Tracking big cats in India

April 4, 2011 

"Nature is a heaven on Earth."

- E.O. Wilson, biologist, Harvard University

In awe, we stopped dead in our tracks to gaze at the enormous impression in the wet sand. Our guide whispered, "Tiger - BIG tiger!"

I could hear my heart pound. The track was significantly larger than my handprint, and evidently this large cat had walked ahead of us only 10 minutes before. It seemed almost too close for comfort, yet that was our mission - fostering forest conservation in India that translates into saving tigers.

In India, tigers and forests are synonymous. The Kalaka Mandanthurai Tiger Reserve is a biodiversity hotspot in the Western Ghats, one of 45 official tiger reserves in India. Only 1,411 of these charismatic top forest predators remained, according to the last census of 2008, but some estimates range from 1,165 to 1,657.

Exact estimates of tiger populations remain controversial. Why is it so tough to count a few hundred tigers in a country that values them so much?

For one thing, tigers hide easily from humans. Second, scientists still debate the most accurate ways to estimate tiger populations. Camera traps, observations, footprints, nail marks on trees and even feces are widely used to count mammals, but each is subject to error. Even worse, tigers are sometimes double-counted due to their mobility.

And finally, the accuracy of tiger surveys is fraught with politics. India's tourism industry prefers to overestimate, because visitors won't pay big money to visit a tiger reserve without tigers. And biologists will only count exactly what they see, smell or measure, so their counts often underestimate compared with tourism-based sources.

Recently, World Bank president Robert Zoellick pledged a last-ditch strategy to avert the extinction of tigers. Tiger poaching for medicinal uses and exotic cuisine is threatening the world's tiger reserves. In an unprecedented political move, 13 countries with tiger populations will be asked to clamp down on the black market for tiger products and work aggressively to re-establish breeding populations. World Bank's goal pledges to double the current global tiger numbers from 3,500 to 7,000 by 2022.

The next few years are critical for saving tigers. The United Nations has declared 2011 as the International Year of the Forests. For the sake of tigers and other forest denizens, make forest conservation a priority of your daily life.

Meg Lowman:

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