Graduate Study in Wildlife Science or Ecology for International Students : The Chimera, Pitfalls, Strength and the Quality

Graduate Study in Wildlife Science or Ecology for International Students : The Chimera, Pitfalls, Strength and the Quality

Mohammed Ashraf

Florida Panther : Subspecies of Mountain Lion – Wildlife Ecologists study how Florida Panther population plays role in Ecosystem per se

Undergraduate and graduate study surrounding ecology and wildlife biology is somewhat confusing for both native and international students planning to invest significant amount of their hard-earned cash, be it scholarship fund or personal finance. The confusions mainly arise from boundless choices of schools (in this article, by school I meant university) across Atlantic. Students from South Asian nations (Indian, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka to name few) often receive exceptionally high scores both in Test of English as Foreign Language (TOEFL) and Graduate Record Exams (GRE) and often motivated to commence their graduate study either with commonwealth scholarship fund mostly directed to UK based schools or with Teaching Assistantship (TA) mainly with US schools across Atlantic. To pick right school for commencing either undergraduate and graduate study must be based on strong course curriculum, number of faculty members, the rigor and implementation of statistical and other mathematical modeling and simulation techniques it teaches in early stage of the ecological and wildlife related disciplines, candidates personal research interest that matches exactly with faculty members research work and finally good record and proportion of international students who graduated from that school and ended up becoming seasoned wildlife biologist.

Choosing a school that reflects little or insufficient strengths mentioned above could be disappointing for many international scholars and may potentially cause damages in future career as research ecologist per se. As a guidelines, the choice of school must not be based on colorful, stylish and often superficial portray of active social life in school’s websites, status quo, limited or no information about course curriculum, schools ranking, tuition fees, or geographic location relative to social amenity and conveniences. Broadly speaking every school has its strength and pitfalls and it is the responsibility of any serious student to carry out atom-splitting research either online or in person to find out much needed information about schools strength in the field of wildlife science (wildlife ecology and wildlife biology are often also know as wildlife science, and in this article I will use these terms interchangeably) before jumping the gun. Although the course offerings is the main aspect of choosing the school and for that there are certain courses that must be present in the curriculum before a student make her/his final decision to accept the unconditional offer of admission. The offerings of the course must need to be general prerequisite to begin with but also pedagogically sound with strong hierarchical learning curve for example from smooth to steep learning curve across the curriculum chess-board.

BS or MS in Ecology is not as same as BS or MS in Wildlife Biology. As indicated above, some schools may offer MS in Wildlife Science and some may offer MS in Wildlife Biology or Wildlife Ecology and in either cases, it is absolutely fine as long as students know the difference between Ecology and Wildlife Science. Wildlife Science is in fact branch of Ecology or one may say sub discipline of Ecology. Ecology teaches you more than a student really needs in future career but it is nonetheless a foundation of wildlife science. For example, basic understanding of how living (biotic) and non living (abiotic) things interact against the backdrop of climate, temperature, rainfall, human population etc is at the heart of ecology and without having to understand this basic course for example introduction to ecology (ECO 101), students may find wildlife science as relatively steep learning curve. On top of these, if the basic courses in ecology fails to integrate mathematical skills, for example, understanding the distribution and population size of species and its relation to abiotic and anthropogenic (human induced) stresses, students may very well suffer in future research career irrespective to what discipline or career she chooses in the future. Therefore, strong emphasis goes on hard core mathematical skills.

To start with college algebra aka precalculus where linear, quadratic, polynomial equations are solved both numerically, algebraically (symbolic math problems can best be solved by Maxima) and graphically along with solving and plotting these by utilizing the power of programming languages mainly Python, R, Maxima, Octave, Scilab (Solve algebraic problems numerically) are must. Functions both linear, quadratic, exponential, trigonometric (unit circle and right triangle approach only) followed by sequences, series, system of equations, linear algebra is must. Once you have these under your belt, you must take calculus as prerequisite where single variable differential and integral calculus is enough to start with. More importantly to plot, model and solve most of these calculus and algebraic problems by developing algorithm and writing clear and succinct code in Python and R is must.

Often people who did not come from mathematical background may choose wildlife science or ecology under wrong impression that these disciplines are not rooted into mathematics and for those students disciplines like animal welfare, zoo based wildlife courses, ethology, wildlife tourism, environmental study, green space and park management etc may be more appropriate. One must make clear distinction between these animal behavior / animal welfare related academic discipline and wildlife science / ecology which is pretty much equivalent to rocket science by and by. And why I said that, because when you dealing with uncertainty and in almost all cases, in wildlife ecology, you will have to deal with population parameters, for example, where the species population is decreasing, what is causing its decline, how the population size was in the past and how it is now, where and how the numbers are increasing and why some population remain stable over the past few years and many other similar questions that are simply numerical bound, you have no choice than utilizing advance mathematics to model the sampling population size so that you can develop scientifically valid prediction.

