A new Yale study may help save the tigers.
Researchers from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies have come up with a form of spatial modeling to identify the areas of the Kanha Tiger Reserve National Park where the risk of tiger attacks on livestock is highest, in the hopes of reducing farmer-tiger conflict. The study holds potential for mitigating farmers’ economic losses, but could also prove an important part of the conservation puzzle for the dwindling tiger population.
“If we can understand what kind of landscape features these cats target when they’re attacking livestock, then we can better predict where to graze, and predict where the high risk areas are,” said Jennie Miller FES ’15, the study’s lead author who conducted the research for her dissertation.
Similar statistical models have been used in past research with wolves in the United States. Though Miller’s model is based off of these, it is distinct because of the differences in large cats’ hunting patterns.
The team studied the area within 20 square meters of each kill site. Though past models have focused on larger areas, tigers are more limited in their movements, and therefore, the wider radius is unnecessary.
Wild prey is available to the tigers, but so too is livestock, which the tigers may only attack when the opportunity arises — if a cow, for instance, had strayed into a densely forested area that the tiger already frequented. Thus, Miller said the model is likely to reduce attacks for many years to come because tigers are unlikely to shift behavior patterns in order to continue feeding on no-longer-easily-available cows.
The team worked in central India in the Kanha Tiger Reserve, where the large tiger population had produced more than 400 instances of attack on livestock within that year. The researchers partnered with the local livestock compensation program, through which farmers can report livestock lost to tiger predation to the forest department for reimbursement. This helped provide the team with the data they needed and began to elucidate the relationship between land features and risk.
Though much of what the model predicted was relatively straightforward — attacks, for instance, were more frequent in areas farther away from villages and were less frequent in areas with less vegetation — it did help identify riskier areas in seemingly uniform landscapes.
Professor at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Miller’s advisor Oswald Schmitz said that though policy to protect tigers already exists, Miller’s work will prove that it really is possible for humans and tigers to coexist peacefully.
Miller said some changes based on the study, especially fencing in higher-risk areas of the park, are already going into effect. However, there is still a long way to go, and the study is just one important piece of a larger puzzle.
“Tigers are on the brink of going extinct,” Miller said, noting the importance of protecting habitats and reducing illegal poaching. In fact, she identified poaching as the number one challenge tigers face, adding that if it were scaled back, the population would have a solid chance at recovery.
Miller’s next study will look at farmers’ perception of risk. Identifying the disparities between perceived and actual risk could help reduce tiger attacks even further, Miller said.
There are fewer than 3,500 wild tigers left in the world.
Correction: April 23
A previous version of this article misstated the class year of Jennie Miller. She graduated in 2015, not 2012..