Counting Tigers by Their Stripes

Every tiger has a pattern of stripes unique to itself. Computer programs can match photographs of the stripes to a database of known individuals so that researchers can know exactly which tigers are in a particular conservation area. From that information, they can also extrapolate what kind of prey base there is for tigers in that area. Photograph by Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative.

Counting Tigers by Their Stripes.

Kids in India Come Together to Save Tigers by Sharon Guynup

Posted by Sharon Guynup in Cat Watch

Talking Tigers: Part 3 of a 12-part series

We pulled out of the honking pandemonium of morning traffic into the cement schoolyard of Chhotubhai Patel High School. It was only slightly quieter than the street. Hundreds of kids milled about or huddled in small groups, practicing cheers that blended into a rhythmic, unintelligible wall of sound.

Those who weren’t dressed in school uniforms sported tiger T-shirts that proclaimed “LEAVE ME ALONE” in bold type. Photographer Steve Winter and I jumped out of the car: We’d come to film this rally. Kids with painted tiger faces roared at us as we weaved through the crowd.

Shortly, 1,200 students streamed into the streets of the small central Indian city of Chandrapur, halting traffic. They screamed with deafening exuberance, so loud it echoed off the buildings. Save the tiger! Save the forest! Everyone—pedestrians, motorists, store owners—stopped to watch.

Many of the marchers carried signs and banners in English and Hindi that identified their affiliation, Kids for Tigers. These high schoolers are part of a groundswell youth movement that is now more than a million strong across the country. I had chills watching them. Despite the constant, heartbreaking news I hear almost daily about the tiger’s continuing demise, these kids inspired hope.

Learn more about “Kids for Tigers”

Video: Wild Cats of the Forest

Posted by Victoria Hillman in Explorers Journal

Victoria Hillman is a National Geographic Explorer and Research Director for the Transylvanian Wildlife Project overseeing research on carnivores and biodiversity of Europe’s last great wilderness. Follow the expedition here on Explorers Journal through updates from the team.


The Carpathian mountains are home to two species of wild cat, the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) and the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris). In Europe both these species are found in forested areas with low human disturbance and are incredibly elusive with the best method for estimating population numbers and capturing behaviours being the use of camera traps. We have set camera traps up throughout the forest at varying altitudes and differing habitats and have not been disappointed with the results.

The Eurasian lynx is the largest of the four species of lynx found worldwide. Historically, the lynx inhabits mountainous, forested regions from Central Asia and Russia through Europe. The Carpathians are home to the largest continuous population of lynx making it the most important population in Europe since populations in Western Europe have been greatly reduced or completely eradicated due to hunting and habitat loss.

The Carpathian population is not only the second largest (behind Siberia), but is also completely isolated from other populations. Several different literatures describes the population as being a sub-species (Lynx lynx carpathicus), although the exact classification of subspecies is still being debated. In 2000, population estimates ranged from 1,700 to 2,600 — a stark contrast with the most recent estimate for the whole of the Carpathian mountains sitting between 2,300-2,400 individuals. Romania alone is estimated to have approximately 1,200 individuals.

Romania is one of only a few countries within the Carpathians where the lynx is still allowed to be legally hunted. Although populations are considered stable, there are concerns about the future of the Eurasian lynx due to increasing human populations, habitat fragmentation, continued hunting, and inconclusive population estimates. The European lynx is the largest of all the lynx species and is the only one that will regularly prey on ungulates leading to conflicts with hunters resulting in poaching.

We have been encouraged by the footage we have captured so far.  Our work is ongoing to identify individuals and to gain an estimate of the population of the area. Unfortunately, we have received information that our posts and videos are being monitored. We have already had a couple of cameras stolen and do not wish to disclose any further details about the lynx in this area. Here is a compilation of some of the footage we have captured so far.

