Clemson researchers studying human-tiger conflicts in India
CLEMSON, South Carolina — The global population of tigers is back on the rise, good news at Clemson University where the endangered species is a beloved mascot. But even though Tiger paws are plenty common on campus, Clemson researchers needed to travel across the globe to study an underexamined aspect of tiger conservation.
While conservation efforts for many species strive for a harmonious balance between wildlife and humans, they have traditionally focused on how the behavior of humans is affecting the animals in ways such as habitat encroachment.
But Clemson University scientist Shari Rodriguez is leading research on the side of the equation that has been studied far less: how the behavior of the animals is affecting humans.
“Wildlife conservation has existed for a long, long time; we’ve been practicing tiger conservation for a long time, but we haven’t always been looking at it from the lens of human well-being,” said Rodriguez, assistant professor of human dimensions of wildlife in Clemson’s department of forestry and environmental conservation.
This spring, Rodriguez and graduate student Diane Dotson traveled to Kanha Tiger Reserve in central India to study human-predator conflicts and examine the impact of those conflicts on the people living in and around the park.
Specifically, Rodriguez’s research seeks to understand the indirect impact of tiger and leopard presence and human-predator conflict on the people with whom they share the landscape. While direct impact include things such as loss of life or injury to humans or livestock — or crop damage in the case of herbivorous species — indirect impact refers to secondary or downstream consequences of human-wildlife conflict.
“It’s the people who live in the areas where tigers live that bear the brunt of not only the species itself, but of the conservation efforts for those species,” Rodriguez said. “They’re the ones who deal with it on a daily basis. Unfortunately, we don’t have a complete understanding of these people’s needs or the impacts on their well-being in the context of the predator species and the conservation efforts aimed at those predators. For instance, if someone is injured or killed by a tiger, do family members have to shift their roles in order to compensate for the role that person played in the household? Do the children get pulled out of school and take a role in the household that they wouldn’t otherwise have?”
Located in Madhya Pradesh in the central Indian highlands, Kanha Tiger Reserve, also known as Kanha National Park, is spread across about 363 square miles and home to a wide variety of wildlife, including tigers and leopards, deer, antelope, sloth bears, monkeys and numerous other species of mammals, plants, birds, reptiles and insects.
After a century of decline, tiger numbers are on the rise, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Although at least 3,890 tigers remain in the wild, the species is still vulnerable to extinction without continuing conservation efforts.
“On the trip, I personally got to see 11 tigers,” Rodriguez said. “They are spectacular, amazing animals. Poaching is a big problem in the areas that we went to and particularly the area where Diane was doing research. Tigers are valuable on the black market, particularly their bones, because people have these long-lasting views that the bones have a medicinal power. The hides are also valuable on the black market.”
Through funding from a Clemson University Institute for Parks research development grant, Dotson spent almost five months from January to June interviewing locals who lived within five kilometers of the park. Using a questionnaire translated into Hindi, Dotson sought to collect data to better understand the attitudes, experiences and beliefs people living near Kanha National Park have toward tigers and leopards and what methods they use to mitigate conflict with the predators.
In all, Dotson and translators visited 54 villages, interviewing more than 400 people for this quantitative case study.
Dotson believes preventing tigers from extinction carries special significance at Clemson.
“It’s very personal for people here at Clemson,” Dotson said. “So I think caring about tiger conservation should be a big thing, especially if we want our mascot to exist in the future. Because as of now the numbers are increasing, but poaching is also increasing and their habitat is decreasing. So as much as it’s important to study human impacts on tigers, we also need to study the impacts on humans to understand how to find that balance between the two.”
But if tiger conservation efforts have a special meaning to Dotson as a Clemson graduate, the research is equally important to her as a scientist.
Rodriguez’s lab broke new ground by studying the indirect impact of human-wildlife conflicts in Myanmar with Asian elephants, but the research in northern India is the first of its kind with tigers and leopards.
“Indirect impact studies aren’t really done,” Dotson said. “There are articles that mention this could be a problem; that stress and fear about predators in the local communities can be a problem, kids staying home to watch livestock instead of being in school could be a problem, but there have been no empirical quantitative studies related to the indirect impacts of predators. It’s cutting-edge research in a lot of ways.”