Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Throughout my time at university, I have been told by lecturers to look at the way the media portrays new scientific studies and advances. I’ve always understood why, but until now none of the news stories have hit me as hard as these:

Headlines from Pakistan Today, Fox News and the LAD Bible

As my previous blog states, tigers are my favourite animal, so I’m probably biased as to why this story in particular caught my eye. Nonetheless, it highlights the struggle scientists face when trying to get important advancements across to the wider public without the message being misunderstood.

As a university student, I am very lucky to have access to almost any scientific paper I could ask for. So I downloaded this one to have a better read and judge the results for myself. The paper is titled “Tracking changes and preventing loss in critical tiger habitat,” by Joshi et al (2016).

The doubling of the tiger population by 2022, mentioned by the news articles, is a target set in 2010 in Russia, called the Tx2 in response to the rapidly diminishing tiger population and habitat. This agreement aimed to set up Tiger Conservation Landscapes (TCLs) to help reach the target. Figure 1 shows the distribution of these TCLs.

F1.large
Figure 1. Tx2 TCLs have the potential to double tiger populations by 2022.

Data provided in the paper is not initially encouraging. It highlights a total loss of 7.7% of total tiger habitat from 2001-2014 and a loss of protected (TCL) habitat of 5.7%, resulting in a loss of around 400 tigers.

The authors note that this loss of habitat is much less than expected, which may be due to increasing conservation efforts. On the flip side, the impact of the habitat loss that has occurred has been devastating. For example, the habitat lost in the Cambodian Northern Plains landscape was enough to support 174 tigers. Conflicting data such as this continues to be provided. The study explains that while a forest corridor connecting Nepal’s Bardia National Park with India’s Katarniaghat Tiger Reserve is now being used by tigers, another survey indicates that tigers are now absent from the Basanta corridor, where they were previously frequently spotted.

The second sentence in the abstract reads “Habitat loss, along with poaching, can undermine the international target recovery of doubling the number of wild tigers by 2022.” Whilst the results from this study do suggest that currently there is enough habitat to support a doubling of the tiger population, habitat loss is expected to continue. This paper should provide encouragement that current conservation efforts are having an impact, and that increasing efforts could have an even greater impact. This does not mean to say that tiger populations are out of the woods. The threat of extinction is still very real.

When taken out of context, the headlines reported seem fantastic. But what is a doubling of the tiger population in reality?  7000 tigers. That is less than a third of the current polar bear population (IUCN Red List).

Before taking what is written in the news as a given, take the time to look into their news stories. Is everything really as it seems?

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 11.05.03

I prefer this headline, from Headlines and Global News.

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