The wildcat (Felis silvestris), is the most widespread of wildcat species found across Eurasia and Africa. The European wildcat is one of five subspecies of the wildcat and is found across most of Europe. Despite being listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List, populations are decreasing and have become locally extinct in some countries.

Knowledge on the wildcat in the Carpathians is scarce at best, but it is thought that the population in Romania is around 10,000 individuals.  However, this figure is not based on quantitative data and there is very little research on wildcat populations of the Carpathian Mountains. Although hunting is regulated, there is little effort from officials to protect the cats from poaching or illegal hunting.

This species faces many threats. A major concern is hybridization with domestic or feral cats which can lead to killings via mistaken identity. Other threats include habitat fragmentation and increasing human disturbance.

So far we have identified four individuals, two of which have overlapping territories (possibly a male and a female). The second set of  individuals reside in other areas of the research site. One of the individuals lacks the thick bushy tail, and instead sports a tapered end to the tail associated with the European Wildcat. There is a possibility that this may be a hybrid individual. With more footage coming, it is possible that more individuals will be identified by their markings as well as the locations in which they were seen.

Over the winter months, trips to the site have been less frequent. However, we are still getting some interesting footage on the cameras which is being analyzed during this quieter time. We are busy identifying individuals, territories, movements, and behaviors and we continuously learn more about the wildlife that inhabits our research site. I, for one, am excited to see some of the behaviors that have been caught on camera so far.

NEXTVideo: Brown Bears Fighting, Playing, & Scratching in Transylvanian Woods

Top Photos: 20 Years Camera-trapping India’s Elusive Carnivores

Posted by Krithi Karanth of Wildlife Conservation Society, Centre for Wildlife Studies in Explorers Journal

By Krithi K. Karanth and Arjun Srivathsa

With close to 50 species of wild carnivores, India is a haven for elusive families of cats, dogs, hyaenas, bears, otters, civets and mongooses. The Wildlife Conservation Society-India Program has been camera-trapping critters in India for over 20 years. This program originally started with pioneering camera trap work on tigers and leopards by Dr. K. Ullas Karanth in the early 1990s and has now grown to become one largest global camera trap datasets.

Owing to the enormous effort invested in such camera trap surveys in the Western Ghats, WCS-India database now has more than 750 uniquely identifiable tigers.

Tiger (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)
Tiger (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)

Along the way, there have been several exciting and unexpected discoveries. Black leopards are not a separate species, but are melanistic (dark colored) variants of the normal leopards. They occur naturally in the wild and may form up to 10% of the total leopard population in the Western Ghats. Perhaps these famous felines are not as uncommon as previously thought.

Black Leopard (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)
Black Leopard (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)

Among smaller felids are the secretive and nocturnal Rusty Spotted Cat, Leopard Cat and Jungle Cat. The Rusty Spotted cat is one of the smallest cats in the world. It is found only in India and Sri Lanka.

Rusty Spotted Cat (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)
Rusty Spotted Cat (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)

With twelve sub-species, leopard cats are sometimes confused with domestic cats!

Leopard Cat (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)
Leopard Cat (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)

Jungle cats, despite their wide distribution and common occurrence, are among the least studied animals in India.

Jungle Cat (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)
Jungle Cat (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)

Our camera traps have also candidly photo-captured several species of civet: Brown Palm civet, Common Palm civet and Small Indian civet. Often mislabeled as “civet cats” because of their cat-like appearance, civets are a separate branch of the family tree from cats, weasels, and others. They are poached indiscriminately for their musk and hunted and used as processors of coffee.

India has seven species of civets including the Brown Palm civet and the nearly mythical Malabar civet, endemic to the Western Ghats.

Brown Palm Civet (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)
Brown Palm Civet (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)
Common Palm Civet (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)
Common Palm Civet (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)
Small Indian Civet (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)
Small Indian Civet (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)

The Sloth Bear  is an omnivore that feeds on termites, fruits, flowers, and sometimes, wild meat.

