Abstract: Some of the world’s biggest problems are nowhere close to being solved, despite the expenditure of resources and the widespread motivation to solve them. Systems Thinking tries to look at these problems through a different lens in order to find better solutions. This paper applies systems thinking to the process of enumerating tigers in India. Methods used so far have proved inefficient, in part because of a lack of consideration for societal and environmental aspects of the situation. With the aim of highlighting the need to improve efficiency while enumerating tigers in India, this paper focuses on the importance of a holistic approach, identifies the gaps present in the existing solutions, and suggests alternatives.


Systems thinking is a tool that helps address the gap between our understanding of our world and how systems in the world actually function [1]. Unlike the complex systems it hopes to tackle, systems thinking is a simple concept, comprised of tools that tackle the broader question of how we think. Most ineffective policies in any field reflect a gap between our mental models and reality. Applying simple rules of identifying distinctions, systems, relationships and perspectives (DSRP) can make us aware of this gap, and the rules can in turn help us bridge it. This paper reflects that journey as applied to one specific problem: enumeration of the tiger population in India.

The tiger is India’s national animal. Historically present in vast areas across the country, the tiger population began falling steeply during the British regime when hunting for sport became extremely popular. Even after independence, wildlife conservation was given little attention as the country struggled to recover from 200 years of colonialism. As habitat loss and poaching reached their heights, tiger populations dwindled to a point where it seemed certain that we would be losing this magnificent species forever. Project Tiger was launched in this context in 1973, and it was a landmark development. A government initiative to protect the tiger, it began with creating nine Tiger Reserves, areas protected for the rehabilitation of the tiger population. Since then, several measures have been taken by the National Government to protect and monitor tigers and their habitat, and the number of tiger reserves has expanded to forty-seven across eighteen states. Conservationists consider the conservation of the tiger population to be especially important, because tigers are an “umbrella species”—a species whose conservation effects conservation of an entire ecosystem.

In a few decades, spotting tigers in reserves became increasingly difficult. The authorities insisted, however that tiger numbers were growing. They supported this with data from a population census taken every four years supported the presence and growth of tiger populations. Only when independent conservationists conducted research did they confirm that in certain tiger reserves there were no tigers left. Sariska was the first tiger reserve with a completely depleted tiger population, in 2005, and many other reserves soon faced a similar situation. This shocking news revealed government inadequacy, as well as a flourishing poaching business that was perhaps aided by local involvement. The news also challenged the efficacy of the government’s primary method of data collection about the tigers. They had been relying largely on pugmarks, which are paw prints of the tiger to estimate how many tigers are present in the area. As explained by Karanth in 2003, getting a realistic estimation of tiger populations through pugmarks is scientifically improbable as this method requires, among other things, examination of every square kilometer of tiger territory, availability of all four paw prints of each tiger, and a highly trained staff capable of efficiently tracing out the paw print. This situation was further aggravated because of corruption, which led to inadequate scientific work and an overestimation of the tiger population. This highlighted the need for an efficient method of collecting data to enumerate tigers, which made the national government switch to camera traps. These devices are camouflaged in the forest and they capture pictures when they sense movement. Reviewing all the collected pictures helps us assess the tiger population because a tiger’s stripes are like its fingerprints- no two are identical. This is where my story comes in.

In 2012 I spent a winter in Pench Tiger Reserve in central India, working on enumerating tigers in the reserve as part of the country-wide census. Among my primary tasks was learning how to use camera traps, for estimating tiger populations. However, I came back having learnt a completely different lesson. I was extremely concerned about a threat to the tiger population I had never considered: batteries. Depending on the make of the camera trap, each operates using 8-12 batteries; during counting, the batteries are changed every couple of weeks for at least three months and dumped inside the forest. In the last year a total of 68,157 camera trap days were recorded in just one state. The magnitude of waste generated was monumental and stuck with me, which was why I chose it as the base of my systems thinking study. The process entailed analyzing a problem by looking at its various components as a larger system- or components of each other.

The initial problem I identified during this study was the feedback loop between tiger population and the environment. Batteries being dumped in the forest were adding to soil and water pollution, thus contributing to climate change. This is likely to adversely affect tiger populations and other wildlife in the long run, which would be counterproductive to the larger goal of tiger preservation. Any method used for enumeration must consider this fact. The first step to tackle this problem was to break down various methods of enumeration into part-whole systems and examine their subparts. Possibilities other than camera trapping included scat examination, which refers to examining the feces of the tigers. While costly, scat examination gives us important information about the tigers for scientific research, but it only reveals the genes of the tiger, relevant in identifying the lineage but not the individual and hence cannot be used as an alternative method for enumeration The third possibility, examining pugmarks, had failed in Project Tiger as a result of inefficiency and corruption. Even though the problem at hand was environmental, it could not be isolated from its context, as it affected the outcomes. Implicit assumptions needed to be explicitly examined.