Wild Tiger- An Endangered Keystone Vertebrate in Tropical Asia. Image Courtesy: Panthera Tiger Forever Program, New York

To put these into better perspective, wild tiger population has drastically shrunk over the last quarter of century. Significant funding and political endeavor to revive tiger population size across its tropical nations have been deployed with mixed result. Some population size gone extinct both locally and regionally and some are facing serious human encroachment due to development regimes ranging from monoculture cash crop plantation to deforestation for human development. Nonetheless, as a wildlife ecologist, it would be your job to figure out the answers of these few basic but statistically /ecologically valid questions:

1. What is the current population size of the tiger in any particular ecosystem?

2. What is the current distribution range of the tigers?

3. Where their distribution is increasing, where they are in decrease and where their distribution is near absent?

4. Among these distribution ranges, where there is confirmed sighting of breeding females with or without cubs and what is the prey density in that particular distribution patch for breeding tigers?

You cannot answer any of these questions with scientific credibility if you have not mastered the skills of the element of mathematics I mentioned above. But to answer these four basic questions you will need to have advance knowledge in statistics that deals with animal population estimation methods (for example radio telemetry study, dung/pellet counts, camera trap capture-recapture model, fecal DNA based capture-recapture model and more). Therefore school you are choosing must offer Calculus and Statistics either as 100 level or 200 level course during your freshman or sophomore year. Student must carefully look into the course curriculum whether the Department of Wildlife Ecology offers course in geographic information system (GIS). GIS is a vast discipline altogether but for wildlife ecologists, we only need to cover the part of GIS that teaches us how to map animal population distribution, how to model their population size, and how to create ecological landscape model by utilizing the power of surface dimension model in which you can able to integrate your statistical data into a map to create population index from low to high density per se. This kind of GIS map allow you to keep track of population distribution parameters for years to come and very important computational tool for long term monitoring of any species that are at concern. Therefore, to conclude this article, I am going to list up the courses in addition to other courses that a school must offer if you want to commence your undergraduate or graduate study in Wildlife Science (Wildlife Ecology / Wildlife Biology) or Ecology:

1. Introduction to Statistics (STAT 101)

2. Introduction to R (R Programming)

3. College Algebra / Precalculus (MATH 101)

4. Linear Algebra (MATH 201)

5. Calculus (Calculus 101 or 102)

6. Programming in Python (The course may not offered by the department but you must choose it as elective from computer science department for example)

7. GIS for Wildlife Science

8. Wildlife Ecology and Management

9. Wildlife Population Estimation Methods (Radio Telemetry, Camera Trapping etc)

10. Introduction to Linux Command Line (Optional but student must learn how to work in Linux based computer system for their future wildlife research)

The above list is not exhaustive but generally a good indication of solid course curriculum. Please bear in mind, not all courses will reflect exactly the same way above in terms of coding or description, for example, a school may offer a course in Calculus in which College Algebra is integrated or students are advised to take it as non credit course. Same goes for R programming which may be incorporated with Statistics course as lab element and not as credit course. Therefore, it is advised to ask directly what the course will offer or contain and in good schools you will find these info in their curriculum or course description page. But generally speaking, the common thread that binds the Wildlife Science or Ecology together must contain Calculus, Statistics, GIS, Linear Algebra and Wildlife Population Estimation Method / Technique. Drafting mathematically sound reports require learning typesetting markup language and you may also need to learn LaTeX for getting high score in your reports and thesis. I indicated Linux distribution, notably Debian based Linux, where you will be exposed to high level scientific software, free of charge (like free beer) but more importantly freedom to bend down the computer to work at your will if you persevere to learn command line skills! It will pay off tremendously if you seriously work at it but unlike graphical user interface (GUI) command line can be non-forbidding environment for students who are neither patience nor motivated to reap the richer harvest for long term profits both academically and financially!

Finally as a tip, some of the best schools are Warner College of Colorado State University, University of Alaska at Fairbanks, University of Montana, University of Florida at Gainesville, Virginia Polytechnic and University of Idaho. Please also note, no UK schools offer mathematics-driven wildlife ecology courses nor it offers graduate degrees in wildlife science. Some awfully expensive private schools like University of Cambridge or Oxford may offer one or two courses in mathematics but often lack all the basic skills a student needs or more importantly what a student may paid for to get the most from that school. Therefore, personally, I will not advise international students to judge book by its cover, rather judge it by its content by carefully examining the course curriculum, course description, faculty lists, choice of books they offer for the course and of course social pursuits with the aim of creating ecological and socially balanced society both in micro and macro scale.