Sloth Bears (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)
Sloth Bears (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)

Wild dogs or ‘dholes’ are arguably the most fascinating wild canids. They live in packs and can easily take down quarry that are much bigger than themselves. Although dholes are generally active during the day, nocturnal activity is not uncommon.

Wild Dog (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)
Wild Dog (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)

Jackals are possibly the most wide-ranging wild canids after foxes. Most jackals inhabit human-dominated areas like agricultural fields, grasslands, scrub, ravines, and villages. They are not primarily forest-dwelling animals, making their photo-captures in the dense forests of Western Ghats a relatively rare occurrence.

The rarest and most unexpected photo-captures along these forest roads also include otters. Despite their wide range in India, very little is known about the distribution and ecology of all three species of Indian otters.

Otters (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)
Otters (Photo by Ullas Karanth/WCS)

A recent paper by Ripple et al. (2014) in Science suggests that carnivores are in trouble, with 75% of species in serious decline and several showing range contractions from over 50% of their habitats. Research by Karanth et al. (2010) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society-B suggests that Indian carnivores have experienced local extinction from 14-96% of their historic range in just 100 years. The outlook for carnivores in India and globally is bleak and needs urgently to be addressed.

Our photographs are valuable because the have begun to unravel many tiny details about these carnivores, but they also call attention to how little we know about these rare, elusive, and enthralling animals.

Fundamental questions—like How do they live? What do they eat? What are their activity patterns? How large are their populations? How do they disperse? How do they interact with other species? What are major threats for their survival, and How adaptable are they?—remain unanswered.

Read More Posts by Krithi Karanth

20,000 Species Are Near Extinction: Is it Time to Rethink How We Decide Which to Save?

The California condor (pictured) had fallen to fewer than 25 animals. Photograph by Konrad Wothe, Minden Picture/Corbis
The California condor (pictured) had fallen to fewer than 25 animals.
Photograph by Konrad Wothe, Minden Picture/Corbis

By Christine Dell’Amore National Geographic

M. Sanjayan remembers debating grad school biology classmates about the fate of the California condor back in the 1990s, when the bird was on the brink of extinction.

Should the condor, which had almost been wiped out by habitat loss, hunting, and eating carcasses that were poisoned by lead bullets, be left to die in the wild?

Or should scientists take the remaining 22 condors into captivity and breed them, which would cost millions of dollars?

Sanjayan’s view was that humans had a moral responsibility to save North America’s largest flying bird.

That’s exactly what happened: Captive-born condors were reintroduced into the western United States in the early 1990s. There are now more than 200 in California, Arizona, and northern Mexico.

On a recent trip to the Grand Canyon, Sanjayan—now the lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy—looked up and spied one of the big black birds soaring above.

“That’s pretty incredible if you think about it,” he says. “They’re really out there in the wild now.” (See “Banning Lead Ammunition Could Give Condors a Chance.”)

The condor’s recovery shows that endangered species can be brought back from the extreme brink. And there are plenty of other examples.

Gray wolves, which by the 1970s were wiped out of most of their North American range due to hunting, have bounced back to more than 3,500, thanks largely to reintroduction efforts. Northern elephant seals, hunted down to fewer than a hundred individuals, now number 150,000 along the West Coast.

But with dozens of new species going extinct every day—scientists say that more than 20,000 plants and animals are on the brink of disappearing forever—deciding which species to save is a tricky question.

This week, National Geographic will spotlight some of the world’s most innovative and unusual efforts to save disappearing species, from the mountains of Tanzania to the plains of Missouri, in a series called “Last of the Last.”

The series will focus on campaigns to bring back species deemed worth saving. Which raises a basic question: How do we decide which species to save?

In some cases, scientists and economists use algorithms and logistical models to determine a return on investment for trying to save the last of the last: If x dollars are put toward saving the spotted owl, it’s possible to determine how many might be saved.

