Ghats, Central India, Terai and Assam that hold most of the tigers in India.

Mongabay: How can these tigers co-exist with people in human-dominated landscapes? Wouldn’t there be conflict? How is WCS working to address this issue?

Dr. K. Ullas Karanth: It depends on how you define a “tiger landscape” for coexistence. Tigers can coexist with people if the landscape is defined at scale of the country, region, state or district. However, if we insist on forcing such coexistence in clusters of breeding populations inhabiting a few hundred square kilometers in conservation priority areas, there will be severe and perennial conflict and tigers will eventually be wiped out as a result; people have votes and tigers don’t. WCS’s strategy is primarily to ensure such cores are protected against hunting and that people within them are compensated fairly and adequately to move out. At wider landscapes, WCS works with all partners and stake holders to address human needs while ensuring the cores are protected uncompromisingly. And unlike many others, we believe in rigorous monitoring of results by counting tigers using best possible methods.

Mongabay: What’s the best way to encourage more Indian students to pursue a career in wildlife conservation? And do you have any advice for young aspiring conservationists?

Dr. K. Ullas Karanth: I think the best way is to create more opportunities in the real world for trained conservationists and conservation scientists. At present, both in the Government and the non-governmental sectors, the conservation field filled with people who are professionally untrained and are as a result offering and implementing “seat of the pants” solutions, many of which don’t work. Secondly, conservationists must learn to independently function as small NGO groups without looking for government doles and jobs.

Mongabay: How can the general public help save tigers?

Dr. K. Ullas Karanth: By not just being interested and concerned (which they often are), but by learning more, understanding issues and supporting the right solutions. Above all, by not succumbing to the gloom and doom prophesies about the tigers that have been flooding the media for the last 10 straight years.. There is much to be done and this not the time to throw up your hands and whine.

About Dr. K. Ullas Karanth

Dr. K. Ullas Karanth, who has studied tigers in India since the 1980s, is the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society India Program. Karanth has authored three books on tigers and dozens of scientific papers. He is based in Karnataka, India.

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