Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Counting Our Tigers

Rajesh Singh

Most of us have a vague idea of how tigers are counted, though we are pretty sure the process is very different from conducting a human census. Unlike human beings who can be reached at homes and numbered, tigers are not waiting to be counted. Left to themselves, they would rather not have anything to do with the Homo sapiens variety. The fact that they are generally nocturnal, do not move in large groups and are largely unseen, makes the exercise that much more difficult. So, if conducting a countrywide human count is a long drawn out complicated exercise, arriving at tiger numbers is several times more challenging. Finally, even after applying the best available techniques, one can only get an approximate figure. How close that approximation is to the actual numbers depends entirely on the scientific execution of the census process.

A beginning is made by identifying the potential habitats of the striped cat. For a huge- sized country like India with several forest reserves spread across all four directions, this is an essential prerequisite because it tells us where to locate the tigers and then number them. Not doing so would be as foolish as arriving on Mars to count human beings. The exercise of identifying tiger habitats may sound unnecessary since we already have well defined tiger reserves, but the fact is that habitats keep changing their form, and any change in their composition impacts both the flora and the prey that are essential to tiger survival. Thus, theoretically we may have so-called tiger habitats that have run out of tiger population for a variety of reasons and we might also have new regions that could be inhabited by the big cat. A preliminary survey is, therefore, essential. “Monitoring Tigers and their Prey’, an excellent video guide on tiger census and edited by noted wildlife experts Dr Ullas Karanth and James D Nichols, offers us a scholarly insight into the process.

Written, filmed and directed by another wildlife enthusiast, Shekar Dattatri, the video takes us through the gamut of conducting a tiger count. And, although the identification of the feline’s habitat comes towards the end of the video presentation, it really sets in motion the procedures for tiger enumeration that are detailed earlier on in the guide. The purpose of the exercise, called Occupancy Sampling (or OS), is not to arrive at tiger numbers but to merely understand what proportion of the country’s landscape is occupied by the tigers and their prey, and how that occupancy has varied over a period of time. The important thing to remember here is that understanding the habitation of not just the tigers but their prey as well is essential at arriving at the final numbers. But, because the number is not the immediate issue in OS, it is not necessary to actually ‘see’ the animals – tigers or prey – either directly or with the help of camera images. Field workers have to depend on scat, scratch or other signs that indicate the possibility of tiger or prey habitation. As the video tells us, once a state’s forested region is identified as potential habitation for tigers, it is broken into several grid cells, each of roughly 200 square kilometres for the tiger. The idea is that the cell size should be greater than the average home range of the tiger: with the home range of the Indian big cat around 150 square kilometres, the video editors settled for the slightly higher figure. Each of these cells is then equally segmented and handed over to the field workers who look for tiger signs and detail them in the data sheets.

If Occupancy Sampling helps in identification of tiger habitats, the Camera Trap Sampling and the Capture-Recapture Sampling are direct methods to count the striped cats, and they can be put to good use in regions confirmed as tiger habitats through the method discussed earlier. Automatic cameras are placed on either side of a tiger trail or path (a trail is identified through signs like scratches, pug marks, scat etc.) at a height of some 45 centimetres from the ground. The cameras are fitted with a transmitter and a receiver that works on infra red technology to capture images. The need for such covert methods to photograph the tiger is simply because the big cats are extremely elusive and rarely spotted by enumerators. The numbers are arrived at through comparison of the stripes of the tigers, since no two tigers have identical stripes. The cameras, one each on either side, are essential since the stripe patterns on the two sides are different for a tiger, and the two images need to be clubbed together as that of a single tiger.

In the Capture-Recapture technique, repeated camera trap results are used to check what proportion of the tigers have been re-photographed. All the data so collected is then fed into the computer where especially designed software then wades through the material and arrives at a close approximation of the number of tigers.

But the most fascinating method of arriving at tiger numbers is an indirect one. The video calls it Line Transect Sampling (LTS). Working on the assumption that there is a direct correlation between tiger population and the number of prey available, this system estimates the prey population in a given habitat. The line transects can take the shape of either a straight line from point A to B, or a square or triangle. They should be randomly selected and not just close to locations like waterholes, otherwise we may end with overestimation of prey population. Some 20-40 such transects – each of them around four kilometres in length – would suffice for a habitat, according to the video.

Once the line is finalised, the field workers equipped with binoculars, range finders and compass walk straight along it and scan either side to sight prey animals. Binoculars will help them see those animals, range finders measure the distance between the workers and the prey first sighted and the compass will confirm the direction that will later help them calculate the perpendicular distance through its angle measurement. All of these statistics are then fed into the computer where again a software takes charge and churns out the prey estimate. Experts equipped with the prey population in a habitat can quite accurately estimate the number of tigers it has been supporting in the region.

