Tigers change behavior to live near people

Posted by Kate Taylor

Tigers don't necessarily need huge dedicated reserves, say scientists, but can accommodate themselves to patterns of human activity by becoming more nocturnal.

Animals in and around Chitwan National Park in Nepal are taking the night shift, they say, to share the same roads and trails as their human neighbors.

Chitwan is home to about 121 tigers. People live on the park's borders, but venture into the forests on dirt roads and narrow footpaths for wood and grasses. The roads also are used by military patrols to thwart would-be poachers.

And an analysis of thousands of images snapped by motion-detecting camera traps over two seasons show that people and tigers are walking exactly the same paths, albeit at different times of day.

Tigers typically move around at all times of the day and night, monitoring their territory, mating and hunting. But in the study area, the team found a big shift toward nocturnal activity.

People in Nepal generally avoid the forests at night, and it seems the tigers are taking over where they leave off. Perhaps because of this, it tiger numbers appear to be holding steady despite an increase in human population size.

"If we operate under the traditional wisdom that tigers only can survive with space dedicated only for them, there would always be conflict," says Michigan State University PhD student Neil Carter.

"Tigers need to use the same space as people if they are to have a viable long-term future. What we're learning in Chitwan is that tigers seem to be adapting to make it work."

Since the start of the 20th century, the world's population of wild tigers has dropped by 97 percent to approximately 3,000 individuals, which are being pushed into ever-smaller spaces.

"There appears to be a middle ground where you might actually be able to protect the species at high densities and give people access to forest goods they need to live," says Carter. "If that's the case, then this can happen in other places, and the future of tigers is much brighter than it would be otherwise."