GPS tracking could help tigers and traffic coexist in Asia

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This tiger’s GPS collar from Parsa National Park in Nepal will help scientists understand how the tiger behaves near and away from roads. Credit: Neil Carter, CC BY-ND

More … than 100,000 tigers stretched across Asia a century ago, from the Indian subcontinent to the Russian Far East. Today they are endangered, with only about 4000 tigers left in the wild. The biggest threats they face are habitat loss and degradation, illegal hunting and the decline of their prey.

Through targeted conservation efforts, tiger numbers have rebounded in parts of their range. In Nepal, for example, the wild tiger population has almost doubled from 121 in 2009 to 235 in 2018. But a road building boom in Asia could reverse this progress.

Developers and conservation scientists like me need to know a lot more about how tigers react to roads and railroads so that we can find ways to protect these animals. We especially need this information for Nepal, which is one of the least developed countries in the world but is working hard to develop its economy and lift people out of poverty. Roads and railroads spread rapidly through forests and meadows where tigers live.

Developing infrastructure in Nepal

Little research has been done on how transportation networks threaten tigers, but the few existing studies show significant effects. In Russia, for example, vehicle collisions caused 1 in 12 tiger deaths followed from 1992 to 2005. And in China, tigers were five times more likely to occupy areas at least 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) from roads than they were near roads.

In India, a study estimated that widening highways and unplanned development would increase the risk of tiger extinction in protected areas by 56% over 100 years. The growing network of transport infrastructure in Asia could therefore be disastrous for tigers.

New development projects in Nepal will cross vast areas of lowland forest that shelter tigers, rhinos and elephants. National roads, such as the east-west motorway and the postal route, are being modernized and extended from two to four lanes to allow faster traffic.

Planners are designing new elevated electrified railroads that cross Nepal, which is roughly the size of Iowa. A “mega-highway” is currently under construction between the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu, and Nijgadh, where the Nepalese government sought to build a major international airport For more than 20 years.






Specially designed bridges and underpasses can help wildlife safely cross the roads that pass through their habitat.

Highways increasingly threaten wildlife

Better roads can bring much-needed social and economic benefits to Nepal, but the country is building them faster than scientists can assess their impact on endangered species like tigers. In Banke National Park, 45 out of 67 dead wild animals between July 2018 and July 2019, including the tiger’s main prey such as the sambar deer, came from traffic accidents.

Dead and injured tigers vehicle collisions, although still rare, have increased along major roads in recent years. Prior to 2019, only one vehicle collision with a tiger had been recorded along the highway in Bardia National Park. In the past two years, five tigers have been struck by vehicles inside national parks, three in Bardia and two in Parsa National Park.

Vehicle-related deaths make it more difficult for tigers to move from one population to another, reducing their genetic diversity. More collisions could increase the risk of extinction for tigers.

The roads also seem to be a hub of conflict between humans and tigers. A tiger in Bardia National Park recently pulled a passenger on the back of a moving motorcycle crossing the park. The tiger killed and ate the person. Last year, three tigers killed nine other people in the same area.

Reveal the hidden life of tigers

To meet this unprecedented challenge, I work with colleagues from Nepalese Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, the National Trust for Nature Conservation and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Nepal. We are place GPS collars on tigers living near roads to better understand how transportation infrastructure affects tiger biology and ecology. We are initially focusing on Bardia and Parsa National Parks, where the development of transport could seriously hamper the recovery of the tiger.

Nepal has long been a world leader in tiger research and conservation. The Smithsonian-Nepal Tiger Ecology Project, an international collaboration that began nearly 50 years ago, was one of the first to use radio telemetry collars to track tigers for conservation research.

GPS tracking could help tigers and traffic coexist in Asia

The east-west highway runs through Parsa National Park in Nepal, a key area for tiger recovery, and will be expanded to four lanes over the next few years. Credit: Krishna Hengaju, CC BY-ND

In the past, environmentalists would take radio receivers out into the field to painstakingly triangulate the location of tigers once or twice a day in natural landscapes. Our new research project builds on this work by using modern tracking technology to open up new perspectives on tigers in landscapes that human development is changing.

The collars connect to GPS satellites several times a day, providing detailed information on the location of the tigers. These data can show how tigers move along the roads before and after the crossing; how much energy they spend near and far from roads; where and how they hunt near roads; how they react to vehicle traffic at different times of the day; and what their behavioral models are near the roads compared to far from roads. By analyzing the hormones in the feces deposited by collared tigers, we can even understand the the stress they are under near the roads.

We are already seeing that the east-west highway intersecting Parsa National Park is blocking the movements of the first tiger wearing a collar and restricting its territory. Based on this information, we can predict a range of impacts on tiger habitats and populations from new transport projects.

Create tiger-friendly infrastructure

Our collaborator, Hari Bhadra Acharya, former chief warden of Parsa National Park and current chief ecologist with the Nepalese government is keen to help make transport infrastructure more tiger friendly. For example, we can provide advice on alignment of roads and railways to avoid priority habitats.

We can also target habitat and prey restoration activities in areas that tigers use frequently or are important for breeding. Planners can design and locate wildlife crossings to help tigers cross roads and railroads. And we can show where to close roads to vehicular traffic at night or apply speed restrictions to reduce the risk of killing tigers in traffic.

Information from GPS collars can also help reduce tiger-human conflict and improve law enforcement. For example, we can find out if roads and railroads disrupt tiger hunting strategies, causing them to hunt domestic livestock or humans instead of wild prey. Our data can also help wildlife managers respond more quickly to tiger injury, disease or poaching.

Over time, I believe this information will provide evidence-based solutions that can ensure roads work for humans while minimizing damage to tigers and other species at risk.


Nepal’s tiger population nearly doubled


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