In the end, these are all sampling methods and are, therefore, prone to error. It is good enough if these errors are within acceptable margins. So, the next time we are presented with tiger population figures, let us for a moment appreciate the complexity involved and pause to admire the various unknown and faceless field workers who make the exercise possible.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Forests department proposal mired in red tape

Rajesh Singh

(Published in The Pioneer dated November 8, 2010)

"Do it”.

This is what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told his Minister for Environment and Forests in response to a suggestion that a new Department of Forests & Wildlife be created to better manage these natural resources. He said it during the 5th meeting of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) held this March, reacting to a suggestion made by noted wildlife film maker and author Valmik Thapar. An enthusiastic Jairam Ramesh nodded his head. He later said he was committed to having the “architecture” of the new department in place within six months — in September. But that has not happened.

And, if Ministry mandarins are to be believed, the new department is unlikely to be born soon. Clearly, the Prime Minister’s sense of urgency and the commitment of the Minister have been insufficient to prod the bureaucracy into action.

According to a senior official in the Ministry, a note detailing the proposal has been circulated to the Ministries of Finance, Law and Personnel for their inputs. The official, who did not wish to be named, told The Pioneer, “We are waiting for the response from the various Ministries to whom the proposal has been forwarded for comments. Based on their response, further steps will be taken. In any case, the bifurcation is not going to happen soon”.

Thapar is naturally dismayed. Talking to The Pioneer, he said, “We had the NBWL meeting in March 2010. The Prime Minister asked Jairam Ramesh to “do it”— move to create a new forests & wildlife division. Unfortunately, since then, there is little to show for that resolve. I am told a note has been prepared by the Ministry, but it is lost in bureaucratic maze. Perhaps the IAS lobby is blocking it, because the proposal calls for an official from the Indian Forest Service — and not from one among its fraternity — to head the proposed division in the rank of a Secretary”.

He said the separation of the two departments was absolutely essential to meaningfully address issues of wildlife and forests. “The bifurcation should happen because the Ministry is so preoccupied with environment-related issues that it finds little time to devote to wildlife and forests. Ninety per cent of the Ministry’s time is devoted to environment. Don’t forget that one-fifth of the country’s landmass comprises forests. The proposed department would at least give our forests the attention they deserve”.

The outspoken wildlife expert added that the Government needed to take organisations like the NBWL more seriously. Referring to the 4th Board meeting that was held before the March 2010 meet, he said that was way back in 2007. It was some two and half years later that the Board next met. “By not meeting regularly, we are making important institutions like the Board defunct. I trust it will meet more often at least from now on”, he said.

Even in the 2007 meeting, the Prime Minister had assured that the next meeting would be conducted six months later, but it took 30 months for that to happen, he pointed out.

Thapar is upset by the delay even more because he believes that the creation of a separate department could be the first crucial step in the bifurcation of the Ministry itself into two: Forests & Wildlife Ministry and Environment Ministry. “Eventually a completely new Ministry to handle forest and wildlife management is the ideal thing. The proposed new department could be a beginning in that direction. Unfortunately, we are faltering at the first step”, he lamented.

Ramesh is on record saying the move to create a new forests and wildlife department was “a decision taken” and that the Ministry should “use the opportunity of having a field-oriented department of wildlife”. Ramesh had also expressed the desire to bring about far-reaching changes in the manner the Ministry handled such issues.

He had said in April, “I want to use the opportunity to fundamentally restructure the way we are managing our forests and wildlife. It will take another 2-3 months before the full architecture of this new department emerges”.

The suggestion to divide the departments had come even as far back as 2006 at a Board meeting - with the Prime Minister’s office lending its support — but it was successfully thwarted by the Ministry because it feared loss of control over the forests and wildlife assets. Ramesh’s arrival in the Ministry led to revival of the move, but it remains to be seen if the Minister can ‘do it’.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Men of same letter flock together

(Published in The Pioneer on November 1, 2010)

Rajesh Singh

“I was elected as an MLA on BJP ticket. I being an MLA of the BJP got disillusioned with the functioning of the Government headed by Shri B S Yeddyurappa. There have been widespread corruption, nepotism, favouritism, abuse of power, misusing of government machinery in the functioning of the government headed by Shri B S Yeddyurappa and a situation has arisen that the governance of the state cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution…I hereby withdraw my support to the government headed by Shri B S Yeddyurappa. I request you to intervene and institute the constitutional process as constitutional head of the State”.

