Claws Out On Big Cat Count In Odisha

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Bhubaneswar: The recent tiger census showed a sorry figure for Odisha. While tiger numbers have increased in the country to 2,967 at present from 1,411 in 2006, there has been a decrease in Odisha.

In 2002, there were 192 tigers in Similipal. Today, there are 28 tigers left in Odisha, according to the Ministry of Environment and Forest. This number has sparked a debate and the state government has decided to contest the census claim by doing its own survey.

Tigers were historically counted by pug-mark method — a technique invented in Odisha. Today, it is aided by camera-trap technology for more accurate estimation, explained Dr Biswajit Mohanty, Chairman of Greenpeace India.

“Pug-mark method could lead to over-estimation, but never lower,” he pointed out.

Dr Mohanty blames the state government for mismanagement of resources in failing to protect tigers. Poaching is one of the chief reasons for the decline, he said. “Everyday, we are getting reports of poaching in Similipal. What will a tiger eat to survive if every day a boar or a deer is killed,” he asked.

Tigers are also being poached, he said. Forest officials tried to cover up a tiger poaching incident in Bargarh last year, he alleged.

How Is Tiger Counting Done?

The entire forest where tigers are expected to live is mapped. This is determined by tiger occupancy signs such as pug mark, kill signs, scratching on trees, urination signs and more, explained Dr Mohanty.

“Not many people know that the pug-mark technique is also used with the Camera-trap technology,” he said.

It is also possible that tigers don’t come in front of the camera, and hence a range is given instead of an exact number. The number released by MoEF has 95 per cent level of confidence.

In the camera-trap technology, software detects and eliminates multiple counts of the same tiger by analysing its prints and body shape.

Why Have Tigers Disappeared?

“Inadequate protection,” said Dr Mohanty. “Camera traps, when it was first introduced in 2008, captured poachers and hunters carrying guns and kills in the core area of Similipal where no one is supposed to go,” he added.

Dr Mohanty urged for accountability and said, “Where is the money going if crores are being spent and tiger numbers aren’t increasing?”

He believes that doing a second count is a reaction to the state’s failure in protecting tigers. “Why did you participate in the Centre’s counting method if you think it is not accurate?” he asked.

What Do Tigers Need?

“Tigers are good breeders. If the area is undisturbed and they get sufficient preys, the numbers would increase,” said Dr Mohanty.

He estimates that with Odisha’s vast habitat, there should be at least 300-400 tigers in the state.

For long-term survival, there is something known as viable population. This number is 100 in a landscape for tigers. There has to be movement between sanctuaries via exchange corridors. This is required to prevent in-breeding which leads to genetically weaker animals and can lead to the species perishing within 10-15 years.

Dr Mohanty pointed out that the single tiger in Debrigarh will lead to no development. Tigers have to kept in an area with viable population.

However, Chief Wildlife Warden of Odisha, Ajay Kumar Mohapatra has a different take. He said the modern method of camera trap alone is insufficient to arrive at the correct number of tigers in Odisha jungles.

Camera traps, Mohapatra said, remain ineffective in the remote areas of Similipal forest reserve or in the Sunebeda region. “We hope there are more tigers in Odisha than the Centre’s estimate. We will carry out our own survey during the next summer using the pugmark method and camera trap,” he added.

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