In practice, though, scientists and conservations prioritize based on a mix of public perception and a species’ economic value—for instance, whether it’s a popular seafood or brings tourism dollars to a state.

And there’s a another, more subjective factor: How they feel about a particular piece of flora or fauna.

“What we decide to save really is very arbitrary—it’s much more often done for emotional or psychological or national reasons than would ever be made with a model,” Sanjayan says.

As in the case of the condor, he says, “people end up saving what they want to save—it’s as simple as that.”

Some conservationists argue that how we choose which species live or die is deeply flawed, that our bias for preserving cute and fuzzy animals diverts precious resources from creatures that actually keep our planet humming.

Ants, for instance, are essential environmental helpers, distributing seeds, aerating soils, and eating other insects that are often human pests, says Marc Bekoff, an ethologist at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“If we’re going to save pandas rather than ants, we need a good reason, and being cute is not a good reason,” he says. (Also see “Is Breeding Pandas in Captivity Worth It?”)

Hugh Possingham, an expert in environmental decision-making at Australia’s University of Queensland, says our obsession with “celebrity species” is likely detrimental to as many as thousands of other creatures in need.

Snakes and Spiders Need Not Apply

Endangered species that get a lot of love are often those that elicit the broadest public interest.

Tigers are often rated the most popular animal in surveys conducted in the West, says Eric Dinerstein, lead scientist of World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Conservation Science Program.

As a result, the endangered species may have more money spent on it than any other. In 2010, the cost of managing tiger reserves alone cost at least $82 million, according to the Economist. (Take an endangered species quiz.)

Elephants are another animal fan favorite, even though there are still a half a million left on Earth.

Many lesser known species of fish and frogs are in more dire straits, with just 20 individuals left in some cases, says Jean-Christophe Vie, deputy director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Global Species Programme.

A bias against smaller, less iconic animals also shapes the decisions of major donors.


“If you want to attract the attention of companies, you are not going to achieve that with snakes and spiders,” says Vie, whose new organization Save Our Species helps match funders with conservation groups that share their interests.

“Sometimes you want to save a species because you find it extraordinary and appealing—that’s the way humans are.”

Show Me the Money

Whether a threatened species has any economic value can go a long way in determining whether or not it disappears.

Murray Rudd, an environmental economist at Britain’s University of York, recalls working for the Canadian government in the early 2000s, when Nova Scotia’s Atlantic salmon population dropped precipitously and mysteriously to about 250 fish.

Government scientists decided to take the expensive step of capturing some of the fish and breeding them in captivity to prevent their local extinction and to keep their genes diverse and healthy. The cost likely ran into the millions of dollars.

But for many Canadians, the expense was worth it: A survey of 2,800 Canadian households revealed that most were willing to pay $86 a year (U.S. $81.21) to support conservation of Atlantic salmon.

Such reverence has made Atlantic salmon an important part of Canada’s economy, even though Canada hasn’t allowed commercial Atlantic salmon fishing since the 1990s (most of the Atlantic salmon people eat is raised on fish farms).

In 2010, Atlantic salmon was worth $255 million in gross domestic product and supported 3,872 full-time jobs or their equivalent, according to a report commissioned by the Atlantic Salmon Federation, a conservation group.

Those numbers encompass recreational fishing and fishing by Canada’s native peoples, collectively called the First Nation; tourism; education; and spending by governments, universities, and nongovernmental organizations.

The report was commissioned to “bolster the business case for ongoing intensive efforts to protect wild Atlantic salmon,” Rudd says, an effort that he called “completely legitimate.”

“But does that sort of lobbying take away funds from other species?” he asks. “Almost certainly, given the government of Canada’s sparse budgets and light interest in environmental resources that do not have direct industry relevance.”

And Rudd says the Nova Scotia program was a futile effort, since Atlantic salmon in the southern edge of their range had dropped to such low numbers that they were never going to rebound.