These lines, written by 11 rebel legislators of the BJP as part of separate letters to Governor H R Bhadwaj, were supposed to bring the Yeddyurappa government crumbling down. Instead, they ended up sealing the fate of their authors. The letters eventually proved to be the most damning evidence before the Karnataka High Court that the rebels had defected from the party they were elected as legislators, and thus attracted the provisions of the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution. Indeed, it is now evident that even if the rebels had done nothing else after submitting the letters to the Governor – though they did do a lot more thereafter, like being closeted for several days with Congress and JD(S) leaders in resorts outside the state and plotting the government’s downfall, none of which helped their cause – they would still have been a fit case for disqualification. Because, what the rebels had been led by their handlers to believe was a master stroke turned out to be in fact a foolish and suicidal move.

The rebels were secure in the belief that their actions would at most amount to dissent, but could never qualify as defection as they had done nothing to attract the provisions of the anti-defection laws. Here, they sought relief in Para 2 (1) (a) of the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution that deals with defection by parliamentarians or legislators by voluntarily giving up membership of a party on whose symbol they have been elected. It reads: “…a member of a House belonging to any political party shall be disqualified for being a member of the House – if he voluntarily gives up his membership of such political party”.

This explains why the rebels insisted all throughout – and do so even now, anticipating a battle in the Supreme Court – that they had not voluntarily given up membership of the BJP and that they continued to be in the party. It is as part of this strategy that they recently told the media that they would like to thrash out the issue with “our party president Nitin Gadkari”. They banked on the premise that they had not submitted any letter of resignation to the party that would amount to be voluntarily surrendering membership. But that ploy has failed to work, at least until now. Justice V G Sabhahit, the ‘third’ judge called upon to settle the issue after an earlier two-judge bench gave a split verdict, noted in his ruling that voluntarily giving up membership did not necessarily mean that the legislators had to “expressly submit their resignation, as the fact of voluntarily giving up membership may be express or implied”.

And so, what got implied were the letters the rebels had written to the Governor. Justice Sabhahit referred to them and said the rebels were liable to get disqualified ‘on the basis of the letters dated October 6, 2010”. In a scathing observation that ripped through the rebels’ defence, the judge noted that the letters called for the Governor’s intervention in changing the Chief Minister, which the Governor had no powers to do. What the Governor could do though was to intervene through Article 356 of the Constitution that provided for imposition of President’s Rule. Since that could happen if the elected government were to be dismissed, in effect the rebels were seeking the dismissal of a government led by a party on whose name they had been elected to the House.

Referring to the rebels’ letter to the Governor for change of Chief Minister, Justice Sabhahit said, “The Governor has no power to direct legislative party to change the Chief Minister. Though the contents of the letter would show that the petitioners were disillusioned by the conduct of Shri Yeddyurappa as Chief Minister… the averment made in the letter would clearly show that it is in consonance with the wordings of Article 356”.

Holding the contents of the letter as “voluntary and unequivocal”, Justice Sabhahit said the conduct of the authors of the letter (s) “is incompatible with the contention (of the rebels) that they still continue to be members of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the said conduct would only lead to the inference that the petitioners (rebels) have incurred disqualification under Para 2 (1) (a) of the Tenth Schedule”.

The fact that the ‘conduct’ of rebels indicates whether they have voluntarily relinquished the membership of their party, even if they have not formally submitted their resignations, was recognized by Karnataka High Court Chief Justice J S Khehar in his October 18 verdict in the case. Chief Justice Khehar was a member of the two-judge bench that gave the split verdict, and had upheld the disqualification on grounds similar to what Justice Sabhahit was to later agree upon. Both the Chief Justice and Justice Sabhahit concurred that (1) voluntarily giving up membership can also be implied (2) the contents of the letter were voluntary and unequivocal (3) the letter to the Governor was in itself a fit case for disqualification.

Chief Justice Khehar said an elected legislator could demand a change in the leadership of his party’s government contrary to the collective wisdom of his political party only at the risk of voluntarily giving up membership of that party. Therefore, “the letter dated October 6, 2010, addressed by the petitioners (rebel legislators) to the Governor, was by itself sufficient to conclude that the petitioners had suffered the disqualification under Para 2 (1) (a) of the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution of India”.

Both the learned judges were, of course, on track with an earlier Supreme Court verdict in Swami Prasad Maurya versus Rajendra Singh Rana & Others case, that enhanced the scope of the provisions mentioned above, and brought it on a par with not only the aspirations of the people but also the spirit of the Tenth Schedule. Upholding the disqualification of 37 BSP legislators in Uttar Pradesh who had written to the Governor, the apex court judges had said, “A person may voluntarily give up his membership of an original party even though he has not tendered his resignation from the membership of that party. Even in the absence of a formal resignation, an inference can be drawn from the conduct of a member that he has voluntarily given up his membership of the political party to which he belongs”.

And, in words that were pronounced some two years ago and have found an echo in the Karnataka case, the apex court judges added, “The Act of giving a (rebellious) letter to the Governor … itself would amount to an act of voluntarily giving up the membership of the party on whose ticket the said members had got elected”. It’s the letter, thus, that did the 11 rebels in.

