Common sense and the tiger

In February 2001, the ridgelines of central Bhutan were covered with a light dusting of snow. At the time, Pralad Yonzon, one of Southasia's top field biologists, was in professional exile from his home country, Nepal, and had been prowling these hills as a consultant to the Thimphu government. Consultant is a word that he uses for himself only sparingly and with clear distaste. 'You have to understand,' he says, 'consultants wear three-piece suits, carry laptops, are jet-setters – half of their report is already finished before they leave home. I don't do that. All of my data came from the field. Everybody in Thimphu would be happy when I would go off for three months and never show my face.' He was the type of consultant – at the time, researching and writing a conservation plan for Bhutan's central Thrumshingla National Park – who would pack his rucksack full of essentials and head out, roughing it out for months at a time.

And so it was that Yonzon found himself cresting the snowy saddle of a ridge that February, and staring at the unmistakeable tracks – pugmarks – of a royal Bengal tiger. Previously, Yonzon had worked as a field biologist with the Smithsonian Tiger Project in Nepal's Chitwan National Park for five years, in addition to having been the director of the King Mahendra Trust, a semi-government body overseeing conservation efforts in Nepal. As such, he was given to trusting his own wildlife identification. As he looked at the pugmarks, there was only one problem: the ridgeline that he was standing on was at an altitude of more than 4000 metres – 4110 m, he later ascertained.

'That's way up there,' Yonzon emphasises, by which he means that not only are tigers not supposed to go that high, but no tiger evidence had ever been found at anywhere near that altitude. Indeed, all over the world tiger habitat does not rise above 1000 m. Over the next few weeks, Yonzon was determined to document the discovery for the world to see. Armed with just two film 'camera traps', he recalls carefully scouring the landscape for a place he felt confident would be fruitful – 'With only two cameras, you have to be really picky,' he says. After shooting a few dozen rolls of film, he brought the camera back to Kathmandu for processing, as there were no such facilities in Bhutan at the time.

Out of all the rolls exposed, Yonzon had captured just one image of a tiger, but that was all he needed. True, at around 3000 m, his camera trap had been set up far lower than his initial discovery of the pugmarks. But not only did that single image still constitute the highest-altitude evidence of a tiger anywhere in the world at the time; it was also the first instance in which a live tiger had ever been photographed in Bhutan. Thus, Yonzon would seem to have scored something of a double play: satisfying his own scientific and research instincts while simultaneously making his employer – and, as a bonus, his employer's entire citizenry – very happy.

Except, in fact, not everyone was pleased. Newspapers in Bhutan duly published the photograph to great acclaim, but with one piece of information missing: the photo credit. 'The Bhutanese were very happy,' he recalls today, 'but some officials were not. I think they were unhappy because [the tiger photograph] was found by a Nepali, and that stigma is there no matter what we do. It was not openly stated, but since then they have published that photo many times, and I haven't come across a single instance where they've said this photo was taken by Pralad Yonzon.' In addition to the Bhutanese authorities, the broader scientific community has also failed to give due credit for the photograph. This was on show in mid-September, when a BBC camera crew's 'discovery' of tigers at 4100 m made international headlines – though the Bhutanese newspaper Keunsel was slightly more circumspect, quoting the country's head conservationist, Sonam Wangchuck, as noting that 'evidence of "mountain tigers", as the BBC calls them, was "discovered" by park officials in Bhutan last year.'

Yonzon pauses for a moment, and his usual energetic, matter-of-fact tone falters briefly before continuing. 'I don't mind – it's okay. Science is science. I don't get credit – fine. But some time, if they had said just, Yonzon has taken this photo, I would be elated.'

From thin air
Of course, science is science, nothing more or less. It is supposed to give hard answers or suggest likely possibilities; it is supposed to be black and white. It is supposed to wrestle quietly, relentlessly, with a complex, organic problem until, one day, hopefully, up pops an incontrovertible theory or solution. It is not supposed to be affected by the vagaries of human comfort, fickle emotion – certainly not the endlessly problematic winds of politics and nationalism. Yet in fact, today's scientific process oftentimes does not seem to be very scientific at all.

