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STALKING TIGERS, SAVING SPECIES

The blog of Tiger Conservation Partnership participants, staff and experts.

August 24

Forgotten Tiger land: Quest for Wildlife on Manchuria Trail

I had heard about “Shenandoah” in John Denver’s classic song “Country Roads” but I got to experience the area only recently during my study at Virginia Tech. Along the Appalachian Trail, a 3,500 km trail running through 13 states from Georgia to Maine, the Shenandoah Valley reminded me of the Churia ridge trail starting from the Kasara in the west to Sunachari in the east across the Chitwan National Park. I call this the “Manchuria” (meaning “satisfying Churia”) trail, with its length less than one percent of the Appalachian Trail. The Manchuria Trail rises high above the horizon, looking like tidal waves of pristine hill forests.

The Manchuria trail runs between the two large catchment areas in Chitwan National Park – the Rue River in the Madi Valley to the south and east of the Rapti River to the north. Geologically unstable features, Churia watersheds have been well-preserved within this range. They play an important role in conserving rich alluvial floodplains within the Chitwan Valley.

Chitwan National Park

The map above is of Chitwan National Park from the book Bones of the Tiger: the Man-Eaters of Nepal, by Hemanta Mishra.

The Manchuria trail is an up-and-down meandering route, which offers great opportunities to see wildlife and some adrenaline-pumping hiking, like Churia ridge. Historically, the trail had been used by hunters and is still opportunistically used today. We made a seven day trek across the ridge to see wildlife and to experience the Churia within Chitwan National Park. As a universal rule of thumb, never travel alone in a forest; our team consisted of Nepali six navy seals and we were confident we could overcome any obstacle along the trail. We started our journey from Kasara, the park headquarters.

We started out early morning, but due to logistics and empty stomachs, we ended up having to set up camp earlier than expected. Fresh and eager to learn more from the trek across the Manchuria, we were busy setting up camp and gathering information from the area. Water is scarce resource in the Churia, so we made camp near a water source, but still far enough to keep us safe from bears and elephants. Luckily, we didn’t have to worry about great one-horned rhinoceroses because the Churia is not the right habitat for them. We were cautious of big cats, like tigers and leopards, but we were confident that if we didn’t harm them they would not harm us. One species that we did not have to worry about at all was mosquitoes.

We discovered that the trail was a regular route for elephants! We didn’t want to be in the path of any elephants using the trail, so we camped across the Churia hill slopes along the side of the trail. The number of elephants in Chitwan National Park has increased over the past few years, which has caused more human-elephant conflict. We were astonished to observe that the elephants were using such a high ridge trail, which was sometimes just half a meter wide. Our camera trap records also confirmed the use of the trail by both groups of elephants and solitary elephants. To my surprise, I could even trace plastic in elephant dung found across the trail, suggesting these were elephants that were raiding crops and using the trail to travel between feeding places. Sal trees (Shorea robusta) were found to be most dominant tree across the Manchuria forests, mixed with other tree species. But most importantly, I found that the Thakal (Date Palm) was used frequently by elephants as well as by local people. We would often quench our thirst by eating the bud of the Thakal. Manchuria trail lies in between the elevation of the 200m to 740 m, but I was thrilled to see Chir Pine (Pinus roxburghii), locally called Khote Salla) after you cross the 400 m mark. The presence of this tree species signaled that we had entered the highest elevation range across the Churia.

Despite being so high in the Churia, it is still possible to see tigers. The late Dr. Pralad Yonzon, a distinguished wildlife biologist, captured a photograph of a tiger at 4,000m in Bhutan. As a doctoral student studying tigers in Churia, I was lucky enough to take the first camera trap picture of tiger at an elevation of 600m (the highest so far in low land area of Nepal). It still takes a lot to reach that height!! Sambar deer, the favorite prey of tigers, were abundant up there, which means we need to revisit the idea that Churia might be an optimal habitat for tigers and other carnivores.

Overall, we photographed 25 species using the Churia trail. We were especially thrilled to see dholes (wild dogs).Dholes, which hunt in packs, were competing with tigers and leopards for space and food in the Churia. It was hard to catch up with these beasts because they clambered up the hills so fast.