Tigers hit by questionable eco-development

(Published in The Pioneer on November 1, 2010)

Rajesh Singh

Sometime this November, the Government is expected to release the new tiger population figure. With the apprehension that it could be lower than the currently adopted official number of 1,411 tigers — in itself arrived at following an estimation way back in 2006-07 by the Wildlife Institute of India — experts believe the official campaign to save the striped cats has been hit in recent years.

This is primarily due to a shift in focus from habitat recovery and strengthening ground protection forces to questionable eco-development activities within the forest areas.

Except in the first few years after the Central Government launched Project Tiger in the early 70s, when the tiger number went up to more than 3,000 from a low of 1,200 or so, the tiger population has consistently plunged despite various efforts taken to address the issue. Either these measures proved inadequate, failed to sustain or were misdirected.

K Ullas Karanth, one of the country’s most respected wildlife conservationists and director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Wildlife Studies, is concerned by the enormous “expenditure-oriented activities within the Forest Department” that has been harming tiger conservation.

He told The Pioneer, “Tiger conservation has floundered because of a mission-drift away from focus on ground protection and habitat recovery, towards eco-development and other expenditure-oriented activities within the Forest Department.”

Also a senior conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conversation Society, New York and pioneer of the camera trap method that more accurately counts tigers, Karanth strongly advocated the need to re-fix priorities. “Abandon expenditure-oriented activities such as eco-development and bring back focused protection,” he said.

One of the biggest hurdles in creating safe havens for these big cats to flourish has been the slow relocation of human settlements away from tiger habitats, a process that has been mired in controversy over allegations of favouritism and low compensations. “In my opinion, the Governments (Central and State) should promote fair and generous voluntary relocation of human settlements away from tiger habitats,” he said.

The role of State Governments was paramount in saving tigers, he pointed out and added that non-compliance with Central directives had been among the causes for a less-than-satisfactory tiger conservation record.

In that context, he said a recent suggestion to bifurcate Forests & Wildlife Department from the Environment Department, while welcome, would not directly address the issue. Karanth said, “I agree it would be helpful to have this but primarily conservation actions are implemented by State Governments. This separation does not address their lack of interest or non-compliance with Central directives.”

Wildlife filmmaker and conservationist Shekar Dattatri too believes the delay in the proposed bifurcation is not the problem since it has nothing to do directly with tiger conservation. He said, “The decision to create two departments within the Ministry of Environment & Forests came about thanks to a plea made to the Prime Minister by conservationist Valmik Thapar during a meeting of the National Board for Wildlife in mid-2010. The delay in implementing it is not the cause for the problems in tiger reserves.”

The real problems lay elsewhere, he stated, pointing to the unchecked ‘developmental’ activities within forest areas, including tiger habitats. Also a former member of the National Board for Wildlife, Dattatri told The Pioneer that national park managers had turned into some sort of civil contractors.

“The main priority and preoccupation of most park managers today is not protection but lucrative civil works, such as making more forest roads, building culverts, watchtowers, renovating resthouses, digging rainwater harvesting ditches, weed eradication and creating more waterholes. Despite all the hype surrounding tigers, it is business as usual on ground, with little being done to benefit tiger conservation,” he noted.

Much of these occupations, he added, were entirely unnecessary and drained public funds. Most importantly, as he pointed out in a short film ‘Truth about Tigers’ — which he made and distributed on a CD — these works disturbed tigers and affected their conservation.

Dattatri was emphatic that “no money should be released for frivolous construction or unscientific habitat manipulation activities. All resources should be focused on strengthening the protection mechanism and relocation of villages where necessary”.

Ruing that relocation of villages from tiger reserves was moving at a glacial pace, “even in instances where villagers themselves are vigorously demanding to be resettled”, he said the stakeholders, including State Governments, should move swiftly to promote relocation of human settlements away from tiger habitats.

The involvement of State Governments is crucial, for instance, in creating buffer zones to protect wildlife from human conflicts and activities that endanger the reserves. According to a report, more than 25 of the 39 reserves do not have the buffer areas, simply because State Governments have not notified them for fear of losing out on various dubious ‘developmental’ activities that could fetch them revenue from those regions.

Upset that “plenty has gone wrong” in tiger conservation over recent years, Dattatri said several of the big cat reserves suffered from poor leadership and shortage of frontline field staff.

“Anti-poaching watchers are usually employed as daily wagers but their wages are often not paid for months. Field staff lack even basic training and equipment. Senior officers in many parks do not go to the field regularly and are out of touch with ground realities,” he added.

Dattatri said protection-oriented officials should be posted at reserves with freedom to perform “without fear or favour” and people from local tribal communities should be appointed for anti-poaching work and compensated adequately and promptly.