Scientists at loggerhead over tiger numbers in India

Casting doubts over the accuracy of method used in the tiger census for the year 2014 in India, a team of scientists from the University of Oxford, Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), claimed in a study that the  flaws in the method commonly used in censuses of tigers and other rare wildlife put the accuracy of such surveys in doubt.

However, countering the claims of scientists, experts involved in India’s tiger census said the study by the team was poorly designed and the datasets used to develop the theoretical model suffered from low reliability. According to the latest census the tiger population in the country has jumped 30 per cent in the last four years taking the numbers from 1,706 in 2010 to 2,226 in 2014.

The study, published in the journal “Methods in Ecology and Evolution”, claims to expose shortcomings in the ‘index-calibration’ method that means it can produce inaccurate results.

A release from the University of Oxford said on 23 Feb. 2015 that among recent studies thought to be based on this method is India’s national tiger survey (released January 2015) which claimed a surprising but welcome 30% rise in tiger numbers in just four years.

The team urges conservation practitioners to guard against these sources of error, which could mislead even the best conservation efforts, and suggests a constructive way forward using alternative methods of counting rare animals that avoid the pitfalls of the index-calibration approach.

Arjun Gopalaswamy, lead author of the report from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, said: “Our study shows that index-calibration models are so fragile that even a 10% uncertainty in detection rates severely compromises what we can reliably infer from them”.

“Our empirical test with data from Indian tiger survey efforts proved that such calibrations yield irreproducible and inaccurate results,” he added.

Index-calibration often relies on measuring animal numbers accurately in a relatively small region using reliable, intensive and expensive methods (such as camera trapping) and then relating this measure to a more easily obtained, inexpensive indicator (such as animal track counts) by means of calibration. The calibrated-index is then used to extrapolate actual animal numbers over larger regions.

The release said that this approach has been popular among wildlife conservation agencies to generate animal numbers at a regional and national level. These numbers are then used to inform conservation efforts and direct resources worth millions of pounds.

To investigate index-calibration the team created a mathematical model describing the approach and then tested its efficiency when different values, representing variations in data, were inputted.

Under most conditions the model was shown to lose its efficiency and power to predict. The team then tested this mathematical model on a real world example: attempting to derive tiger numbers from fieldwork data. The index-calibration model was shown to be unreliable again, with any high degree of success shown to be down to chance, rather like being dealt a single incredibly ‘high value’ poker hand, that could not be replicated, the release said.

Ullas Karanth, a co-author from the Wildlife Conservation Society, and a member of India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority, said: ‘This study exposes fundamental statistical weaknesses in the sampling, calibration and extrapolations that are at the core of methodology used by the government to estimate India’s numbers, thus undermining their reliability. We are not at all disputing that tigers numbers have increased in many locations in India in last eight years, but the method employed to measure this increase is not sufficiently robust or accurate to measure changes at regional and country wide levels.’

Mohan Delampady, a co-author from the Indian Statistical Institute, said: ‘The findings have wider consequences for several applied sciences where sampling and direct extrapolation is involved, especially when sampling errors are influenced by unknown detection probabilities.’

Rebuttal against the Oxford study  

The lead scientist on tiger estimation Qamar Qureshi from Wildlife Institute of India (WII) termed the research as full of factual inaccuracies done with an intention to descredit high tiger numbers in India. Yadvendra D. Jhala, also from WII and principal investigator of the estimation exercise, said the authors reached “extraordinary conclusions” without reading methods used in the tiger estimation 2014 and added that a  response in a scientific forum will be issued soon.

WII scientists said that theoretical model – by WCS director Ullas Karanth – suffered from poor sampling design and low reliability and it was not surprising that they have never found a strong relationship of tiger density with tiger signs or any other variable for that matter. No amount of statistical sophistication can compensate for poor study design.

Karanth said the paper brings out flaws in the methodology which the WII should be willing to address. The WII scientists said that a population of 2,226 tigers is small and vulnerable and that conservation issues were getting sidelined. Karanth concurred saying tiger estimation should lead to better conservation measures outside the protected areas.

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