Describing the numbers as “making no sense in so short a time”, they worry that an enthusiastic new government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is misinterpreting the numbers and trumpeting false claims which could hurt conservation in the long run.
“The circus is not necessary,” said tiger expert K Ullas Karanth, science director for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Asia.
“All of this tom-tom’ing and arm-waving, claiming we’ve had stupendous success, is ridiculous and unscientific.”
Even as scientists begged caution in presenting the count, India’s government doubled down.
Environment minister Prakash Javadekar again boasted of a 30% population increase. And Prime Minister Modi rounded that up, saying tiger numbers had seen “about a 40% increase. Feels good to hear it!”
If only it were true. This census differs in an important way from earlier tallies: It estimates India’s entire wild tiger population, while preceding counts focused only on cats in sanctuaries and reserves.
“I’d prefer to say there are 30% more known tigers, rather than say there is actually an increase in tigers. We might not have counted them all earlier,” said Anurag Danda of the World Wildlife Fund in the Sundarbans, one of many groups that participated in the census.
A 30% increase within four years is implausible. Though tigers have high birth rates, they also have high natural death rates, and factors such as habitat loss and poaching haven’t slowed.
At least 110 tigers were killed in 2011-14, barely a drop from the 118 poached in 2007-10, according to the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
Globally, experts believe the best that can be hoped for is a 50% increase in the world population over 10 years – a much more modest rate of growth.
Such incongruities have happened before. India claimed a 17% increase between 2006 and 2010, even while tiger habitats shrank by some 40%.
But while Danda interprets the latest numbers more conservatively than some government officials, he agrees they show that conservation efforts appear to be working: “Otherwise, how come we have so many tigers outside the tiger reserves?”
India is by far the world leader in protecting tigers, spending more resources and money than any other country.
For decades it has faced immense challenges, from habitat loss and human encroachment to poaching, disease and pollution.
Still, India manages to keep about 70% of the world’s wild tigers on less than 25% of the world’s tiger habitat.
That’s partly a credit to its vast rural population, which long ago learned to live in relative proximity to the secretive beasts.
If India can protect tigers, despite a human population 1.26 billion strong, that proves any country can do it, conservationists say.
“But they can’t relax. And that’s my biggest worry about this latest census and the way it’s being presented,” said Alan Rabinowitz, head of Panthera, a New York-based big-cat conservation group.
“The worst outcome of that is it allows development and business interests to say: ‘We’ve been doing really well. We can pull back a bit.'”
Desperate to develop its economy and alleviate widespread poverty, India faces intense pressure to convert forests for roads or industrial use, or to allow polluting factories or mining operations near forest reserves and water supplies.
Conservationists worry more of those projects will be green-lighted around tiger habitats if the cats are seen to be thriving.
The government has already cut the environment ministry’s 2015-16 budget by almost 25%, with funds for tiger conservation dropping 15%. – Edited excerpt from Hindustan Times