To Celebrate the 50th Earth Day – Biodiversity Crisis, Anthropogenic Causes and 6th Mass Extinction Event

To Celebrate the 50th Earth Day – Biodiversity Crisis, Anthropogenic Causes and 6th Mass Extinction Event

Mohammed Ashraf

Gaylord Nelson who pioneered the Earth Day in April 22, 1970

April 22 is Earth Day. It was the brainchild of senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin who was inspired by Rachel’s Carson’s pioneering and most influential work ‘The Silent Spring’ first published in 1962. Nelson in early 1970s was disheartened by the ongoing ecological and social destructions that were brought upon my multi trillion corporations across the United States. He witnessed and ravages the massive oil spilled in Santa Barbra, California in January 1969. Nelson pursued congressmen and other high level political leaders and recruited Dennis Hayes and came up with an idea of picking April 22 as weekday which falls between Spring break and final exam for college students in the United States. The notion behind is to infuse and ignite large scale student driven environmental movement across the United States and in April 22, 1970, twenty million Americans (10% of the total population back then) rolled up their sleeves and hit the road to demonstrate large scale protests against 150 years of industrial revolution that become the social and ecological curse across the globe. Earth Day is monumental achievement, not only for the United States but for all other countries of the world : Thanks to Senator Nelson.

Rachel Carson who pioneered the environmental thinking among public by writing influential book ‘The Silent Spring’ in 1962

The entire gamut of ecological, social and environmental movements and academic disciplines that now came to exist because of these two groundbreaking and most influential American individuals : 1. Ms. Rachel Carson 2. Senator Gaylord Nelson. Fifty years has gone past, significant social and economic developments have taken place and earth is now at the crossroad between human centric destructive development and ecological and biosphere crisis that now leading the earth to 6th Mass Extinction Event. Today we celebrate 50th Anniversary of Earth Day and take a look at some of the key ecological and biological facets and conservation implications across tropical ecoregions.

Image Courtesy : Gurudeep Ramakrishna

Earth is roughly five billions years. A very deep time in cosmic time frame. Generally human existence on earth is fraction of few seconds considering the universe, our galaxy and the birth of our solar system. Earth is the only planet in our solar system that came to bring life due to its exact location relative to sun, our moon and its 23 degree tilt from its orbital axis. It’s unique and humans are fortunate to find a place in this planet. There is no planet in our solar system where life exists; certainly not multi cellular organism like ourselves. Out of millions of other solar systems in our Milky Way galaxy, earth-like planet certainly exist and may be there is distinct possibility that advance species (probably more advance than humans) inhabit these exoplanets but they are too far for human to travel and to live there. The distance we are talking about is light years which simply means the distance the light travel in one year. Even one light year is too far and often takes up all the digits of your calculator. Numerically it looks like this : = (186282 Miles X 60 Seconds X 60 Minutes X 24 Hours X 365 Days). If you multiply all these you will get the 1 light-year. It’s a large number certainly in distance in miles. Exoplants are located hundreds and thousands of light years from earth. Humans’ only living planet is Earth because with current technology there is no future or long term possibility certainly not within the next 1000 years or so for humans to even reach to half light year let alone landing in our nearest solar system Proxima Centuary located little over four light-years from earth. Why I am telling all these and how these relate to 50th Anniversary of Earth Day? The rationale behind this is simple. Humans must come to realize this is the only planet they have for their survival and if they wish to stay here for another 1 billion years when sun will die and its flares will disintegrate the earth and other planets (in fact you can see some of the other stars are dying when you gaze night sky) like a small crystal jar. It is important for human species to understand that short term pleasure, profit and existing human centric life style (some folks call it death style) governed by greed, shaky moral and ethical dilemma, competitions and running a race where the track is nothing but destination to hell will only lead humans to extinction and that extinction is actually very much right at our front door. This is we call 6th extinction event, the last one was of course 65 millions years ago when Dinosaurs died out and created evolutionary niche for humans to evolve. If humans fail to see earth as part of cosmic system and grasp the broader picture of embracing earth from astronomical time dimensions chances are very likely humans will face extinction within the next 1000 years which again is nothing but fraction of seconds given the earth’s potential to stay in its orbit for one billion years from now. Humans have lot to loose, Earth, well, that is different kettle of fish!

