India’s Latest Tiger Count Is Seriously Inadequate

Nagarahole National Park, India–Tigers do not roar. Lions roar. In the complete night of the Indian jungle, a tiger resonates. The very forest vibrates when it speaks. Yes, I understand the physics: mice squeak, cats purr, and so on up the scale as body size increases. Pitch tells me how large is the animal.

By extrapolation, tigers must be huge, so deep is the rising then the falling of their announcement. They are completely terrifying — they must be monsters of impossible proportions. Perhaps the resonance is partly my physiological reaction.

As I walk back from eating dinner through the forest clearing to the guest house, I could be dinner. I understand these things too intellectually — I wrote the book on food chains: most living things eat and are eaten.

Gaur are wild cattle, powerfully muscular under their sleek coats. (How can they be genetically related to the small cattle of India’s villages, their ribs protruding, their heads held low, cowed by their herders?) Gaur, hidden by the jungle in the day, stroll silently into the clearings as dusk falls, very wild and very threatening, as they appear suddenly in the lights of our 4×4. The bull is huge, his horns no ornament, his harem his alone because he’s gored the only slightly less impressive opposition.

The tiger is not after me. Gaur are tiger food. While my mind tells me that I’m unlikely to be the tiger’s supper, the hairs on my neck don’t believe it as I hear its roar.

Providing my dinner — and my tiger guide — is Ullas Karanth, India’s premier tiger ecologist.

He has just let out a roar of his own.

Quite simply, Dr. Karanth has examined the latest data on how many tigers there are in India.  Those numbers, he tells us, are simply inadequate.  We need much better estimates — with modern techniques, geographically explicit, and done annually, if we are to stem this big cat’s decline.

I’m no tiger expert, but as a member of National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative, what he says about tigers worries me deeply.  We lack accurate counts of all the big cats.  Without them, we cannot be certain how well — or how badly — our conservation efforts are faring.

Half the world’s tigers are in India.  This is a very significant problem.

Population Estimate of Tigers in 2006 and 2010 (courtesy of India's Ministry of Environment & Forests)


Ullas’s e-mail to me is in response to the national tiger estimation exercise conducted in 2010.  It was released today, March 28. It reports an increase in adult tiger numbers to 1636 (1706 including the tigers believed to be in the Sunderbans, a conservation area not previously included in the tiger count).  That’s up from the previous estimate of 1411 tigers in 2007 — an increase of 16 percent over 4 years.  Superficially, this is encouraging and suggests that the previous decline of tigers has stopped.

Ullas is critical. He writes:

“Full details are not yet available on how these tiger numbers were obtained. It’s just not possible to give an expert opinion on them.  Moreover, since various threats faced by tigers have not diminished in last four years, it is difficult to explain the claimed reversal of the decline of tigers.”

Tigers are now much reduced in both numbers and range.  Some 90 percent of India’s tigers are concentrated in 10 percent of all tiger habitat. There are 40 or so ‘source populations’ — places where tigers breed and from which tigers can disperse to other areas.

Ullas continues:

“These places are under grave threat and need to be ecologically monitored annually, using intensive camera trapping. Monitoring of tracks by Forest Guards is not a substitute for such reliable monitoring using camera traps or DNA sampling as has already been proven earlier in places where tigers vanished even as guards did similar patrol-based monitoring. “

Reading Tigers Like a Bar Code

There’s a point in his tiger seminars that I always enjoy.  “How do you count tigers?” He asks.  There’s a dramatic pause.  “You read them like a bar code.”

The pattern of stripes on a tiger’s side is unique.  Set up a pair of cameras — one needs to read both sides — and when a tiger trips the camera the pair of photographs provides a unique ID.  Ullas revolutionized tiger counting this way.  The fur flew when he pointed out that numbers were far smaller than those previously expected.

Tiger camera trap photo courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society/Dr. K. Ullas Karanth/Centre for Wildlife Studies.


Camera trapping has come a long way in a decade, with the technology being faster, better, and cheaper.  DNA sampling — which can be done from hairs or scat — also identifies individuals and promises to do so cheaply.  So why is this not being done?

