Local researcher aids tiger study

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal has been involved in helping the Indian government save that nation's tiger population. Courtesy photo by Robert Fleischer

A new research paper published on the internationally peer-reviewed publication “PLOS One” offers new methods of preserving and enhancing the population of tigers in central India.

The effort was a “big, multi-dimensional study,” said Robert Fleischer, head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics in Front Royal and one of the contributing researchers.

The purpose of the research — which began around 2009, according to Fleischer, was to analyze causes and potential solutions to the problem of the dwindling tiger populations in India. According to the Smithsonian, there are about 3,000 tigers in the wild in 13 Asian countries. Sixty percent of those tigers are in India.

Many factors have led to the depletion of tiger populations all across the world. In the study, researchers noted that tigers are at risk of becoming extinct due to factors such as poaching, habitat loss and isolation.

In fact, Fleischer noted that there might be more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild. As nice as it is to see tigers in a zoo, Fleischer said, “We don’t want tigers in captivity, we want them in the wild.”

Part of the goal of the research, Fleischer said, was to figure out methods to prevent the extinction of the species.

Fleischer worked on the paper alongside fellow Smithsonian researcher Jesus Maldonado as well as the paper’s key authors, Bibek Yumnam and Yadvendradev Jhala of the Wildlife Institute of India.

The study, Fleischer said, analyzed the issue of tiger populations from many different aspects. Fleischer’s role mainly consisted of genetics pertaining to tiger movements between different reserves in central India.

Fleischer said that the study was a big effort to try and figure out the movements of tigers between the reserves and parks — there are 47 of them — in India.

One of the major goals stemming from the research data is to set up a system of corridors for tigers to safely move from one reserve to another.

Essentially, Fleischer said, this would link the reserves together and prevent population isolation, which can lead to damaging situations such as inbreeding.

The goal, he said, is to figure out what makes a good corridor and “make it easy to move from reserve to reserve.”

Fleischer explained that creating safe corridors for tiger movement from reserve to reserve would do a number of things.

“It sustains populations, it moves excess animals from certain locations and brings in new genes,” he said.

This out-breeding, as Fleischer called it, would essentially help to ensure and enable more genetic diversity as well as a larger and healthy population of tigers in India.

The creation of safe movement corridors would also be useful for other local species such as leopards, antelope and elephants, Fleischer said.

Safe corridors and sustainable tiger populations, he said, would also benefit local citizens and tourists in India.

“These parks are not just for tigers [or other animals], they’re also for people,” Fleischer said.

One of the main hurdles in establishing such corridors is navigating around a landscape that is fairly fragmented.

“We can at least maintain these corridors where tigers can move,” Fleischer said.

At the same time, Fleischer said he thinks it might not cost too much to keep some of the corridors intact. He said this is due to the fact that some corridor locations are alongside riverbeds, where frequent flooding makes commercial development difficult.

Fleischer stressed that this research did not simply consist of genetics. “There was a lot of work on what tigers are eating, the kill rate and [even] behavioral aspects,” he said.

For this particular aspect of the study, Fleischer noted that Bibek did the majority of the work as far as DNA collection. “It would be a bad loss for the habitat, to not have the top predator.”

According to Fleischer, the research method of using what is known as tiger scat – or fecal matter – to genetically track movements was developed using tigers at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.

Fleischer and his team then trained scientists from India, including Yumnam, on this method.

Yumnam then brought the data back to the United States, where Fleischer and his team helped to analyze it.

The whole project, which was largely funded by the Indian government, was a massive undertaking and cooperative effort between many American and Indian researchers, said Fleischer.

Although Fleischer said his role was decidedly small in the grand scheme, he stressed the overall importance of this research.

“It’s clear we have to let people know how endangered these animals are,” Fleischer said.

Fleischer said the loss of tigers would affect the natural beauty of the world. “It would be a much diminished world.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com