What’s Got The King Of Counting Tigers Growling?

There’s great hope for tigers in India, but miscalculated census numbers don’t help, says revered big cat expert Ullas Karanth.

By Vicki Croke

Young tiger-Ullas-WCS-camera trap

A healthy tiger cub triggering a camera trap embodies the future of the big cats in India “If you can expand this strictly protected area,” Dr. Karanth says, “potentially we could have 5,000 or 10,000 tigers in India, no problem.” Photo: Ullas Karanth/WCS.

Believe it or not, there’s a right way and a wrong way to count tigers.

So when India announced recently that it’s most recent tiger survey revealed that the endangered big cats had increased by a whopping 30 percent to 2,226, Ullas Karanth, one of the most revered tiger experts in the world didn’t disagree with the enthusiasm or optimism over the future of the country’s iconic cat.

But he did disagree with the numbers. And that’s not just a quibble. It’s a belief that a miscalculation over how many tigers there are, and, just as important, where exactly they live, could botch the chances for what can be a population in ascendance.

Julie Larson-WCS-Ullas Karanth

WCS’s Ullas Karanth has spent a life among tigers. Photo: Julie Larson/WCS.

In the wake of that much reported study, we sat down with the man who — in part through the use of camera trapping — revolutionized tiger censusing back in 1991 and is now the Wildlife Conservation Society’s director of science for Asia. We asked him what’s at stake, how the population can be adequately quantified, and how he views the future of tigers in general.

“In the same places where there were less than 50 to 60 tigers, now I put my cameras and I get 400 tigers—they have come back.”

The good news is that this very sober scientist does believe in miracles. Especially where tigers are concerned, because he’s seen a tiger miracle take place once already in India. He grew up in southern India, in the very area where he now conducts his tiger research. But back when he was a boy, the forests were pretty empty…


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