Study: Tigers get the lion’s share of attention; small carnivores need conservation too

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Researchers and decision-makers have focused the majority of their attention on big cats, particularly the Bengal tiger. And this bias in favour of Panthera tigris in Indian ecological and conservation research has coincided with unbalanced policy and legislation that has been “overwhelmingly shaped by one species,” according to a paper that examined Indian conservation research from 1947, the year of Independence, until 2020.

Arjun Srivathsa of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBI) served as the main author of the study, “Chasms in iconic species research: Seventy years of carnivore science and its implications for conservation and policy in India,” which was written by 15 academics and scientists. It makes the case for a more “democratic” method of conducting research on carnivores. In August 2022, the work was approved for publication in the journal Biological Conservation.
The initiation of Project Tiger took place in 1973. Since then, efforts to rescue larger animals including tigers, lions, cheetahs, and leopards have been made. However, India is home to 23% of the world’s predator species, 60 of which are present in “quite high numbers” and coexist with the country’s 1.4 billion people. Many of them should receive greater research and conservation attention than they do.

In order to comprehend the implications of research efforts on the conservation of carnivores and the influence of such academic study on conservation strategies, the scientists evaluated nearly 1,800 research papers, books, and theses produced over the course of seven decades, between 1947 and 2020.

Carnivore Research: Gaps, progress

The authors of the paper looked at 1,792 papers, 1,430 of which were “completely or mostly” focused on carnivores and each covered one to 32 species. 92% of the studies came from India. 60 species from nine families—Ailuridae, Prionodontidae, Herpestidae, Viverridae, Mustelidae, Ursidae, Canidae, Hyanidae, and Felidae—were the subject of the writers’ attention. However, the majority of the studies to date focused on these four families:

  • Felidae – cat, tiger, leopard
  • Canidae – dog, fox, jackal
  • Viverridae – civet, genet
  • Mustelidae – weasel, badger, otter

According to the study, these four “include specific species that are overrepresented in literature due to their charismatic appeal, extensive distribution, or both.” The Bengal tiger, Panthera tigris, appeared in more than a quarter of the research that were evaluated. The five species with the largest number of studies were either felids or canids.

According to the paper, “the number of studies per species was mostly influenced by the species’ Red List status, range extent in India, and body mass.” The extinction danger for each species is indicated on the Red List maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “Publications were disproportionately about large-bodied, seriously endangered, and widely distributed carnivores. With the exception of the tiger, relatively few studies conducted long-term evaluations, the report claims. This has caused our understanding of many species to be spotty.

“Research that focuses on a single species has the potential to shed important light on the ecology and conservation of carnivores. Such endeavours have uncovered many intriguing aspects in India, including the long-term dynamics of tiger populations, the leopard’s, Panthera pardus, the ability to adapt to human-use landscapes, methodological advancements to estimate populations of species without natural markings, like the dhole, and the sloth bear’s, Melursus ursinus, landscape-scale genetic connectivity, among others. The report notes that “systematic relationships between carnivores and their habitats or complete ecological food webs (including meso-carnivores) and communities remain understudied.

Not only are some species hardly ever addressed in the study, but even when they are, it is only in lists and without any context. For the jungle cat Felis chaus, 76% of the research under the heading of “Distribution and Population Ecology” solely comprised checklists and presence recordings. According to the research, “We observed similar patterns across several species and Families, suggesting that the availability of more ecological data was not always correlated with the number of studies. Otters and the fishing cat Prionailurus viverrinus belong to the carnivore guild and represent freshwater environments such as riparian, riverine, and marshland habitats.

For carnivores that are key components of such threatened ecosystems, even basic distribution data are either unavailable or clouded by grossly overestimated and inaccurate range maps.”

The authors of the study noted that “the area of conservation ecology is affected by the qualitative differences in studies between the five most investigated species and the others.” They also discovered a general decline in “natural history studies” on carnivores and pointed out that a “prominent blind spot” in research was the absence of interdisciplinary studies that “combine knowledge from orthogonal fields like natural history and genetics, or animal behaviour and human dimensions, etc. [that] can offer broader insights on species ecology.”

Research, conservation policy

According to the article, “huge gaps between academia, wildlife managers, and policymakers in India” have prevented scientific research from having much of an impact on policymaking in India. The tiger is the one exception to this. Over the past 50 years, scientific discoveries about it have “catalysed” governmental choices. “Robust techniques created for monitoring tiger populations…and research examining interconnectedness” has been helpful in court battles opposing infrastructure development in tiger habitats. Collaborations in research and conservation have also been formed with nearby countries like Bangladesh, China, Nepal, and Bhutan. These are “exceptions,” nevertheless.

The report claims that due to political interference and incorrect priorities, conservation programmes in India have largely disregarded evidence-based research. This was the case with Gujarat’s unwillingness to move any of the Asiatic lions to MP and the “reintroduction” of cheetahs from Africa to Madhya Pradesh. “Nearly no policy tools exist in India to reduce the challenges posed by “non-charismatic” carnivores. Many of these carnivores have a wealth of scientific data that has to be incorporated into national or state regulations “The report goes on to demonstrate that policy inconsistency also harms society.

‘Non-charismatic carnivores’

Funding organisations frequently favour research on “charismatic” and endangered species more. Every four years, nationwide carnivore surveys are conducted with a focus on tigers, their “co-predators,” and their prey. According to the article, “the surveys are only undertaken within tiger landscapes and consequently exclude many species outside tiger-range bounds.” According to Kenya’s system, its authors propose “long-term, national assessments for an entire carnivore group,” which will be able to identify “non-charismatic carnivores,” such as those that coexist with humans outside of protected zones. The report states that “we anticipate the opportunity for expanding India’s tiger surveys to include different institutions, broaden the geographical focus, and so extend the associated advantages to a range of carnivore species” and that involving citizens and technology might “decentralise monitoring”.

Additionally, the authors propose “raising finances and reducing fund acquisition restrictions for research on lesser-known carnivores,” as this might contribute to knowledge creation and increase public interest and support. The report argues for refocusing on lesser-known species, adopting best practises in socio-ecological studies, expanding the scope of multidisciplinary work, democratising carnivore science through partnerships, and improving synergy between carnivore researchers and research groups.

Mayank Tewari

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