This appears to be a problem that goes well beyond the confines of today's debates. In the late 1970s, Yonzon recalls, he attended the very first tiger symposium to be held at the international level, in Delhi. A key focus at that time was to set benchmarks for subsequent conservation efforts. In the course of these discussions it was mentioned that, two decades earlier, some 50,000 tigers had lived in the wild. Where exactly this estimate had come from was unclear, however, until eventually the conference organisers found a frail old man, and asked him to take to the dais.

Salim Ali was a renowned bird expert, who years earlier had collaborated on a definitive ten-volume set of books on birds of Southasia. He was also said to have been the one who came up with the 50,000 number in the first place. How had he done it, the conference-goers now asked him. As Yonzon relates, Ali responded clearly and to the point: 'There was no census,' he began. 'One evening, we were sitting on a porch, on cane chairs, and we were served tea, English tea. And we were talking about it, and somebody said, "What do you think about the number of tigers?" And just off the top of my head I said 50,000.' And that was how the number came to stick – for decades. Amazingly, Ali's recollections of this important incident were never published, nor even formally discussed. But for Yonzon, the experience was a stroke of lightning – not only in terms of how the scientific process worked (or otherwise), but also in terms of how relatively rare integrity of a certain type seemed to be in his field at the time. 'This was such an honest man,' Yonzon says. 'He had no fear! But still, later on this number became part of the science – everybody said, 20 years back there were 50,000 tigers. Salim Ali had guts to say that this was how it had actually happened.'

Yonzon's exile from Nepal came shortly after he took over as director at the Mahendra Trust, and discovered a high-level employee using official vehicles for personal reasons. His subsequent stern measures embittered him towards the high-level conservation officialdom for years. Today, a decade after his discovery in Bhutan, Pralad Yonzon is back in Kathmandu, where he mentors young graduates at Resources Himalaya, a knowledge-based conservation foundation. In the meantime, the tiger has become even more of an international conservation cause celebre than it used to be. Yet last October, when the major tiger-related international symposium of the year took place in Kathmandu – where 2010 was formally declared the international Year of the Tiger – Yonzon was not in attendance. He was, he explains, 'disgusted' by the lack of truth in the whole process.

At the October 2009 meeting, the Nepali government announced plans to double the country's current tiger population within a decade, which the country's forests minister, Deepak Bohora, defined as bringing the number beyond 242. In so doing, Nepal was following the outlines of a major initiative of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) called 'Tx2: Double or Nothing', which aims to double the global tiger population by 2022, already chosen as the next international Year of the Tiger. With as few as an estimated 3200 tigers (of six different species) left in the wild today (according to the WWF), and all of these in the Asian continent, the critical need for such undertakings is obvious. Yet according to Yonzon, these attempts are also incapable of meeting their goals if governments and INGOs continue to follow the methods of the past. Further, he has seen management plans – local, national, international – come and go, along with countless promises by politicians. The out-going forests minister , he points out, will not be in his current post when 2022 rolls around, and is in no way accountable for the 'promises' that he makes today.

So, Yonzon decided that he simply would not take part in the year's extravaganzas. What is the point of just pouring new money down the same channels, when those approaches have specifically not worked in the past? 'Every government in the tiger-range countries has a law, a policy, national parks, park staff, army, police – they can arrest anything that goes against tiger conservation,' he says. 'So why is it not working? That is the question that needs to be asked.' And, he has a probable answer: 'I think that the whole system is falling down because we are not getting to the knowledge-holders. In July, Nepal's Department of National Parks, WWF Nepal and the Nepal Trust for Nature Conservation claimed adult tigers in Chitwan had increased from 91 to 125 in just a single year. The suggestion is that more camera traps were used in area than were used last year.' This explanation is unsatisfactory to Yonzon, however, given that the study also claims to have found only 23 cubs. According to previous knowledge, the breeding adults within Nepal's tiger population tend to have on average 2.8 cubs (or 'subadults'); as such, this should have worked out to some 350 cubs in the recent study. Given this inconsistency, Yonzon's theory is that the sudden jump in numbers is actually due to researchers counting cubs as adult tigers. 'There are no satisfactory biological explanations for this increase of 34 tigers based on the 2010 count,' he says. 'And that shows that money can't buy knowledge.'

