Tracking Tigers By Their Scat

Estimates indicate there are 1400 wild tigers in India. (Photo credit: James Warwick / Getty Images)

Given a tigers large territorial range, solitary behavior, and mainly nocturnal activities, tracking the animal is a difficult endeavor. Wildlife researchers in India have determined that collecting fecal samples (also known as scat) is a reliable method that can be used to determine the population size of tigers in the wild.

The largest population of wild tigers is found in India. Using a combination of paw print and camera trap evidence (wherein individual tigers are identified by their stripe patterns), wildlife biologists estimate the population of wild tigers in India to be around 1400 individuals. Given this small overall population size, the tigers are listed as an endangered species. The two main threats tigers face are habitat destruction and poaching. Tiger bones and other body parts are a key ingredient in many traditional medicines used by the Chinese and other Asian cultures.

Separate studies have indicated that collecting scat is a good way to measure the population and distribution of animals such as penguins, wolves, and bears. Ullas Karanth, a tiger specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s India program, and his colleagues spent six weeks collecting scat samples over an area of 800 square kilometers in Bandipur National Park. The researchers collected 58 separate scat samples. These samples were brought to the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. Once there, Uma Ramakrishnana and her colleagues used DNA in intestinal cells found in the tiger feces to identify individual tigers. Their research indicated that the fecal samples belonged to 26 different tigers. A separate camera trap study identified 29 different tigers in the same area, supporting the DNA evidence of at least 26 different wild cats in the area.

Traditionally, scientists have used individual paw prints to calculate tiger population size. (Photo credit: Martin Harvey/Corbis)

The researchers are looking forward to continuing DNA studies of scat to monitor the tiger population and distribution in India. They believe that DNA identification is an excellent option where setting up cameras is difficult or not feasible at all.

The results of the scientists research were originally published in the June 17, 2009 edition of the journal Biological Conservation. Scientists who contributed to the research included Samrat Mondola, K. Ullas Karanthb, N. Samba Kumarb, Arjun M. Gopalaswamy, Anish Andheriad and Uma Ramakrishnana.

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