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Research May Help Save Tigers on the Brink of Extinction


Sumantran Tiger Populations of both the Sumatran tiger (pictured) and Bengal tiger subspecies are dangerously low. Image courtesy of World Wildlife Fund

May 15, 2012 – The tiger is one of the most beloved and well-known jungle cats. Unfortunately, it is also one of the world’s most endangered species. From Indonesia to Nepal, tiger conservation has become a pressing issue for policy makers and land managers. With the help of dedicated researchers from the college, the tiger’s future is beginning to look a little brighter.

On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Sunarto (’11 Ph.D. in wildlife science) led a ground-breaking study of the Sumatran tiger subspecies in collaboration with World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The study is the first of its kind to systematically investigate the use of different land cover types for tiger habitat. “Ultimately,” explained Sunarto, now a tiger expert for WWF-Indonesia, “the goal is to learn how to restore tiger populations and habitat through better management.”

Over the past 100 years, the Sumatran tiger population has dropped a staggering 97 percent, due in large part to disturbances caused by human activities such as poaching and the conversion of natural forests into agricultural plantations. Sunarto led the on-site data collection, then he and Associate Professor Marcella Kelly, his graduate advisor and a co-author of the study, created a series of maps that predict where tigers are most likely to live. They discovered that while Sumatran tigers prefer areas closer to forest centers, they can also use plantation land with dense understory cover and low human activity.

Their most notable find was the tigers’ strong predilection for sites with understory cover — vegetation at the ground level — which suggests it is an environmental necessity for tiger habitat. “As ambush hunters, tigers would find it hard to capture their prey without adequate understory cover,” said Sunarto. “The lack of cover also leaves tigers vulnerable to persecution by humans, who generally perceive them as dangerous.”

Graduate student Kanchan Thapa is conducting similar research in the Terai Arc Landscape along the border of southern Nepal and India. In his work with the collaborative Nepal Tiger Genome Project (NTGP), he uses genetic sampling to identify individual tigers and track their movements by analyzing DNA in scat samples. “This is the first genetic study of the Bengal tiger subspecies in the region,” said Kelly, who is also Thapa’s advisor. “We’re not only building a genetic database, we’re establishing a protocol and building competency for the use of DNA sampling techniques among the Nepali people.”

After completing data collection in Nepal this summer, Thapa will return to Blacksburg to analyze the data with Kelly in order to assess tiger and prey population size, connectivity, and habitat use. The NTGP will continue to aid the Nepalese government in building the tiger genetic database, which will be used to track connectivity, gene flow, inbreeding, and poaching across the Terai Arc.

Both projects point to the importance of protecting tiger habitat as well as critical corridors between protected areas in order to ensure that tigers are able to roam freely, which is crucial to their survival.

    CNRE Newsmagazine Spring 2012 Cover

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