Virginia Tech wildlife researchers explore DNA research to help save Nepal's Bengal tigers

Mar 13, 2012
Kanchan Thapa (left) shows local Nepalese park staff members how to collect DNA from tiger droppings.

Tigers are fast disappearing from the modern world. The 2010 tiger census in Nepal estmates that only 155 of the Bengal tiger subspecies still exist there. Conserving tigers is a top priority for the government of this South Asian nation.

To pinpoint the current population of wild Bengal tigers, understand their movements, and develop appropriate policies, the Nepal Tiger has begun collecting samples of from the .

Marcella Kelly, associate professor of wildlife in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, and Kanchan Thapa of Kathmandu, Nepal, a doctoral student in wildlife science in the college, are deeply involved in the project, joining with colleagues from the Center for Molecular Dynamics–Nepal and the University of Idaho.

“This is the first genetic study of Bengal tigers in the region,” Kelly said. “We’re not only building a genetic database, we’re establishing a protocol and building competency for the use of DNA sampling techniques among the Nepali people.”

Thapa is doing fieldwork in the Terai Arc Landscape, an area of about 8,200 square miles along the border of southern Nepal and India — one of the few remaining tiger habitats on earth. The population in the Terai region is found in three subpopulations interconnected by forests and cultivated areas populated by humans.

The landscape covers protected areas as well as nonprotected areas that are critical corridors for the movement of tigers between preserves. The tiger’s rarity and elusive nature have made it a difficult animal to study.

“We’re trying to determine the distribution and dispersal of tigers across the area,” Kelly said. “We’re worried they are not able to travel between protected areas — that they are staying only in the habitat where they were born. One park has a population of only seven or eight adult tigers, so the isolation and potential for inbreeding is a real concern.”

The two-year Nepal Tiger Genome Project, with $270,000 in funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, is being conducted by the Center for Molecular Dynamics–Nepal in partnership with Nepal’s Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation and in technical collaboration with Virginia Tech and the University of Idaho.

Kelly, who is known for her expertise in the design and analysis of studies using remotely triggered cameras and mark-recapture techniques, has trained project personnel in Nepal in this technology. Thapa has been monitoring tigers in Nepal for more than a year, using noninvasive methods such as camera traps and collecting fecal samples to extract tiger DNA.

Thapa’s work has an element of danger, Kelly said, but the danger is more likely to come from a charging elephant or rhino than a tiger.

“Tigers have certainly been known to kill people, but elephants and rhinos are much more likely to attack,” she said. “Thapa has had several encounters with wild elephants and escaped an avalanche in the region’s steep Churia hills. He’s doing sampling in remote areas and mostly traveling on foot.”

After Thapa completes data collection in Nepal this summer, he will return to Virginia Tech to analyze the data with Kelly in order to assess tiger and prey size, connectivity, and habitat use. The results of the project will be shared with policy makers and experts worldwide.

Thapa’s work will have important implications for tiger conservation in Nepal, as this is the first detailed assessment of tiger ecology in the understudied, rugged Churia hills habitat. Although the habitat was previously labeled as suboptimal for tigers, this study has revealed that tigers are present in the Churia range.

The Nepal Tiger Genome Project will aid the government of Nepal in building the genetic database, which will be used to track connectivity, gene flow, inbreeding, and poaching across the Terai, and thereby facilitate conservation of this critically endangered species.

Explore further: How can we avoid kelp beds turning into barren grounds?

Provided by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

not rated yet
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Nepal expands critical tiger habitat

Oct 27, 2009

The Government of Nepal announced today an expansion of Bardia National Park in the Terai Arc Landscape by 900 sq km, which will increase critical habitat for tigers.

Nepal scientists to 'poo-print' tigers

Oct 21, 2011

Scientists in Nepal are to build up the world's first national DNA database of the endangered Bengal tiger by collecting and recording a unique genetic fingerprint from each adult's faeces.

Nepal uses satellites to track rare tiger

Jan 24, 2011

An injured wild tiger that strayed into a tourist resort in Nepal has been moved to a new home in the jungle and fitted with a satellite collar so its progress can be tracked, the government said.

121 breeding tigers estimated to be found in Nepal

Jul 27, 2009

The first ever overall nation-wide estimate of the tiger population brought a positive ray of hope among conservationists. The figures announced by the Nepal Government's Department of National Parks and Wildlife ...

Decline in Russian tigers renews calls to end all trade

Oct 19, 2009

A shocking decline in the Russian Federation's wild tiger population highlights the importance of eliminating trade in and demand for tiger parts, the International Tiger Coalition (ITC) said today. The alliance of 40 organizations ...

Recommended for you

How can we avoid kelp beds turning into barren grounds?

10 hours ago

Urchins are marine invertebrates that mould the biological richness of marine grounds. However, an excessive proliferation of urchins may also have severe ecological consequences on marine grounds as they ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.