Conservation practices are supposed to get refined by advancing scientific knowledge. We study this phenomenon in the context of monitoring tiger populations in India, by evaluating the 'pugmark census method' employed by wildlife managers for three decades. We use an analytical framework of modern animal population sampling to test the efficacy of the pugmark censuses using scientific data on tigers and our field observations. We identify three critical goals for monitoring tiger populations, in order of increasing sophistication: (1) distribution mapping, (2) tracking relative abundance, (3) estimation of absolute abundance. We demonstrate that the present census-based paradigm does not work because it ignores the first two simpler goals, and targets, but fails to achieve, the most difficult third goal. We point out the utility and ready availability of alternative monitoring paradigms that deal with the central problems of spatial sampling and observability. We propose an alternative sampling-based approach that can be tailored to meet practical needs of tiger monitoring at different levels of refinement.