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Novel Approach To Monitoring Condition Of Tiger Habitat In Chitwan National Park

Saturday, October 19, 2013 4:21
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April Flowers for – Your Universe Online

An international team of scientists has taken a tiger’s-eye view of conservation efforts, finding a useful way to better understand the tiger‘s take on policy.

Jianguo “Jack” Liu at Michigan State University (MSU) led a team twelve years ago which revealed that China needed to revisit how it protected the pandas. The new study, published in Ecosphere, shows that the conservation of tiger habitat in Nepal requires not only good policy, but monitoring even years down the road.

“Understanding long-term outcomes of conservation programs is crucial and requires innovative methods,” Liu said. “Now we’re learning that Nepal’s outstanding efforts to protect tigers are best supported with close monitoring because conservation situations are so dynamic. In both cases, the key is to understand how the people who live near the valued wildlife are faring as well.”

Recent MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability doctoral graduate Neil Carter has spent years studying endangered tigers in Chitwan National Park in Nepal’s Himalayan lowlands. The park was established in 1973 to protect the tigers and the region’s biodiversity. However, it has not been without cost to the people who live around the area that depend on the forests for wood for fuel and building and grasses to thatch roofs and feed their livestock. The policies that govern the park are top-down, with little input from the residents.

Nepal added a buffer zone to the park in 1996 to improve the livelihoods of the people who live there and to improve the ecosystem of the area. People are allowed more access to the forest’s resources in the buffer zone, as well as more input into its management.

The study demonstrates a novel approach to monitoring the condition of the tiger’s habitat, combining satellite images and camera trap data to understand where the tigers hang out. Tigers prefer grasslands because they support high prey numbers and give cover to hunt. Because tigers require such a large area, they also prefer if their cover is not too broken up.

Human populations in Nepal are growing, as is unauthorized use of local natural resources around the park. This reduces the quality of the tiger’s habitat inside of Chitwan National Park. The tigers are migrating into the neighborhoods outside the park – which is important input, both for the buffer’s policies and the park’s policies.

“Many animals have their ranges extending outside of protected areas,” Carter said. “They don’t know and they don’t care where the border signs are. So areas outside protected areas are important as well.”

“In Nepal, we’re finding that there is this middle ground where you can have people using the land and still not only keep land from degrading, but can improve habitat quality. Policies in Chitwan’s buffer zone, such as prohibiting livestock from freely grazing in the forests and community-based forest management, improved habitat quality.”

Carter’s team placed infrared motion-activated cameras at 76 locations inside the park and buffer zone. GPS tracking collars reveal a lot about an individual animal’s behavior, however camera traps give a fuller picture of an area’s traffic. Carter was able to see where the tigers were hanging out and gained some insight into why they chose those places by combining the camera trap data with information about the condition of forests and grasslands in the area.

Over a 20 year span, Carter found that Chitwan National Park is still a desirable habitat for tigers. However, the habitat of the buffer zone has improved over that time, while the habitat of the park has degraded. Conservation managers can use such information to fine tune park policy in order to balance their efforts to protect biodiversity with ways to also allow the people that depend on the forest for survival to thrive.

This study echoes the one performed by Liu in 2001, published in Science. Liu showed that panda habitat was being destroyed quicker inside the world’s most high-profile protected nature reserve than in adjacent areas of China that are not protected. This allowed the Chinese to realign their policies. The findings were also the beginning of a multi-discipline research focus to understand the outcomes of conservation policies from the perspective of coupled human and natural systems.

The tools used by Carter and his colleagues could be innovative for conservation managers around the world.

“This is a pretty easy way to take advantage of tools and methods being used all over the world – camera traps and satellite images– to measure how habitat has changed and to visualize how that has changed across space and time,” Carter said. “It’s a simple way to assess how different policies and practices affect habitat and figure out which ones are working and which ones aren’t to promote effective policy now and in the future.”

More information about Neil Carter’s tiger work, including photos and videos, can be found here.
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