Reading between the tiger numbers: Debbie Banks reports on the unreported from the Delhi tiger meetings


Dr. Jhala

Dr. Jhala speaking at the International Conference on Tiger Conservation


You might have heard there was a tiger conference in Delhi last week, you’ve probably seen news about India’s tiger population, but did you hear anything about China’s absurd comment about tiger trade?

Probably not. The media shuffled out following India’s announcements, and the rest of the gathering of Tiger Range Countries was mostly a mela of sickly sweet back-patting sessions.

Countries stood up to present their “To Do” lists for the rest of 2011 and reported on progress since the St Petersburg International Tiger Forum. A number of delegates reported seizures of tiger parts since St Petersburg, and that the consignments were headed to China. Troubled by this, Bangladesh asked China what action they were taking to stop the trade.

Apart from the ban and public education since 1993, China has effective enforcement. Eh?! Yep, that’s right. China stated that they get information from NGOs in their country such as TRAFFIC, IFAW, “and sometimes” EIA, but they haven’t received any recent information about trade in tiger skin and bone and that’s because China has “good control of illegal trade in tiger parts”.

Surely we had misheard. But no, a delegate from China later confirmed their belief, that since EIA visits every year, and since they did not hear from us in 2010, they assumed it was because we couldn’t find any evidence of trade.

We didn’t visit China in 2010! Credit crunch and all that. That’s the only reason we didn’t provide them with a report that year! What a frightening insight into the logic that is failing the tiger.

So much for Premier Wen Jiabao’s commitment to “vigorously combat poaching and trade”, he needs to crack the whip and make sure there are more boots on the ground proactively gathering intelligence on the tiger traders, not waiting for the NGOs to point out the problem areas.

And excuse me, we still haven’t had a response to our findings from 2009!

There’s more. In their “To Do” list for the meeting, under items “Completed” China reported that they had undertaken inspections of tiger farms and markets between August and December 2010. When asked if there were any seizures, arrests or prosecutions resulting from these inspections, one delegate said he didn’t know, the other asked for the question in writing because he didn’t want to make the “mistake of misunderstanding” me. This from a delegate who had chaired an entire session of the meeting the day before!

But in a real twist that seriously undermines the good words of Wen Jiabao, China’s list refers to a skin registration scheme, allowing tiger skins to be labelled, so they could be “monitored”, not destroyed. This sounds strikingly similar to the scheme announced in 2007 to register, label and sell skins of “legal origin”, including those of farmed tigers. When asked, one delegate confirmed that skins from farmed tigers were being labelled and stored but he didn’t know if any had been sold, the other delegate…well my Scottish accent was still troubling him.

 Fear not tiger fans, we won’t give up!

Oh, and good luck to the Government of Kazakhstan who plan to reintroduce tigers south of Lake Balkhash. Close to the border with China.

And now for something to get happy about?

So, India’s tiger population is an estimated 1706 adults, a higher number than indicated by the 2006 estimate of 1411. But does it really reflect an increase in the tiger population?

Compared to 2006, there were additional tiger areas covered by the surveys in 2010, including the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, parts of Maharashtra, Uttarakhand and Assam. Discounting those additions, the scientists say there has been a 12% increase in areas surveyed both in 2006 and 2010.

Reading between the numbers there are some surprises, with news that Kanha Tiger Reserve, the jewel in the crown of the self-styled “Tiger State” of Madhya Pradesh, has lost tigers, that too despite more regular monitoring. The new champions are in the Western Ghats, where poaching is less prevalent, and where that landscape has emerged as host to the largest single population of wild tigers anywhere in the world.

Tiger in Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary

More good news in the north, where some populations outside protected areas are stable and showing signs of increase in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, despite being close to tiger trafficking borders.

But there’s no time to do cartwheels. In fact, the lead scientist overseeing the work, Dr YV Jhala from the Wildlife Institute of India, and the Minister of Environment and Forests, Mr Jairam Ramesh, both went to great lengths during the media scrum to highlight some hard-hitting truths of considerable concern.

