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.
Conservationists have relied in the past on the old-fashioned technique of photographing the big cat and recording footprints to study the population, believed to number a little over 100 adults in Nepal.
However, the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal said a two-year Tiger Genome Project would gather a raft of vital behavioral and genetic information to help conservationists better understand the species.
“The whole idea is to scoop all the poop and get a genetic database of all the tigers in Nepal,” center researcher Diwesh Karmacharya said.
Teams from the center will fan out in four national parks in Nepal’s Terai southern plains, the main habitat of the Royal Bengal tiger, armed with sample bags.
The project, funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), is part of a Nepalese effort to double its population of Royal Bengal tigers. The animals once roamed the country’s southern plains in large numbers, but have been depleted by poaching and the destruction of their habitat.
“In the past they used to use pugmarks — which are the footprints — and then they started using individual cameras,” Karmacharya said. “There was a census done in 2009 and in 2010 and both used camera trapping. They both worked really well, but the information you get is not too detailed. You won’t be able to tell more than how many tigers you have in the area of the survey.”
Faeces would enable researchers to glean the sex of individuals as well as the areas they had come from and a whole host of behavioral information, such as breeding habits.
Although other countries such as India have collected genetic information on Bengal tigers in the past, this would be the first systematic survey of a country’s entire population, Karmacharya added.
“The idea is to figure out whether the current boundaries are effective in housing a healthy genetic population of tigers,” he said.
The information will also help assess the percentage of males and females and whether tigers found dead in the border areas were from Nepal or India.
The results will be shared with experts worldwide through scientific publications and presentations, USAID said.
A WWF survey carried out in 2008 found just 121 adult tigers of breeding age in the country.
Experts say poverty and political instability in Nepal have created ideal conditions for poachers who kill the animals for their skin, meat and bones, which are highly valued in Chinese traditional medicine.
Wildlife experts say a single tiger skin is traded for about US$1,000 in Nepalese markets, but at least US$10,000 internationally.
The WWF says tigers worldwide are in serious danger of becoming extinct in the wild. Over the past 100 years their numbers have fallen by 95 percent, from 100,000 in 1900 to around 3,200 today.
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