Assessing the use of Footprint Identification Technique to monitor Bengal tigers in Nepal

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2015-04-24

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Abstract

Wildlife survey and monitoring techniques applied in many parts of the world, including Nepal, can be invasive, expensive and unsustainable. However, a new monitoring approach known as Footprint Identification Technique (FIT), developed by WildTrack, has been established to be just the opposite. This project assesses the aspects of using FIT on free-ranging Bengal tigers in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Bengal tigers are fascinating animals with their significance deeply rooted in Nepalese culture. Protection of their home and their health impacts other species that cohabitate with them. For this reason, it is important to frequently monitor the growth of their population. However, this should be done without causing physical harm to the animal. Current wildlife monitoring techniques such as radio-collaring requires tigers to be immobilized, and then carry a foreign object on their body. Such devices, including those used for camera trap surveys, are expensive, limited, and usually conducted for a short period of time. On the other hand, conducting FIT is much simpler. Photographs of tiger footprints are taken, which are then digitized and analyzed in JMP software to identify and sex individual tigers. As costs are low for conducting FIT studies, more time can be allocated for everyday fieldwork. Local villagers experienced at tracking the animals can be employed to locate tiger footprints. WildTrack has established FIT to employ African tribe members for tracking and photographing footprints. The organization has successfully used FIT for many captive and known populations of Amur tigers, cheetahs and white rhinoceroses to name a few. However, this project will for the first time test FIT on wild, unknown Bengal tigers in Chitwan, Nepal. The research objectives were to:

  1. determine if tiger footprints can be easily found in Chitwan NP
  2. determine the type of substrate that gives the best usable footprints
  3. determine if individual tigers can be identified and sexed
  4. determine if FIT is better than camera trapping The method section is divided into collecting footprint images, digitizing the images, and finally, analyzing data for individual identification and sex discrimination. It provides guidelines on the process of collecting footprints according to the FIT protocol. There is detailed description on digitizing images and analyzing the extracted data in JMP software for individual identification and sex discrimination. The next section discusses the results from the footprint image collection; individual identification and sex discrimination analyses; substrate analysis; and efficiency analysis between FIT and camera trapping. This section presents the number of tiger footprints that were collected in the study site, and the percentage that was acceptable for the analysis. It then states how many individual tigers were identified and sexed by the built-in FIT model in JMP software. The substrate analysis demonstrates which substrate type is best to obtain usable footprints for future studies. Finally, efficiency analysis compares FIT and camera trapping data in order to identify the advantages of using FIT in Nepal. The discussion and conclusion section of the report states that conducting wildlife monitoring with FIT is possible in Nepal. It describes how easy it was to find tiger footprints without physically harming the animal, how FIT could identify and sex more tigers with ample data collection, how wet soil and wet sand are the best substrates to find usable footprints, and how FIT can still be utilized alongside camera trap surveys to obtain vital information on the tiger population. The final section provides management implications on how future studies can be more systematic for better data collection, how FIT can be used to continue collecting data during the gap years between camera trap surveys, how workshops should be held to train local people and park technicians to continue using FIT, how geospatial projects can help assess locations with suitable substrates, and when studies should be conducted without being in conflict with the weather. Footprint Identification Technique, although not as commonly used as radio-collaring or camera trapping, is a great conservation technique to monitor elusive and vulnerable animals. Nepal’s tiger population is slowly growing, and their growth suggests a healthy ecosystem. FIT can be used to closely monitor their growth and assess the state of other species as well. FIT poses minimal harm to the tigers, are cost-effective and sustainable. This study shows that even with its drawbacks, FIT does have the potential to be a valuable wildlife monitoring technique for Nepal.

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Suwal, Tripti (2015). Assessing the use of Footprint Identification Technique to monitor Bengal tigers in Nepal. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/9702.


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.