Examining these assumptions constituted the first application of DSRP. Applying the Systems rule allowed me to examine this problem within a larger system, which changed my understanding of it. Part of this expansion included considering other perspectives. So far the problem had been identified from my point of view, which emphasized environmental problems. Applying the perspectives rule clarified the roles played by other stakeholders, including the government, conservationists, poachers, and the local population. Considering these other perspectives helped me better understand how any decision would affect each stakeholder. Comparing their perspectives also revealed gaps in the system: as the perception of the problem differed among stakeholders, different groups were tackling different problems, and consequently nothing was getting solved. In other words, each stakeholder saw a distinct problem when looking at the single issue of tiger populations in India. This made it important to identify the nature of the actual problem. Making this distinction between my perception and the actual problem was crucial.

Examining the relationships of stakeholders with each other and with tigers reveals that the government and conservationists are both attempting to increase tiger populations. Their relationship with poachers is antagonistic because poachers rely on selling tiger parts as their primary source of income and is thus a major cause of the decrease in tiger populations. The stakeholders whose voices are often lost and whose interests have not been fairly considered while developing conservation plans are the people living in close vicinity to the tigers. Their perspective sheds a new light on tiger conservation efforts. In the last few decades, close to 200,000 people have been evicted from their homes, often without adequate compensation in order to expand protected areas for tiger conservation. People residing in the vicinity of the reserves have scarce access to education and economic opportunities. Restricting human access to core tiger areas is essential: maintaining tiger populations requires large regions of at least 800-1200 square kilometers of inviolate land. However, limiting access to these regions adversely affects local populations—residents can no longer supplement their income through forest produce—and causes resentment against the government that seems to prioritize the needs of the tigers over the citizens’. In this desperate situation, poachers abuse locals’ vulnerability and utilize their help to poach. Without other options, these people are forced to partake in this dangerous activity in order to meet their subsistence needs.

Hence my understanding of the problem broadened. Monitoring tigers is necessary to ensure their sustenance, however the monitoring methods are counterproductive for their sustenance. Examining the alternatives revealed the societal complexities affecting these scientific processes. In exploring the problem through systems thinking, the problem changed simply from finding an efficient method of enumerating tigers in India to finding a method that was efficient but also holistic, a solution that considered the context and created a positive long-term effect on all possible fronts.

Explicitly examining these systems individually, but also as part of a larger context through systems thinking, helped identify what is lacking. So far every attempt to conserve or count tigers has been made on the basis of a specific constituency’s mental model of the problem. This pattern has resulted in inadequate solutions: using methods that are economically viable but not contextually or scientifically efficient, or using methods that are scientifically efficient but not environmentally sound. Analyzing the explicit components of these systems and identifying all the various factors led to a more comprehensive conclusion. Looking at the needs of all the involved stakeholders, we require a “solution spec” or a set of criteria for an adequate solution [1]. Any mechanism meeting these criteria can be classified as a solution, and any solution that meets these needs will be successful in tackling the problem. A solution needs to be scientifically efficient but also economically viable, as India is a developing country where the opportunity cost of money spent is extremely high. A solution must also be environmentally friendly and responsive to the local context, including the risk of poachers, the inadequacies of government, and the need to support local populations. While such a solution may not presently exist, conducting this exercise helps us identify and address gaps that may enable future innovations to be tailored around such requirements. At the same time, one can attempt to find a solution that may better suit these needs with currently available resources. Although this method may have its own imperfections, this exercise of applying systems thinking to a problem is to demonstrate a better method of finding solutions.

A two-pronged approach may help address some of these issues. Camera trapping is the most scientifically efficient option currently available and hence should be continued. However, certain changes should be considered. For example, using rechargeable batteries would not only lower the cost of camera trapping but would also greatly reduce the battery waste currently generated during the tiger-counting process. However, replacing the traps’ batteries with rechargeable ones should be implemented only if this action is supplemented by operating a locally-run recycling center in the area. Rechargeable batteries are made of more toxic materials than are dry cells, and they are thus only environmentally friendly if they are recycled once their lifecycle is complete. Having a local recycling center would also provide some local residents an alternative source of livelihood. This would, in turn, make them less resentful towards the government and decrease the need to cooperate with poachers, hence supporting the larger shared goal of tiger preservation. Apart from batteries, this center could also be used to recycle the waste of nearby villages, which often have no formal means of waste disposal. This would improve residents’ surroundings and living conditions and have a much greater environmental benefit.

In conclusion, this paper uses the rules of systems thinking to demonstrate the importance of looking at a ‘problem’ from multiple different perspectives. As seen in this case, our framing of the ‘problem’ is often a contributing factor to its persistence. Examining various sides of the problem should help us identify the gaps that we need to address. Many of us want to tackle problems that appear so large and intimidating that we cannot seem to find solutions; however, if we understand these issues as complex systems and break them down into parts, we can address these smaller parts while keeping the larger system in mind. Finding solutions to these smaller parts may help us find different solutions to solve the larger problems facing our world today.

[1] Cabrera and Cabrera, Systems Thinking Made Simple: New hope for solving Wicked Problems,Odyssean; 1st edition (2015).


About the Author: Passionate about water conservation and wildlife, Nandini Mehrotra completed her bachelor’s degree from Delhi University. She is now pursuing a public administration degree at the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs with a concentration in environmental policy. Nandini loves theatre and most things edible.

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