Can the abundance of tigers be assessed from their signs?
Indices of abundance offer cost effective and rapid methods for estimating abundance of endangered species across large landscapes, yet their wide usage is controversial due to their potential of being biased. Here, we assess the utility of indices for the daunting task of estimating the abundance of the endangered tiger at landscape scales. We use double sampling to estimate two indices of tiger abundance (encounters of pugmarks and scats per km searched) and calibrate those indices against contemporaneous estimates of tiger densities obtained using camera-trap mark-recapture (CTMR) at 21 sites (5185 km2) in Central and North India. We use simple and multiple weighted regressions to evaluate relationships between tiger density and indices. A model for estimating tiger density from indices was validated by Jackknife analysis and precision was assessed by correlating predicted tiger density with CTMR density. We conduct power analysis to estimate the ability of CTMR and of indices to detect changes in tiger density. Tiger densities ranged between 0.25 and 19 tigers 100 km-2 were estimated with an average coefficient of variation of 13.2(SE 2.5)%. Tiger pugmark encounter rates explained 84% of the observed variability in tiger densities. After removal of an outlier (Corbett), square root transformed scat encounter rates explained 82% of the variation in tiger densities. A model including pugmark and scat encounters explained 95% of the variation in tiger densities with good predictive ability (PRESS R2=0.99). Overall, CTMR could detect tiger density changes of >12% with 80% power at α=0.3, while the index based model had 50% to 85% power to detect >30% declines. The power of indices to detect declines increased at high tiger densities. Synthesis and applications. Indices of tiger abundance obtained from across varied habitats and a range of tiger densities could reliably estimate tiger abundance. Financial and temporal costs of estimating indices were 7% and 34% respectively, of those for CTMR. The models and methods presented herein have application in evaluation of the abundance of cryptic carnivores at landscape scales and form part of the protocol used by the Indian Government for evaluating the status of tigers.