Editor's Note: "Along the Tiger's Trail" is a series about the efforts to monitor tigers and their prey in the Malenad landscape in southwestern India that harbors one of the world’s largest population of wild tigers. The series tracks on-going annual activities of the world’s longest running research project on tiger and their prey, implemented under the leadership of Dr. K. Ullas Karanth of the Wildlife Conservation Society. These tales from the Indian jungles will take you through a virtual journey into the lives and work of people dedicated to the cause of India’s wild. For more posts in the series click here.
The Malenad Landscape in southwestern India today possibly harbors the world’s largest population of wild tigers, about 400 or so animals. This spectacular hilly region in the state of Karnataka and some forests in neighboring states is a global hotspot for wild animals and plants.
Fifty years ago, when I was a teenager growing up here, there were perhaps fewer than 50 tigers surviving. The onslaught on nature by “progress” had pushed tigers to the brink of extinction by late 1960s. Fortunately, strong political leadership by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, guided wisely by India’s pioneer conservationists, responded decisively to protect wildlife and forests. Although it has been an uphill battle, since the 1970s India’s wildlife has indeed recovered spectacularly in some reserves, including Malenad, thanks to hard work by India’s wildlife managers and conservationists.
When I began my career as a tiger biologist with WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) in the 1980s, my biggest challenge was to count these rare and elusive tigers in Malenad. It was then that I hit upon the idea of “trapping” tigers on film using automated cameras, triggered by the passing cats. Because each tiger’s stripe pattern is uniquely identifiable, like barcodes on library books, I was able to count them using the photos. Over time, these tiger counts were meshed with sophisticated statistical methods that my collaborator Jim Nichols of U.S. Geological Survey developed. I could then estimate tiger numbers, including those that had not been caught in my traps! This method is now known as photographic capture-recapture sampling.
In this season every year, as the Indian monsoon recedes, my WCS team of two dozen researchers, technicians and young tribal assistants enter these forests to camera-trap tigers. Over the next six months, until torrential rains arrive again, we will doggedly trudge along tiger trails. We will set up camera traps at around 700 locations spread across nearly 2,300 square miles (6,000 square kilometers). In total, we will accumulate more than 20,000 camera-nights of effort. We will capture hundreds of stunning images of tigers, leopards and other interesting and quaint animals that share this habitat. We’ll add these to our database, which has helped us to identify 765 individual tigers from around 7,000 photos taken over two decades.
In this series, “Along the Tiger’s Trail,” we will tell you how we trap tigers to count them. We will tell you how we count tigers’ prey, like wild pigs and deer, as well as lumbering elephants that thrive here, by walking transects trails. And we’ll tell you how, by surveying their signs, such as tracks and poop, we find out where animals live. In these tales from the field, we will share with you our adventures and encounters with the wonderful wild beasts of Malenad:,and all the blood, sweat and tears we shed while working to save tigers and other wildlife. Walk with us!