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This tiger’s GPS collar in Parsa National Park, Nepal will help scientists understand how the tiger behaves near and off roads. Photo credit: Neil Carter, CC BY-ND
A century ago, more than 100,000 tigers lived across Asia, from the Indian subcontinent to the Russian Far East. Today they are critically endangered with only about 4,000 tigers left in the wild. The main threats they face are habitat loss and destruction, illegal hunting, and the decline in their prey.
Thanks to targeted conservation efforts, the number of tigers has recovered in some parts of their range. In Nepal, for example, the wild tiger population nearly doubled from 121 in 2009 to 235 in 2018. But a road construction boom in Asia could undo this progress.
Land planners and conservationists like me need to know a lot more about how tigers react to roads and railways so we can find ways to protect these animals. We need this information especially for Nepal, which is one of the least developed countries in the world but is working to develop its economy and lift the people out of poverty. Roads and railways spread quickly through the forests and meadows where tigers live.
Expansion of the infrastructure in Nepal
Little research has been done into how transportation networks threaten tigers, but the few studies that exist show strong effects. In Russia, for example, vehicle collisions caused one in twelve deaths among tigers observed near roads between 1992 and 2005.
In India, a study estimated that widening highways along with unplanned development would increase the risk of tiger extinction in protected areas over 100 years by 56%. The growing network of transport infrastructure in Asia could therefore be catastrophic for Tiger.
New development projects in Nepal will lead through large flatland forests that are home to tigers, rhinos and elephants. Nationwide roads such as the East-West Highway and the Poststraße will be expanded and expanded from two to four lanes in order to enable more high-speed traffic.
The planners are designing new electrified elevated railways that traverse Nepal, which is roughly the size of Iowa. A “megahighway” is currently being built from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu to Nijgadh, where the Nepalese government has been trying to build a large international airport for more than 20 years.
Specially constructed bridges and underpasses can help wildlife safely cross roads that cut through their habitat.
Highways pose a growing threat to wildlife
Better roads can bring much-needed social and economic benefits to Nepal, but the country is building them faster than scientists can assess how they will affect endangered species like tigers. In the Banke National Park, 45 of 67 wild animals – including important tiger prey such as sambar deer – died in traffic accidents between July 2018 and July 2019.
Tiger deaths and injuries from vehicle collisions, while still rare, have increased in recent years along major roads. Before 2019, only one vehicle collision with a tiger along the highway in Bardia National Park had been recorded. In the past two years, five tigers have been hit by vehicles in national parks – three in Bardia and two in Parsa National Park.
Vehicle deaths make it difficult for tigers to move from one population to another, reducing their genetic diversity. Further collisions could increase the risk of extinction for tigers.
Streets also seem to be a nexus for conflict between humans and tigers. A tiger in Bardia National Park recently pulled a passenger off a moving motorcycle that was riding through the park. The tiger killed and ate the person. Last year, three tigers killed nine other people in the same area.
Uncover the hidden life of tigers
To meet this unprecedented challenge, I am working with colleagues from the Nepal Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, the National Trust for Nature Conservation and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Nepal. We put GPS collars on tigers that live near roads to better understand how traffic infrastructure affects tiger biology and ecology. Our initial focus is on the Bardia and Parsa National Parks, where traffic development could seriously hamper the recovery of the tigers.
Nepal has long been a world leader in tiger research and conservation. The Smithsonian-Nepal Tiger Ecology Project, an international collaboration that began nearly 50 years ago, was one of the first to use radio telemetry collars to track tigers for conservation research.
The east-west highway crosses Parsa National Park in Nepal, a key area for tiger recovery, and will be expanded to four lanes over the next few years. Photo credit: Krishna Hengaju, CC BY-ND
In the past, ecologists took radio receivers outside to meticulously triangulate the locations of tigers in natural landscapes once or twice a day. Our new research project builds on this work and uses modern tracking technologies to gain new knowledge about tigers in landscapes that are changed by human development.
The collars connect to GPS satellites several times a day and provide detailed information about the location of the tigers. This data can show how tigers move along before and after crossing roads; how much energy they use near and far from roads; where and how they hunt near roads; how they react to vehicle traffic at different times of the day; and what their behavioral patterns are near streets versus far away from streets. By analyzing hormones in the feces deposited by the collar tigers, we can even understand the stress they experience near roads.
We are already finding that the east-west highway that divides Parsa National Park is blocking the movements of the first collar tiger and restricting its territory. With this knowledge, we can predict a number of impacts new transportation projects will have on tiger habitats and populations.
Creation of a tiger-friendly infrastructure
Our employee Hari Bhadra Acharya, former chief overseer of the Parsa National Park and current chief ecologist of the Nepalese government, is striving to make the transport infrastructure more tiger-friendly. For example, we can advise you on the alignment of roads and rails to avoid high-priority habitats.
We can also organize habitat restoration and prey restoration activities in areas that are frequently used by tigers or are important for reproduction. Planners can design and locate wildlife crossings to help tigers cross roads and railways. And we can show where roads are closed to vehicle traffic at night or speed limits are enforced to reduce the risk of tigers being killed on the road.
Information from the GPS collars can also help reduce tiger-human conflicts and improve law enforcement. For example, we can learn whether roads and railways interfere with tigers’ hunting strategies and lead them to hunt pets or humans instead of wild prey. Our data can also help wildlife managers respond more quickly to tiger injuries, disease, or poaching.
I believe that over time this information will provide evidence-based solutions that can ensure roads work for humans while minimizing harm to tigers and other endangered species.
The tiger population in Nepal is almost doubling
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