Tiger, tiger, burning bright
- Forensic data analysis is shedding new light on tiger specimens confiscated from poachers, aiding conservation efforts in crisis areas
Sep 22, 2018-
in December 2015, researchers at the Center for Molecular Dynamics-Nepal (CMDN) received an urgent call from the Nepal Police’s Central Investigation Bureau (CIB). Tiger specimens confiscated from poachers needed urgent forensic examination, they said.
CMDN had not worked with the Nepal Police before but they apparently had heard of the organisation, as a Nepali research institute that had built a localised tiger genetic database. The CIB believed that examining these tiger specimens using genetic tools could perhaps augment their own forensic investigative processes.
“Before the days of molecular forensics, seized wildlife parts were only identified morphologically. This process alone was unable to decipher correctly whether the specimen was real or counterfeit, male or female, or which population it belonged to,” says Dibesh Karmacharya, founder and executive director at CMDN, also principal investigator of the Nepal Tiger Genome Project. “Such inconclusive evidence stood for little value in a court of law, resulting in loose laws and policies that were often overlooked.”
Tiger poaching cases have been growing over the past few years, with an increasing number of seizures from western Nepal. Poaching and habitat fragmentation have resulted in a staggering population decline of tigers, from almost 100,000 to less than 3,900 worldwide over the turn of the 20th century. In Nepal, the current number stands at 198 (2013 census) with the government’s target to reach 250 by 2020, as per the Global Tiger Recovery Plan. But unlike the rhino, which has witnessed conservation resurgence with multiple zero poaching years, tiger poaching has been rampant and much more challenging to control.
In 2015 alone, 12 incidents and arrests in relation to tiger poaching were made by the Nepal Police. Among them, three cases were from Kailali and a majority from the western Terai belt complex. A total of 15 poached specimens (13 skins and two blood smeared knives) were seized by the CIB, all of which made their way to CMDN’s labs from 2015 to 2016.
The test results were highly alarming.
Researchers found all 15 specimens to be those of tigers (10 male and five female), with nine of them linked very closely to Nepal-based tiger sub-populations, six particularly close to Bardiya National Park (BNP) populations. One skin matched a hundred percent to a recorded female tiger from BNP. This tigress’s DNA had earlier been identified and recorded by CMDN through her scat. Unfortunately, despite Nepal’s well-rounded protection network, data confirmed one tiger death through poaching between 2013-2015. These findings were immediately related to the CIB and the concerned authorities. Not only were most confiscations made around western Nepal, particularly Bardiya National Park, but it turns out a sizeable majority had been source tracked to the Bardiya National Park tiger population. It was safe to say that Bardiya had become a hotspot for tiger poaching activity.
Through this revelation, CIB officials were now able to re-assess conservation measures put in place at Bardiya. Special investigation teams were deployed to make key arrests of further groups involved in poaching activities while nomadic communities called Banjara from India actively involved in tiger poaching around the region were also identified, monitored and subsequently stopped.
CMDN has so far built Nepal’s, and probably the world’s, most extensive tiger genetic database through the Nepal Tiger Genome Project (2011-2013), a USAID funded project that genetically identified about 120 individual tigers (60 percent of the total estimate population), simply by extracting DNA information (species, sex, individuals) from tiger scat (feces). Researchers meticulously surveyed major tiger habitats along the Terai Arc Landscape (TAL) to collect over 700 scat samples. The extracted DNA was used to decipher the species, sex and even the individual DNA fingerprint using cutting-edge molecular biology technology.
“The purpose of a baseline database for conservation is purely application,” says Karmacharya.”Today, Nepal has forensic capacity using genetic tools because of all the efforts put in place to create a functional database. The application does not end there. We are further studying diseases in tigers by assessing the gutmicrobiome, which shows just how multifaceted and multi-layered genetic research can be when complemented with other conventional methods.”
The work was not devoid of limitations, though. “There were five samples whose origin we could not trace,” says Prajwol Manandhar, senior bioinformatician at CMDN.“These most likely came from different tiger population as we share a southern border with India and tiger habitat are continuous in Terai Arc Landscape of India, but because we do not have access to genetic information on Indian tiger populations, we were unable to confirm where they originated.”Manandhar, who computed most of the genetic data in the study, reiterated the need for trans-boundary data sharing if forensic applications are to become truly regionally functional.
Back at CMDN, the forensic team has finally published its findings in Plos One, a peer reviewed international journal, to highlight the importance of tiger protection across the range and how local databases are helping to fight the war against illegal wildlife trade. Talks about a second round of sample collection across the Terai Arc Landscape is growing, as the studies conducted in 2011 covered only 60 percent of the total tiger population. Also, as time progresses, databases need to be refreshed, as per the natural phenomenon of death and new births.
None of these efforts has been singular. The government, police, army, conservation bodies and the research community all worked together to come up with data that in turn translated into concrete methods on the ground that will now aid the protection of a national treasure like the Royal Bengal Tiger.
Sherchan is Operations Manager at the Center for Molecular Dynamics-Nepal, currently involved in terrestrial and aquatic conservation across Nepal using genetic sciences for application based purposes.
Published: 22-09-2018 08:13