Ullas’s criticism is stinging.

“To me the most serious flaw in the present government effort is the basic futility of trying to generate all-India level tiger counts once in 4 years, even while ignoring critical task of intensively monitoring key source populations year after year,” he writes.

“The time has now come to switch from these once in four year national estimation and focus intensive camera trap or DNA monitoring of tiger source populations so that we can track the fate of individual tigers, and estimate survival and recruitment rates to gauge how each of these populations is faring. If we do not shift to such focused, intensive monitoring approaches, we are at serious risk of losing more and more key populations even while we celebrate supposed ‘increases’ from these national counts.

“It is well known that half the tiger reserves lost most of their tigers in the past decades despite these national counts!”

Can this be done?  I asked Ullas.

“For several years Centre for Wildlife Studies has monitored tigers rigorously in Karnataka State over an area that holds about 15 percent of the country’s tigers. We camera trap a 3000 sq km area, every year, photographing more than 100 tigers in a population of about 250.”

“And, what do your data show,” I continued.

“On the basis of these data we believe that the tiger population in Karnataka is holding out, and even increasing in some areas like Bhadra and Kudremukh because of good work by government and NGOs.

“We believe that similar intensive monitoring of all key source populations can be easily done to generate similarly useful results across the country.

“However, to achieve such progress, government must give up its present monopoly over tiger monitoring and bring in outside expertise and resources in order to ensure greater reliability, transparency and credibility in monitoring the fate of our national animal.”

A few years ago, in a habitat far, far away from the jungle of India, I was at a cocktail party in Washington, D.C.  A large conservation organization had just issued a report on the numbers of another, famously charismatic large mammal.

I found myself talking to the head of that program and so asked about the numbers and the methods.  She fobbed me off, so I probed some more.  In short order, she slammed down her glass, the red wine spilling over me, and stormed off, offended by my temerity.

Counting endangered plants and animals is often tedious and sometimes dangerous.  Worse, the results are often not encouraging. Can one raise money from donors unless one claims success? What is certain is that without reliable, transparent and credible numbers, we have no idea whether we are saving nature.

Professor Stuart L. Pimm is a conservation biologist at Duke University, North Carolina. A former member of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, Pimm is the author of dozens of books and research papers, including the book “The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth.”


Blog posts by Stuart Pimm

Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He is a world leader in the study of present day extinctions and what we can do to prevent them. Pimm received his BSc degree from Oxford University in 1971 and his Ph.D from New Mexico State University in 1974. Pimm is the author of nearly 300 scientific papers and four books. He is one of the most highly cited environmental scientists. Pimm wrote the highly acclaimed assessment of the human impact to the planet: The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth in 2001. His commitment to the interface between science and policy has led to his testimony to both House and Senate Committees on the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act. He has served on National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration and currently works with their Big Cats Initiative. In addition to his studies in Africa, Pimm has worked in the wet forests of Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil for decades and is a long-term collaborator of the forest fragmentation project north of Manaus, Brazil. Pimm directs SavingSpecies, a 501c3 non-profit that uses funds for carbon emissions offsets to fund local conservation groups to restore degraded lands in areas of exceptional tropical biodiversity. His international honours include the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (2010), the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006).
  • sam

    ahhh there well cute

  • Gerry Post

    Indeed tigers cause the forests to resonate, so should the comments of both Stuart Pimm and Ullas Karanth cause the Indian government and conservationists around the world to take notice. Both of these men are truly giants in their field and when they speak with one voice, we should all listen.
    Their comments although a warning, also inspire me. For if you look closely at the data -something I researched during my master’s work from 2008-2010 – there is reason for hope. There is indeed a recipe for success. The tiger reserves in the Western Ghats that have adhered to Dr. Karanth’s recommendations have seen a consistent increase in tiger numbers. Therein lies my inspiration. In medicine it is common to evaluate the best performing patients to better understand the potential root causes of their superior medical performance. This approach is called “positive deviance”. The Indian government and those organizations working on tiger conservation in India have a blueprint-a step by step approach to success-they just need to read it and follow the sound advice of a successful tiger ecologist. The citizens of the world —the billions of people who believe the world is a more wondrous place if tigers thrive in the wild– demand it.

