Interview: Dr. Yadvendradev V Jhala, Indian Field Biologist
Cowatch: Royal conservationist
Friday 17 April 2009
By Bittu Sahgal
‘We shall have tigers a hundred years from now, but these are likely to be fenced-in populations, like in mega-safari parks, intensively managed for genetic and demographic viability...
Driven by a passionate dedication to wildlife, Dr Yadvendradev V Jhala (joint-winner with Dr Qamar Qureshi of a Sanctuary-RBS Wildlife Service Award, 2008) is one of India’s most outstanding field biologists. He speaks to Bittu Sahgal about the origins of his interest in wildlife, India’s new, path-breaking tiger enumeration techniques and his hopes for the future of conservation in India.
How come the scion of one of India’s royal families wound up as one of the country’s premier conservation biologists?
It’s a complicated story. My grandfather Joravarsinh was indeed, the ruler of the Wadhwan state in Saurashtra but I was actually brought up in Bombay. Most of my vacations, however, were spent in Gujarat following herds of blackbuck, on horseback. In grade 1, when we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, I had the oddest ambition - of becoming a zookeeper! I guess the jump from that to what I do was not so huge.
What about academics? You need to be steeped in academia to do what you do.
I actually enjoyed school and studying. I happened to top the BSc and MSc degrees in zoology and started my career as a lecturer in the subject at St Xavier’s College. After a training stint at the Smithsonian, I obtained my Ph.D from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, on wolves and blackbuck in Gujarat. I also secured a post-doctoral fellowship on reproductive energetics at the Smithsonian and moved on to teach wildlife science in different parts of the world. I joined the faculty of the Wildlife Institute of India in 1993 and have since continued my research on wolves and blackbuck and expanded to study hyenas, lions and tigers.
That’s quite remarkable. Is this going to be a trend in India? Is the scope for this kind of career expanding?
It must be. Over the years I have personally trained over 300 professionals from several developing countries and supervised 25 Masters and 10 PhD students. There are many like me who take great satisfaction from imparting scientific training to those who could, in the future, help restore ecosystems and help species to recover.
Were there specific individuals who triggered the direction you took?
I think it was always within me to pursue wildlife as a career. As a child, my mother, Iladevi, goaded me into academics while my father instilled a love for nature in me. Although my parents were keen I take up medicine, I had my heart set on wildlife science. At the Smithsonian Institution, I met primatologist par excellence Dr. Rudy Rudran who quickly became my mentor. He is one of the many outstanding people I have met who moulded me to become the person I am. Dr. Robert Giles Jr., a legend in wildlife management, was also a key influence.
How did the remarkable all-India tiger enumeration project conducted by you for the National Tiger Conservation Authority come about?
In 2002, Qamar Qureshi and I were approached by Dr. Rajesh Gopal, then Director, Project Tiger to assist him in developing a holistic monitoring programme for the tiger and its habitat, keeping pace with modern conservation biology. We worked with field managers and Forest Departments to devise a monitoring protocol that met the scientific and statistical rigor needed and yet would be practical and simple to implement by the front line staff. We demonstrated the working of this monitoring system in about 50,000 sq. km. of the Satpura-Maikal landscape. At this time, the Sariska debacle hit the news. The WII was asked to implement our protocol on a countrywide scale.
Dr Prodipto Ghosh, the then secretary MoEF, personally ensured total independence of this scientific exercise from any external pressures. Director of the WII, P R Sinha gave us free rein and facilitated all the needed logistics. Over 491,000 man days were spent to collect this massive data for tiger occupancy and limiting factors. Over 50 wildlife biologists worked for another two years to estimate tiger and ungulate densities. An unprecedented effort for any wildlife survey in the world!
Can you tell us how the enumeration techniques evolved by you differ from the unreliable pugmark methods in use for decades?
First of all I believe that the pugmark method was a landmark in itself at that time; we had a system that strived to assess populations of low density, cryptic, carnivores across the country. The problem was the lack of professionalism and ethics in reporting the results of the pugmark enumeration - not so much the method. The current method uses pugmarks or other signs such as scat and scrapes, as evidence that the tiger occupies that patch of forest. However, the converse is not necessarily true, i.e. failure to detect tiger signs does not necessarily mean absence of tigers. This problem is addressed by occupancy models wherein due to replicate sign surveys, we are able to determine the detection probability of tigers and estimate corrected area occupied by tigers within each landscape. Simultaneously, prey abundance is estimated by transect survey, habitat variables sampled and anthropogenic pressures in the beat, quantified in simple protocols.
How is this information analysed?
The information is all mapped in a Geographic Information System (GIS) along with several remotely-sensed attributes, essentially 21 variables that depict the ‘human footprint’ such as infrastructural development and night lights. Tiger distributions (occupancy) are then modeled in relation to all these variables to develop habitat suitability models for tigers and their prey. These models then permit us to assess the potential of forested landscapes to harbour tigers and act as conduits for movement of tigers from one population to another.
How are individual tigers identified and how then does the larger picture emerge?
Landscapes are stratified as per the intensity of tiger signs and in each strata replicate samples of about 200 sq. km. are sampled by camera traps to estimate tiger population and density. The tiger takes a self portrait when it passes in front of the camera trap triggered by a heat, motion detector, or an infra-red beam. Since the stripes of each tiger are unique, like fingerprints in a human, we are able to identify individual tigers from their photographs. As time passes and tiger pictures accumulate, the number of new individual tigers being photo-captured decreases. This trend is modelled statistically (mark-recapture models) and a population estimate is arrived at for the area in which the camera traps are deployed.
What did state governments do when confronted with the data thrown up by this project? Did they even accept the reality of the new tiger numbers and status?
It would be rather naive to believe that state wildlife departments were unaware of the current tiger status before our work. Many of the problems (though not all) the tiger faces are beyond the control of the wildlife departments - beyond their jurisdiction and capability to address, for example, international demand for tiger parts, growing demand for forest land, biotic pressures, etc. Therefore, it is difficult to understand the reason for denial of the truth. The greatest disservice an agency can do is not to acknowledge a problem in time, this precludes any effective mitigation or solution from being implemented until it is too late.
Do you think tigers will survive to see the next century?
The extinction of the tiger is not imminent. The question of how many free-ranging tiger populations will survive to see the next century is another matter. Our objective as conservationists should be to strive to conserve all the genetic, behavioural and ecological adaptations of the tiger in such a manner that the species continues to perform its natural role in the ecosystem. We shall have tigers a hundred years from now, but these are likely to be fenced-in populations, like in mega-safari parks, intensively managed for genetic and demographic viability. Free-ranging tiger populations as nature intended them to be, where evolutionary process could still be operative to give this living planet a new lease to life, would be a rarity if not lost all together. It is these tigers - the wilderness that they represent - that we should fight to preserve, not just the mockery of the species that we make of it. Science and technology will only help in preserving the ghost of these species, not what their roles were intended to be in intact natural ecosystems. This is a choice which society has to make now, as no amount of science or technology will be able to turn the clock back.
If you had a magic wand, what would you change in terms of wildlife policy in India?
It is not the wildlife policy I would like to change. I believe our policies and legislations are the envy of many a developed nation. However, it is the land use and indiscriminate ‘development’ that needs coordination. Conservation objectives rarely feature in decision making and while it is true that legally, various environmental clearances are needed, there is a lack of coordination within agencies, between the wing that obtains these clearances and the one that implements conservation measures. Conservation issues are not a priority and they rarely feature on the agenda to win vote banks - the primary force that drives a democracy.