Churia habitat covers more than half the size of Chitwan National Park yet it is one of the least studied areas. There are bound to be many more confirmed sightings of species in Churia. This truly is a forgotten tiger habitat in Nepal. The Manchuria trail provides a great opportunity for every wildlife enthusiast like me to quench my thirst for wildlife studies. I only wish this 40 km trail would be maintained at least once, if not regularly. We were tired by the end of the seven day trail, with tanned faces, tick bites and aching ankles, but so happy to learn as much about Churia as we did. At the end, as the team rested, we all recalled our journey in John Denver-style… “Country roads take me home to the place I belong. . .

Kanchan Thapa, PhD candidate Virginia Tech

August 17

Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute scientists and partners have discovered that endangered Amur tigers and extinct Caspian tigers originally came from one genetic line. That discovery, published in the online, open access Journal of Threatened Taxa ( JoTT Opinion), has prompted an innovative idea to restore tigers to part of their historic range in central Asia: reintroduce Amur tigers in areas where their extinct ancestors once lived.

This big idea comes from a recent genetic analysis that showed that Amur tigers (from the Russian Far East) and extinct Caspian tigers (from Central Asia) are “taxonomically synonymous”. In other words, Amur tigers and Caspian tigers used to be a single population until about 200 years ago.

According to recent research, Central Asia is a viable habitat for Amur tigers. Ecological surveys of the Caspian tiger’s former range indicate over 1,000,000 square kilometers of promising land for Amur tigers, free of human disturbance and full of appropriate vegetation and prey species still exist. In 2010, WWF Russia and WWF Netherlands selected two promising sites for possible reintroduction: one in Uzbekistan, the other in Kazakhstan. These sites also would restore a natural wildlife balance to Central Asia, because there is no top predator currently living in those areas. The official participation from N. Korea, Kazakhstan and Iran, the former tiger rage countries, at the Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg in November 2010 signified their interests in tiger conservation.

The paper’s authors propose establishing populations in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, or other Central Asian countries by reintroducing Amur tigers from zoos, in addition to translocating from the wild populations. In the past, population recovery programs have restored carnivore species ranging from wolves to bobcats to their natural habitats. Tiger conservationists hope for a similar success story.

A successful reintroduction of Amur tigers to Central Asia would need support from local and federal governments in countries around the continent that are not included in the 13 current tiger-range countries. In total, 12 new countries would have to join the ranks of the 13 existing tiger-range states. Conservationists, researchers, wildlife management officials would also need all tiger-range countries to cooperate for the initial process of restoration of tiger population. Those areas would need natural habitats, prey bases, anti-poaching law enforcement, fresh water resources, popular local support, and governmental leadership.

Ultimately, the researchers concluded that, “Restoration is not about the nostalgic re-creation of a lost past, but about building a sustainable future. Our suggestion here is not to magically resurrect extinct cats for a Jurassic Park or 'Pleistocene re-wilding' experience, but rather to restore former tiger landscapes to be as biologically full, diverse, productive, and interesting as they once were.”

The creation of new tiger ranges that are safe from poaching and habitat loss would be an encouraging step to saving tigers and reversing their population decline.

Learn more: http://threatenedtaxa.org/ZooPrintJournal/2012/June/o299326vi122637-2643.pdf

Nadia Hlebowtish, science communications intern at the Smithsonian's National Zoo

Global Tiger Day Celebration

We were very happy to celebrate Global Tiger Day at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC with several partners. The activities for the day were centered around the Great Cats exhibit, where the Zoo’s three Sumatran tigers live. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Wildlife Conservation Society, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and the Global Tiger Initiative Secretariat were among the organizations that participated in the event, in addition to the Zoo’s animal keepers and experts from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. All of the activities for the day were focused on conservation education and efforts to save tigers. One of the special arts-and-crafts tables for children had them make playful tiger masks while learning more about them. Our partners had tables set up where visitors could play trivia games, win prizes and learn more about what each organization is doing to save tigers. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Tiger Conservation Partnership table displayed several tools used to study and monitor tigers in the wild including a radio collar previously used to track a Bengal Tiger in Nepal and camera traps.

