Scientist, Author, Educator, Tree Canopy Biologist

Tracking Big Cats in India

When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another Heaven and another Earth must pass before such a one can be again.—William Beebe

Celebrate International Tiger Day—July 29, 2016
In awe, we stopped dead in our tracks to gaze at the enormous impression in the wet sand. Our guide whispered, “Tiger – BIG tiger!” I could hear my heart pound. No other sounds were heard in the forest, except the wind whispering in the Culleniatree canopy overhead. The track was significantly larger than my handprint, and evidently this large cat had walked ahead of us only 10 minutes earlier. It seemed almost too close for comfort, yet that was our mission—fostering forest conservation in India, which is directly linked to saving tigers. In India, tigers and forests are synonymous. The Kalaka Mandanthurai Tiger Reserve (called KMTR by locals), located in the Western Ghats, is a mountainous biodiversity hotspot, and one of nearly 50 official tiger reserves in India. These charismatic top predators of the forest numbered an estimated 1,411 individuals during a census in 2008 (National Tiger Conservation Authority), but this population estimate was anything but precise, ranging from 1,165 to 1,657 individuals.

Nearby we found claw marks on a tree trunk, clues that this tiger was not only large but also that we were trespassing in his territory. We practically tiptoed home, fearful yet anxiously hoping to glimpse this forest giant. In the KMTR, tigers are at the top of the food chain, and humans humbly defer to this “king of the jungle”. But recently, eight tigers disappeared from the Ranthambore National Park in western India. Despite their endangered status, tigers are still poached for their skins, or for their bones, which constitute ingredients of traditional Chinese medicines.

Although technology can transmit information around the globe in seconds and photograph the farthest galaxies, many mysteries remain close to home. Scientists have not figured out the secrets of pollination of the Cullenia tree, an essential canopy species for tiger habitat, nor do we understand the complex ecosystem of the last remaining tiger reserve. A dwindling number of tigers and langur monkeys are dependent on humans learning about and protecting their habitat. Their survival not only depends on the continued fruiting of their keystone tree, but also our knowledge about how their forests work.

Exact estimates of tiger populations remain controversial. So why is it tough to count a few hundred tigers in a world that loves them so much? For one thing, tigers are cryptic and hide easily from humans. Second, scientists argue about accurate ways to estimate tiger populations. Camera traps, observations, footprints, nail marks on trees, and even feces are widely used to census mammals, but each is subject to error. Even worse, tigers may be double-counted by non-experts. And third, the accuracy of tiger surveys is fraught with politics. India’s tourism industry prefers to over-estimate, because visitors won’t pay big money to visit a tiger reserve without tigers. And biologists will only count exactly what they see, smell, or measure; so their counts likely underestimate the numbers from tourism-based sources. Tiger stories and legends persist, many without scientific basis. .

A recent headline in the Bangalore Mirror newspaper read, “Tiger spotted in Sahyadri reserve.” One tiger sighting now ranks national headlines. In this case, biologists did not see a tiger but genetically analyzed tiger scat on a trail in the reserve. Only follow-up data with camera traps will confirm this big cat—its age, health, and whether there is more than one remaining in this region.

Will Princeton University be satisfied with an extinct mascot? Will circuses deploy videos of tigers as a substitute for live performances in the big top? And will National Geographic use animations in future Asian wildlife films? The world will never be the same if humans cause tigers to become extinct. But the next few years are critical ones for saving these noble creatures. In 2011, just five years ago, the United Nations declared the International Year of the Forests. For the sake of tigers and other forest denizens, make forest conservation a priority of your daily life.

Article by Dr. Meg Lowman (aka CanopyMeg) in the Huff Post Blog. Dr. Lowman is a contributor for the Huffington Post — watch for Meg Lowman on Huff Post!