Instead, Yonzon continues, donors and governments 'have to make it clear what exactly is the newfound knowledge on which we can spend new money – and that is not happening. Instead, it is the same old story, the same old same system with dated information, in which a select group of officials and their preferred underlings take all decisions.' As an alternative, he suggests, graduates should be groomed by their mentors, independent of government and INGO influence, in degraded forest areas where tiger populations are on the edge. 'This is the battlefront, where donors can contribute to defend it at all cost.'

Outside the lines
What is it about Bhutan that allows for tigers to exist at such high altitudes – and is there any lesson there for broader conservation efforts? According to Yonzon, the tiger in Bhutan, despite its unique aspects (not only is it found at higher altitudes, but it also seems to be slightly smaller than its lower-lying cousins), is not a different subspecies. Instead, it is the Bhutanese topography that is different – and Thimphu's own conservation approaches. Unlike in nearly any part of Nepal or India, Bhutan's decades of strict forestry has resulted in large swathes of contiguous forestland running from lower altitudes all of the way up to the tree line, around 3500 to 4000 m. Thus, not only do tigers have continuous corridors through which to move, but so too does their prey.

This has allowed Thimphu to break out of a mentality, particularly fostered by multilateral donors, that focuses solely on officially designated national parks and conservation areas. In fact, Yonzon suggests, the overwhelming majority of threats to the tiger population are not in such protected areas, but rather in the forest borders and/or buffer zones. Here is where, far more than anywhere else, tigers come in contact with human settlements and livestock, yet today there is very little international focus on such peripheries – and in Nepal, beyond a few such projects, there is none. This is underlined by Bhutan's confessed success with regards to an official compensation programme for any livestock killed by tigers. According to recent estimates from Thimphu, this approach has resulted in saving roughly eight tigers per year in Bhutan. In Nepal, there is still no movement on compensation whatsoever.

This blindness to on-the-ground realities, on the part of both donors and governments, is crippling conservation efforts, Yonzon says. In his view, the centrality of knowledge is of utmost importance in any scientific undertaking; when dealing with a complex issue such as tiger habitat and human populations, that knowledge needs to be strengthened by simple common sense. 'We don't need big science,' he emphasises. 'Good, common sense is good science. If you have common sense, we absolutely can save the tiger.' Yet as issues such as 'saving' the tiger have become of increased interest to international audiences, the actual science has almost inevitably taken a back seat to the concerns that keep the whole machine running: money, politics, branding. In Yonzon's view, none of this would be particularly objectionable if it were having the desired effect. Given that, thus far, it has not, he is both outraged and saddened that more radical thinking has not been given greater credence.

With regards to tiger conservation, he says, over the 30 years since Salim Ali gave his presentation, two general schools of thought have arisen. The first says that we have to save tigers – we need to raise money, support governments and NGOs, formulate socio-economic activities to better people's lives. 'Philosophically, this sounds very good,' says Yonzon. And indeed, this is the general approach that currently constitutes the majority of conservation around the world – it makes up the policymakers, the NGOs, the donors and their armchair biologists. On the other hand, there are also the 'native researchers, isolated, scattered, no unions, no conferences or meetings, and they do their individual research. Sometimes, they are thrown out because they've remained true to their work. They have said something wrong to the park management or donor agencies, and they've been socially ostracised in the field of tiger conservation.'

Then there is the other school, which suggests that the global tiger population has become so thin that the entire species stands on the brink of extinction. As the Wildlife Conservation Society prominently warned earlier this year, this could take place 'within our lifetimes'. Simultaneously, groups such as the World Bank-funded Global Tiger Initiative, in partnership with the WWF, are suggesting that within the next 20 years they will be able to double the tiger population. Thus, two highly prominent groups are making almost diametrically opposed suggestions in what they claim for the future, even while both say that they desperately need money. Yonzon says these two contradict and increase confusion – constituting not science but institutional propaganda, in which field-based, quantitative information-gathering is a mere third priority. 'As a result, every day we see a losing battle in terms of tiger conservation,' he says. 'Therefore, somebody has to be very honest and very unpopular to say that this is not working. Instead, everybody everywhere says that they are working hard – and every day, we know that the tiger population is going down.'

~ Carey L Biron is desk editor at Himal Southasian.

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