National Geographic

Corridors Critical for India’s Big Cats

Every day, little by little, our species is creating new islands. These are not islands in the sea. They are patches of forest, grassland, mountainside, and swamp that encompass what remains of the wild. Unlike islands dotted across the sea, though, there are sometimes pathways between these protected swaths that permit organisms to traverse the small percentage of their range that remains open to habitation. In the case of central India’s tigers and leopards, these wildlife corridors are critical for survival.

Tigers in a central India preserve. Photo by Brian Gratwicke, image from Wikipedia.

Zoologists Sandeep Sharma and Trishna Dutta of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, along with a host of coauthors, have just published a pair of studies that used felid feces to gauge the genetic diversity of tigers and leopards in central India’s Satpura-Maikal region. This area is one of the richest tiger holdouts left in the world, despite the fact that these forests have been cut back over 75 percent over the last 300 years. The need for farmland, organized hunting, and, since the 1970s, poaching have all taken their toll on tiger populations while leopards, who do all they can to avoid the remaining tigers, have been pushed out towards the fringes where the forest meets human settlements.

Spread across several conservation areas, the big cats would seem to be isolated from each other. As Sharma, Dutta, and their colleagues found, though, the roads and trails between the parks are essential for genetic exchange between the forests. Of 1,411 fecal samples collected in the protected locales and along the pathways between them, the researchers were able to assign 463 to tigers and 287 to leopards. The turds recorded the background of each cat, giving the zoologists an outline of how much genetic diversity exists in the populations and whether cats from different forest patches were mating with each other.

The tiger study, led by Sharma, showed that the tigers have not gone through a genetic bottleneck that would be expected for a population confined to spread-out conservation areas. Quite the contrary; the tigers showed a high amount of genetic diversity. Sharma and coauthors attribute this to the wildlife corridors that allow tigers to travel past mining operations and developed areas to the haunts of their striped neighbors. For central India’s tigers to survive, the researchers argue, the pathways that allow the felids to travel and interbreed must remain open.

A leopard in the Kanha tiger reserve in India. Photo by Sandeep Sharma and Trishna Dutta, courtesy Smithsonian National Zoological Park Conservation Biology Institute.

Strangely, the fate of leopards also seems to be tied to wildlife corridors. This finding seems to run counter to the nature of the cats. Leopards are generalists that are more adaptable than tigers, and far better at exploiting disturbed and developed habitats close to people. Naturally, leopards would prefer forests far from humans, but it’s better to slink through a village at night to nab a dog than lose meals – or you life – to a tiger living in the same stretch of woodland. As tigers become confined to forest patches, leopards are forced to the outskirts.

The genetic signatures of the leopards sampled by Dutta and colleagues showed subtle distinctions between two subpopulations, and the beginnings of a split into four subgroups. While still diverse, the leopards did not form the homogenous genetic population expected for such wide-ranging and flexible felids. Forced to slink through tiger-dominated forests and around human development projects such as roads and mines, central India’s leopards appear to be relying on wildlife corridors to lead a cryptic existence in Satpura-Maikal. Saving these spotted cats and their tiger cousins requires more than simply carving out swaths of forest for them to live; we must anticipate their need to find each other and maintain their genetic richness among the artificial archipelagos we’ve created.

References:

Dutta, T., Sharma, S., Maldonado, J., Wood, T., Panwar, H., Seidensticker, J. 2012. Fine-scale population genetic structure in a wide-ranging carnivore, the leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) in central India. Diversity and Distributions. 1-12 DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12024

Sharma, S., Dutta, T., Maldonado, J., Wood, T., Panwar, H., Seidensticker, J. 2013. Spatial genetic analysis reveals high connectivity of tiger (Panthera tigris) populations in the Satpura-Maikal landscape of Central India. Ecology and Evolution. 3,1: 48-60

 

There are 12 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Janette Dean
    January 23, 2013

    Yes, we must help save the big cats with these important corridors! – Author Janette of In Defense of Cats!

  2. Surja Pradhan
    January 24, 2013

    The big cats of India simply need a place for themselves, such as jungles n etc;

  3. Brinda Dubey
    January 24, 2013

    Corridors are very important.We at the Tiger Haven Society, http://www.tigerhavensociety.org also provide such a corridor, for elephants, tigers, leopards and others.

  4. kira close
    January 24, 2013

    This is beyond serious. These animals have been worshipped gaurded sacred and just sheer vitally important to the individual food chains these beautiful cats are indigenous to. I am so elated to finally see that people are becoming even more aware to how serious this situation has become.

  5. LORA SPIRIDONOVA
    January 24, 2013

    Let us not be so selfish when it comes to the nature!

  6. chaiyo grachownak
    January 24, 2013

    love yu big cat

  7. arundhati roy
    January 24, 2013

    awareness generation and love for the speciesis needed.very difficult in a country where the fear of the species is instilled to discipline children.

  8. Cecilia Irimia
    January 24, 2013

    We must do something for the big cats

  9. bighnaraj
    January 25, 2013

    yhhhh like bios & logous

  10. V MATTHEWS
    January 26, 2013

    In Bombay,India it’s almost a weekly news,involving a leopard being eliminated by the slum dwellers,little realising that it’s man who has encroached into its field!….MATTS

  11. V MATTHEWS
    January 26, 2013

    As always,a breathtaking photo….have a go into Animal Planet,Discovery,National Geographic especially Wild…..it’s an emperor’s feast and delight….will never get sick of repeating it!….MATTS

    In Bombay,India it’s almost a weekly news,involving a leopard being eliminated by the slum dwellers,little realising that it’s man who has encroached into its field!….MATTS

  12. Arun Topno
    January 27, 2013

    For starters let concerted effort be directed at making the human neighbours residing near these big cat territory how vital it is to preserve such habitat and their stake in the big cat survival.

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