“Everyone loves Atlantic salmon,” he says, but “funding salmon conservation was taking a lot of money that could go to leatherback turtles, right whales, or [other] lesser known endangered species in that area.”

“Common Sense” Conservation

Rudd is keenly aware of the politics around species revival. In 2011, he led a study that asked nearly 600 conservationists around the world big questions about saving endangered species—including how priorities should be set around which to save.

The study, published in the journal Conservation Biology, found that 54 percent of conservationists agreed that scientists need to set criteria for a controversial concept known as “conservation triage.”

Such thinking holds that conservationists need to quickly decide which species can be saved while realizing that others, in Rudd’s words, “can’t be saved no matter how much money we pour into them.”

The University of Queensland’s Possingham supports a logistical model he helped develop to determine the cost-effectiveness of saving a species, which he says is “just common sense.”

The method builds on other logistical models that assess a species’ value and threats against it by including two previously ignored criteria: the cost of management and the likelihood that the management will succeed—that a species will be saved from extinction.

Possingham says the model, called Project Prioritization Protocol (PPP), showed that focusing on just a species’ value and threats to it is inefficient and that considering other factors substantially increases the numbers of species that can be managed successfully.

New Zealand has adopted this strategy and is getting more than twice the bang for its conservation buck, he says. In December, Australia announced they would also take this mathematical approach to conservation.

Defending the Defense of Furry Animals

Some groups that focus on the cute and fuzzy, meanwhile, say their efforts are often mischaracterized as benefiting only “celebrity animals.”

WWF “gets criticized a lot because we focus on big furry animals,” says Dinerstein. But he says that a lot more species benefit from the efforts to save particular animals.

By setting aside land for wide-ranging tigers, for instance, lots of smaller, lesser-known species—like pangolins, sloth bears, swamp deer, and pygmy hogs—will receive an umbrella of protection. (Also see “5 Winners and Losers on New ‘Red List’ of World’s Rarest Species.”)

That argument echoes a wildlife management approach known as “the ecosystem method,” which involves setting aside species-rich regions, rather than trying to save a single species.

“If we protect vast swaths of habitats that have value to people,” says Sanjayan, “we also pick up benefits to endangered species along the way.”

That goes a long way toward solving conservationists’ dilemma of what to save by trying to save a lot all at at once. As conservationists know all too well, he says, “it’s bloody hard to pick and choose.”

Follow Christine Dell’Amore on Twitter and Google+.

Want to continue the conversation? Ask conservationist Quentin Wheeler, @DeanWheeler, about how to save Earth’s rare species during a Twitter chat on Friday, December 20, at 11:30 am ET. Follow Quentin and use #NatGeoLive to tweet questions.

Credits: National Geographic

Big Cats in Crisis

Julie Larsen Maher © WCS
Julie Larsen Maher © WCS

WCS recently celebrated a groundbreaking achievement: collaring snow leopards for the first time in Afghanistan. USA Today reports on this effort–documented by National Geographic–and the larger challenges facing big cats around the world.

National Geographic kicked off its annual “Big Cat Week” with Snow Leopard of Afghanistan–a documentary featuring WCS conservationists and expert tracker Boone Smith.
The program allows viewers to witness an incredible feat: WCS biologists, Smith, and Afghan veterinarians located, collared, and released a wild snow leopard in one of the world’s most dangerous countries. It marked the first snow leopard collaring in Afghanistan and will allow WCS to follow one of the most elusive predators on Earth. In fact, only 2,000 snow leopards remain in the wild, with fewer than 200 navigating Afghanistan’s rocky terrain.
And snow leopards aren’t the only great feline on the decline: tigers, lions, cheetahs, and other big cats also confront steep challenges.

Continue reading about big cat conservation and our work collaring snow leopards in Afghanistan at USA Today>>

Learn about how you can watch Snow Leopard in Afghanistan>>

Credits: Wildlife Conservation Society