  • Juhi Singh

    Being an Indian, I seriously look forward to Government, groups and commitees in India to read this post and act on it. India holds a major chunk of world’s flora and fauna. We can not just sit n see the nature’s biggest food chain getting spoiled because of our negligence. People with authority and money should rise up and act on it ASAP. “Policy makers are the policy breakers”…..lets prove to the world that we care about the mother nature and their gifts. Thanks to Pimm and Karnath for all the work they are doing and hope that whole world would contribute toward jungle. OF all the vulnerable species, tiger are the most endagered species and need immediate attention. I am trying to bring awareness to the people around me…..what are you doing???

  • Phillip H George

    Greetings, Professor Pimm
    I enjoyed the article about the tigers and learning that each tiger pattern of stripes can be read like a bar code and no two tigers will have the same color pattern.
    That is good news about the cameras being used for a better understanding of the number of tigers in the area and well hidden cameras may help stop trespassers from harming wildlife on the tiger reserves.
    I would like to write a big thank you to all the people who are working hard to save the magnificent animals throughout the world and with their help in wilderness conservation it can be achived.
    Take Care, PHG

  • krishan rana

    i had gone through the artice , i appreciate the concern of your and other emment writers . it is the time now we would come out of the line , crowd and let take serious efforts for the needy . i m ready to furnish my serious concern in regaard to save the tiger

  • lady

    as 70 percent of people live in poverty without real medical care and on sheds, cemeteries, begging with thousand of children not going to school, zoo full of invested sick animals and disgusting conditions/ India will never be apart of advanced discoveries in energy,

  • Saif Ahmed

    It’s a good sign ,of rise of population of tigers and it’s Jungles. The government of India and tigers organisers need to stop the locals villagers to get into the jungles,for cutting down trees and doing their activities .Because of that natural imbalance of the jungles gets destroyed

  • pro-hormones

    newswatch.nationalgeographic.com has good graphics
    pro hormones

  • Harold Waterman

    I get so tired of hearing about the growing number of tiger attacks in India. Lets face it, we are humans and should we should be smarter than to let an animal get the best of us. These animals are not as highly intelligent as a continent is known geographically to have the most intelligent people on planet. One option would be for the government to to issue helmets to individuals who live dangerously close to the tiger habitat. Helmets that would protect the heads and necks of the Indian citizens. In addition, the government could reintroduce more of the animals that tigers are accustomed to hunting. I personally feel that the government should also designate and create more national parks to protect these animals. Humans can learn to do like we do in manhattan build vertical builds and not horizontal land masses. The world is gradually becoming too small for all of us.

  • Pratyush Tripathy

    Why should we save tigers?
    At the turn of the 20th century, according to estimates, India probably had many thousand tigers in the wild.

    In 2002, based on a census using the pug mark technique, this number was 3,642.

    As per the monitoring exercise by Wildlife Institute of India in association with National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), Government of India, using camera traps, in 2008 we were left with only 1,411 tigers. This number is so small that they will be gone soon if we don’t wake up to the crisis.

    The tiger is not just a charismatic species or just another wild animal living in some far away forest. The tiger is a unique animal which plays a pivotal role in the health and diversity of an ecosystem. It is a top predator which is at the apex of the food chain and keeps the population of wild ungulates in check, thereby maintaining the balance between prey herbivores and the vegetation upon which they feed. Therefore, the presence of tigers in the forest is an indicator of the well being of the ecosystem. The extinction of this top predator is an indication that its ecosystem is not sufficiently protected, and neither would it exist for long thereafter.

    If the tigers go extinct, the entire system would collapse. For e.g. when the Dodos went extinct in Mauritius, one species of Acacia tree stopped regenerating completely. So when a species goes extinct, it leaves behind a scar, which affects the entire ecosystem. Another reason why we need to save the tiger is that our forests are water catchment areas.

    Therefore, it’s not just about saving a beautiful animal. It is about making sure that we live a little longer as the forests are known to provide ecological services like clean air, water, pollination, temperature regulation etc.

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