As part of Global Tiger Day, the National Zoo invited visitors to see the newest member of their Sumatran Tiger Exhibit, Kavi, an 11 year old male Sumatran Tiger. Kavi joined the National Zoo under the recommendation of the Species Survival Program to be paired with Damai, the Zoo’s 3-year-old female Sumatran Tiger. Damai, Kavi and the Zoo’s eldest Sumatran Tiger, Soyono were given special enrichment activities throughout the day. Zoo visitors had the opportunity to meet the tiger keepers and ask them questions about the tigers and their enrichment activities.

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Many TRCs celebrated Global Tiger Day; here are a few highlights that were shared with us:

In Bangladesh, the Department of Forests hosted a Global Tiger Day Rally in Dhaka & Khulna to support conservation efforts in the Sunderbans. The programs were participated by the Honorable Minister of Environment and Forest Dr. Hasan Mahmud and senior officials from government and civil society in Dhaka, as well as senior officials from local administration, law enforcement, Forest Dept., NGO partners, and civil society in Khulna near the Sundarbans, the main tiger habitat in Bangladesh.

In Indonesia, Global Tiger Day celebrations were kicked off by the Director of Biodiversity Conservation requesting that all the zoos in Indonesia participate by setting up banners announcing the special events designed to raise tiger conservation awareness. Community activities were organized to disseminate information on tiger conservation in Monas, one of the strategic locations in Jakarta. A finger puppet show at an orphanage in Jakarta regarding tiger conservation was organized in cooperation with "Rumah Pohon" a Foundation for Children’s Environmental Education. Students from Riau Province showed their appreciation for Forest Rangers appreciation by sending them post cards. Finally, tiger awareness campaigns took place at schools in Jambi and Padang Provinces.

Nepal’s Global Tiger Day celebrations included releasing tiger census data from Bardia National Park, convening the National Tiger Conservation Committee (NTCC) under the chairmanship of rt. honorable Prime Minister, screening the “Protected Areas Efforts in Tiger Conservation” video, and various tiger conservation performances and awareness campaigns in five tiger bearing protected areas. Nepal reported increase in tiger population to 176 tigers compared to 155 in the 2010 census.

In Myanmar Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary celebrated its first Global Tiger Day at Township hall of Tanai in cooperation with the Myanmar Police Force (Wildlife Police) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Before the ceremony, staff from Township Forest Department, HVWS, Wildlife Police, Township Development Committee and WCS distributed a pamphlet, “Twenty Ways to Save the Tiger” in Tanai market. Present at the ceremony were Township Police Officer, Deputy Chairman of Township Women’s Federation, Departmental Heads and representatives from Political Parties, teachers and school children among an audience of more than 120.

The day’s theme focused on promoting sustainable living and support for tiger conservation. In his opening speech on behalf of the township administrator of Tanai, township police officer urged the audience to actively support efforts in Hukaung Tiger Conservation Landscape (HTCL), which needs local support to be successful.

Then the park warden of HVWS said in a brief speech that tigers need to be saved from the edge of extinction in Myanmar and across Asia. The deputy chairman of the township Women’s Federation echoed those remarks and asked the township women to oppose the consumption of wildlife meat and save natural resources like fuel, water and forest products. A WCS education officer, sub-inspector of the wildlife police station and a forester of HVWS made presentations about the manpower and government support needed to overcome growing threats to the tigers of Hukaung. At the ceremony, 15 students received awards for essays they wrote on tiger and environmental conservation. After ceremony the audience was invited to explore the HVWS education center.

Thailand celebrated by organizing a seminar on the progress of its National Tiger Recovery Priorities at the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation. Government organizations, NGO partners such as, WCS, WWF andFreeland Foundation participated in the seminar. It was divided in two parts. The first part was the presentation about the present situation of tiger, implementing the NTRP and monitoring tiger populations. The second part was a discussion about the Thailand's goals for tiger recovery and what still needs to be done.

Global Tiger Day in Thailand. Photo courtesy of Ms. Budsabong Kanchanasaka
Director of Wildlife Research Division, Wildlife Conservation Office.

Global Tiger Day in Thailand