For example, tiger occupancy has declined considerably, down from 93,600 sq km to 72,800 sq km. That is a massive 20,000 sq km that is now devoid of tigers, compared to just four years ago, and that too outside of the protected areas. While the density of the tiger population in these areas might not be high, they are critical for linking the otherwise isolated tiger populations, and thus the long-term survival of wild tigers. Finding out where and how should be number one on the Government of India’s “To Do” list. Hmm, we’re looking forward to the release of the detailed data and maps.

Debbie Banks Senior Campaigner
  • Even i wait for their detailed Tiger habitat maps and a comprehensive data about their census and study of the animal. It would be interesting to understand if their tools and technology applied for the census are foolproof. I would also be apprehensive about the training given to the participants in order to compile their findings.

    My several interaction with forest officials confirms their poor knowledge of ecology system, their understanding of Tiger behavior and the complexity of man-animal conflict. It is quite sub-standard to say the least.

    It came as a really good news as we get to know from Min of Forest that Tiger numbers went up. But, at the same time, they need to do something urgently about China.

    • Debbie Banks

      Hi Yogendra,

      Maybe you’ve seen Dr Ullas Karanth’s preliminary review of the recent estimation efforts – see below.

      Cheers Debbie

      Subject: New Tiger Numbers for India: Response by Dr. K. Ullas Karanth

      The result of the national tiger estimation exercise conducted over
      the past couple of years has been released on 28-3-2011. It reports
      an increase in adult tiger numbers to 1636 (1706 including
      Sunderbans), up from the previous estimate of 1411 tigers in 2007.
      This is an increase of 16% compounded over 4 years, suggesting that
      the previous decline of tigers has been reversed. However, since full
      details are not yet available as to how these tiger numbers have been
      arrived at, it is not possible to give an expert opinion about the new
      numbers. However, since various threats faced by tigers do not appear
      to have diminished in last four years, it is difficult to explain the
      claimed reversal of the decline of tigers.

      Moreover, going beyond such country wide estimates, a more important
      issue needs to be addressed: Most of India’s reproducing tiger
      populations are now concentrated in 10% of all tiger habitat that
      holds 90% of all our tigers. These 40 or so ‘source populations’ are
      under grave threat and need to be ecologically monitored annually
      using intensive camera trapping (as prescribed in the proposed Phase 4
      of the national estimation, which is yet to even begin). 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. 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.

      The time has now come to switch from these once in five year national
      estimation (termed Phases 1 to 3) 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!).

      On a more technical note, the full process of how these tiger numbers
      are generated for individual tiger populations and landscapes, has not
      been made public in a scientifically acceptable manner. Only one
      scientific paper, which explains only a part of this protocol, has
      been published in 2011, based on data from the last round of
      estimation in 2007. While this is not the place for a technical
      discussion, I see serious deficiencies in the methodology which has
      been published.

      For several years Centre for Wildlife Studies has monitored tigers
      rigorously in Karnataka State over an area that holds about 15% 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. 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. This would not cost more than what the present
      ‘once in four year’ national estimation costs. 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. I hope this long delayed Phase 4 of
      tiger counting will happen before it is too late.


  • Would really appreciate if someone can share the report to be released by Min of Environment & Forest.

    • Debbie Banks

      The copy of Dr Jhala’s presentation is available here

      But they said it would be a few months more before the detailed report would be available as they are still writing it up.

      The information from the 2006 estimate, published in 2008 are available here

      Cheers Debbie

  • Hi Debbie
    As always in your reports you have summed up the result of the Delhi meeting with qualified accuracy. At the time I was heartened by the encouraging comments made by China’s Prime Minister at the recent St.Petersburg conference. However having read your report on the remarks made by the Chinese reps. in Delhi I can see that the their position in cracking down on the tiger trade within China is a sham when they say that they are relying on NGOs’ to report on such iregularities to them! China is as we know a communist State with a huge army and police force-if they seriously wish to stop the trade in tiger skins and derivatives it would be comparatively easy for them-it really all speaks for itself. However please never give up on the tiger-it deserves better.
    Best wishes

    • Debbie Banks

      Thanks Mike. Absolutely, we’ll never give up!

