Satellite technology used to study tiger behaviour, movement and response to disturbancesFindings of the first study of its kind in the country, which will track six tigers, will help in saving the species from adverse impacts of infrastructure projects, conservationists say.
The latest tiger census report, released in 2018, put the number of big cats in the country at 235, nearly double the recorded 121 in 2009. The achievement made Nepal the first country on track to meet the international commitment of the 13 tiger range countries to double their tiger populations from the base of 2010, estimated to be between 3,200 and 3,500 worldwide, by 2022.
The impressive growth in population has its downsides. With an ever-growing loss of habitat, the struggle between humans with their infrastructure development and the wild cats has been increasing.
Nepal’s road ahead for protecting its tigers is therefore fraught with challenges. Potential poaching and habitat fragmentation are other risks.
As their population grows, tigers have been frequently straying out of their natural habitats, resulting in human-tigers conflicts.
This fiscal year alone, tigers have killed at least nine people in different parts of the country. A tiger has been already causing havoc in Kailali district, leaving authorities scrambling to contain the danger it poses.
Growing infrastructure development and disturbances have also affected tigers. Studies have shown, for example, that tiger movement has been affected due to vehicular movement along the East-West highway.
The country’s infrastructure development, mainly highways and road networks that traverse via protected areas and wildlife corridors, pose threats to wildlife conservation. As a result, a large number of wild animals die in road accidents every year.
In a gruesome incident, a tiger from Parsa National Park was killed in a road collision earlier this year. It was the third tiger death in road accidents on the East-West Highway in recent years, showing how the highway has been a death trap for wild animals.
A study published in January this year also concluded that the country’s linear infrastructure projects, like highways, irrigation canals and petroleum pipelines, in the lowland Tarai region have adversely impacted the environment, and biodiversity, including wildlife movement in the protected parks and adjoining forests.
Better understanding of tiger behaviour including its movement is crucial in protecting one of the most endangered species in the world. With this aim, a unique research has begun in the country’s protected areas in the southern plains.
The Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, the central authority overseeing the management of protected areas and protection of wildlife, along with other conservation partners, has started a satellite telemetry study on tigers.
The study has begun from the Chitwan-Parsa complex with the installation of the telemetry satellite device on a tiger from Parsa National Park last week, according to Haribhadra Acharya, a spokesperson for the department.
“The satellite telemetry study gives us details on the location of tigers, their behaviour and movements,” Haribhadra Acharya, a spokesperson for the department, told the Post. “The telemetry device installed on the tiger relays information from satellite to the computer.”
In satellite telemetry, an animal carries a tracking device and its location is calculated via satellites that orbit the Earth. The global positioning system (GPS) is used to record the animal’s exact location.
“Tiger collaring has happened in Nepal since the 1970s. Then signals sent by VHF collars were captured through an antenna,” said Acharya. “The satellite telemetry is an advanced technology that uses global satellites to transmit the position of the wildlife to a computer.”
The primary objective of this study is to see how tigers have been responding to development of infrastructure, whether they feel disturbed or their movements have been obstructed with the growing disturbances around their habitat, according to Acharya.
Although one tiger has been fitted with the device, authorities plan to install them in five more.
For installation of the device, a buffalo was left at the core area of Parsa National Park to attract the tiger. After the tiger killed the buffalo, wildlife technicians darted the tiger to sedate it and fit the device.
According to Acharya, who is an ecologist with the department, the tiger killed the buffalo the next day, evidence that there is a good presence of the tiger in the area.
“Recent incidents of tiger-human interaction along the highway prompted this study. There are concerns also because plans are afoot to extend the East-West Highway and the Kathmandu-Tarai Expressway is being built. An international airport has been proposed in the same area,” said Acharya.
“We need to see if the tiger will reach those project sites and findings will provide valuable recommendations for constructing wildlife-friendly infrastructures in the future so as not to disturb wildlife like tigers.”
Examples of wildlife-friendly infrastructure in the country are rare as a result of which there are frequent vehicle-wildlife collisions. One such effective example has been the building of underpasses along Narayanghat-Muglin highway to ease movement of wildlife on the Barandabhar Forest Corridor.
As part of the study, a total of six tigers—two from the Chitwan-Parsa complex and four from the Banke-Bardia complex—will be collared for monitoring their movement and behaviour.
The Chitwan-Parsa complex currently has a total of 111 tigers—93 in Chitwan and 18 in Parsa, as per the latest 2018 census. Likewise, the Banke-Bardia complex is home to 108 tigers—87 in Bardia National Park and 21 in Banke National Park.
Authorities are currently monitoring the movement of the tiger collared in the Parsa National Park.
The National Trust for Nature Conservation, IUCN Nepal and the University of Michigan have provided financial assistance for the research whereas the department is providing technical support and is responsible for protecting data.
The monitoring of the tiger collared in Parsa will go on for a few months till the battery of the device goes dead triggering the collar to fall off its neck. Researchers will find the device by tracking its location. There will be no need for the tiger to be sedated again.
The second phase of the study will begin in the Bardia-Banke complex which will build on the first phase of the study, according to Acharya.
“We will see how the whole research goes in the Parsa-Chitwan complex and its findings,” said Acharya. “Although it has been initially planned to study four tigers in Banke-Bardia complex, there could be only two.”
The findings of the study will have far-reaching policy implications in efforts to conserve the threatened tiger.
“Through this study, the satellite telemetry will gather information on the tiger’s location, its movement, its home range, where it killed prey, its response to waterholes inside the park and infrastructure development,” said Acharya. “Findings of the study will be useful information for tiger conservation.”