The days of tiger hunting from the backs of elephants in the shadow of the Himalayas are thankfully over, but after years of overhunting and loss of habitat, the tiger hunt has taken on a new meaning in Nepal. Today, tourists can still head out on elephant back to spot tigers and the endangered rhinoceros in Chitwan National Park, but the only shooting done is by camera. And now Nepali scientists, with assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development, are using genetic research to track, identify and protect the remaining 125 tigers in this region.

A large adult male tiger seen in the Terai Arc Landscape. Tiger conservation is a top priority in Nepal, a source and transit point of poaching and the illegal trade of wildlife. Photo credit: Christy Williams, WWF

Over the last two years, the USAID-funded “Nepal Tiger Genome Project” has used an innovative genetic technology to build a comprehensive national DNA database of the endangered Bengal tigers living in Nepal’s Terai Arc Landscape—one of the few remaining tiger habitats on the earth—by collecting and recording a unique genetic fingerprint from each adult tiger’s scat.  This closely held information is used to identify every tiger and its territory.  The data is used to protect habitat, as well as inform law enforcement and protect the animals from poachers.

The project extracts each animal’s unique genetic code from non-invasively collected scat samples. To date, the project has collected over 1,100 samples from Nepal’s four major national parks. Findings of this research are expected to facilitate a better understanding of the genetic and population dynamics of Bengal tigers in Nepal. With valuable data of this nature, conservation policies and strategies at local, national, and international levels can be greater informed, and therefore, all the more effective.

“This is the first time systematic sampling was used to collect and build a comprehensive genetic database of Bengal tigers in Nepal. Although tiger genetic work has been going on in India and other countries, such elaborate data collection and archiving has not been tried with Bengal tigers,” stated Mr. Karmacharya who is the principal investigator for the project and also heads the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal, a wholly Nepali-owned and managed by a non-profit private sector institute.

The project is a concerted effort between the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal, with both Nepali and U.S. scientists involved in collecting samples and conducting genetic analysis. Dibesh Karmacharya and Kanchan Thapa are heading the project in close collaboration with Dr. Lisette Waits of the University of Idaho and Dr. Marcella Kelly from Virginia Tech.

Already, the technology is being replicated and expanded to gather genetic information of other species such as the one horned Asian rhinoceros, elephants and snow leopards, allowing conservation professionals to track, and better conserve, these fragile and endangered species not only in Nepal but in other parts of the world too.