      We’re writing to Premier Wen Jiabao now, to alert him to how one of his government departments is undermining the commitments he made in St Petersburg.

      On the flip side, China reportedly made supportive comments on a draft resolution at the UN Commission on Crime Prevention, regarding combating wildlife crime. The government was represented there by delegates from the Justice and Public Security departments.

      Maybe this presents an opportunity for Wen Jiabao to consider transferring responsibility for wildlife crime enforcement to the police instead of letting the State Forest Administration lead on it, given their obvious conflicts of interest.

      Cheers Debbie

  • Carlo Castellani

    Very interesting; but if for international public you should use less (better no) idioms as they make reading heavy for a non mother-tongue.

    • Debbie Banks

      Apologies Carlo!

      I do tend to speak from the heart, and that’s just the way it sounds. Will try and be more clear in future.

      With best wishes, and thanks for reading our posts, Debbie

  • Judith CAVEY

    Thanks to Debbie Banks for an interesting article concerning the International Conference on Tiger Conservation, held recently in Delhi.
    Many of the downside problems for tigers always seem to be with China – do they actually know, or even care, about the poaching, killing and trade in tiger parts? Are they ever going to help the dwindling numbers of tigers by putting a STOP to their tiger trade? And, oh yes, good luck to Kazakhstan for announcing they will be reintroducing tigers to their country BUT close to the border with China. I hope they have the finances to make sure their tigers will be one hundred per cent protected, otherwise they will be disappearing over the border!
    NEVER give up on tigers – they must have their place on our planet.

    • Debbie Banks

      Couldn’t agree more Judith! I can’t bear the thought of a world without tigers.

      Given China’s status as a global economic super-power, one would hope that the Premier would see fit to invest considerably in financing a new war against wildlife crime and tiger trade within the country and along its borders.

      Cheers Debbie

  • Colin Guest

    It is not only the fate of Tigers that is in the hands of China, the vast increase in the amount of poaching of elephants and rhinos is totally due the demand in China for both tusks and horns. The increase I feel sure is due to the increase in wealth of thousands of Chinese over the past few years. As previously stated above IF China really wanted to do something to protect these animals they could easily do so. Unfortunately for the general Chinese their life will become increasing difficult due to the pollution of many of their rivers that are to polluted to drink from. China is in serious danger of running out of drinking water unless the authorities make determined action to stop the incrediable amount of pollution in the country.

    • Debbie Banks

      Too true Colin.

      We’ve seen some horrendous images of mutilated rhinos doing the rounds at the moment.

      If you’re based in the UK, please write to Dave and Nick at No.10 and ask them to call for a new war against wildlife crime.

      We’re not talking about the poor families living around wildlife, we’re talking about organised criminal networks, spanning the globe, profiting from the low risks associated with illegally trading wildlife.

      And what’s happening? Seizures, after seizures of dead animal parts. But without much more investment in enforcement strategies that result in prosecutions, convictions, seizures of assets and proceeds of crime, international investigations that bag the bad guys all along the trade chain, then the money-makers will just go out and commission more killing.

      In the UK our enforcement agencies cooperate with each other (National Wildlife Crime Unit, Border Agency, Animal Health Inspectorate, Police), they plan coordinated operations and they engage with INTERPOL.

      It’s time China did the same. C’mon Dave and Nick, take a lead in urging them to stop undermining the rest of the world’s investment in development and biodiversity conservation.

      Cheers Debbie

  • Colin Guest

    For what its worth I try and help Tigers by adopting one from Care for the Wild, which I have done for the past 5 years. This may not be an answer to the problem but at least this tiger enjoys a life without worrying about being killed and cut up for sale for medicines that evidently have been scientificly proven do not do as claimed.

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