Civet facing human persecution across tropics

Let’s take a brief look how many species are there and how humans are driving species to extinction. Globally there are little over 2.13 million species that have so far been cataloged. This number does not mean this is the total number of species that exist in our planet. Probability estimation suggests between 4 to 50 million species exist on earth and more tangible estimate ballpark it to 16 million species. Nevertheless, out of two million or so species, only 3% are in fact vertebrates (Fishes, Mammals, Amphibians, Reptiles and Birds) including humans of course. The remaining 97% notably comprises insects and plants. The striking chord here is extinction will ensure vertebrates disappear in the face of human assaults to earth.

If you look back cosmic cataclysm even back in the Dinosaurs era, insects survived and so do many other invertebrates. They will continue to stay well beyond mass 6th extinction event that looms over the face of the earth due to anthropogenic interferences. That makes insects more better survivor than humans in cosmic time scale. The ecological fabric on the other hand deeply maintained by large keystone vertebrates that often sits at the top of the food chain. The concept of keystone species underlies that other species survival often determines by maintaining healthy crop of keystone mega vertebrates or species that play as an indicator for the ecosystems. Tigers, wolves, falcons, whales, frogs, pythons and other charismatic and enigmatic species are often the heartbeat of ecosystems. Their numbers are in steep decline and among all of the vertebrates, amphibians (mainly frogs and toads) are most endangered. Almost one third (33%) of all amphibians that are discovered so far, are facing extinction crisis as in endangered or critically endangered (IUCN Data), comparing to less than 20% all all mammals, across the tropical and neotropical belt. Amphibians play massive role both as keystone vertebrate and indicator species and healthy population of frogs simply translates to healthy ecosystems. Agricultural conversion, industrial pesticides, human population encroachments, mono culture cash crop plantations (rubber, palm, teak, coffee etc), aquaculture (shrimp farms decimating almost all the mangrove ecosystems across the hemisphere), wildlife trade, greenhouse gas emissions and many other factors are attributed to earth’s biodiversity loss and species extinction which are driving the planet one step close to 6th mass extinction event as we speak.

Help Save Tiger in the Wild. Image Courtesy: World Wildlife Fund, USA

I conclude this essay with few positive notes. 50 years of environmental and ecological movements since the first inception of Earth Day in the United State in 1970, policies and governance to bring about social and ecological justice are being taking place. In fact majority of the nations adopted conservation measures and action programs following the US Endangered Species Act 1973, three years after the birth of Earth Day! The process is slow and cumbersome although some good work has been done with mixed result. For example, over the last 50 years, iconic tiger numbers from hundred thousands tiger across South and South East Asia plummeted to less than few thousand tigers. With historical population so high to now merely 4000 species left in the wild led significant conservation action programs to revive wild tiger population across the tropical belt. Science driven cutting edge technologies like radio telemetry study, scat sampling, mitochondrial DNA analysis, remote sensing and geographic information science based spatial mapping, camera trapping to estimate tiger population under conceptual statistical framework have led tigers and other wild cats recovery across the globe. Some part of India and Nepal, the good news of tiger numbers are slowly recovering is sense of joy and pride for many of the tireless and often unpaid research ecologists and wildlife biologists who almost dedicated their entire life to help safeguard keystone vertebrates hence to ensure protecting earth’s remaining fragile but precious ecosystems. The latest footage from Panthera, one of the most prestigious and influential wild cat research organization is looking back how it has been for the past 50 years for wild cats conservation by coinciding the 5th anniversary of Earth Day! I leave you to watch that little video clip.

Can We Embrace Universe & Think Beyond Utilitarian Anthropocentrism?

Can We Embrace Universe & Think Beyond Utilitarian Anthropocentrism?

Mohamed Ashraf

The Evolution of Universe in Cosmic Timeline : A Perspective Beyond Human & Economic Development! Image Courtesy : My Anonymous Friend who is Doing Graduate Study in Astrophysics!

At the onset this blog may appear off topic but try bear with me and soon you will realize it is not. The utilitarian approach which persists and continue to desecrate the ecological units from species to community, ecosystems to landscapes, continents to entire biosphere (earth aka ecosphere) now demand humans’ to make radical paradigm shift both in terms of actions and more importantly in terms of mindset. Not very many people hold non-anthropocentric or Marxist’s perceptions that are rooted into holistically appreciate the earth’s life support system from chemicals to gene, from photosynthesis to pollination from solar energy to ocean and anything in between. Earth is a self sustaining regulatory system and biologically sophisticated machine that came to evolve over the last 5 billion years or so. In cosmic timeline, this is no more than fraction of a seconds. The earth we now live did not came about from the mythological or stigmatized human affairs dating back no more than 3000 years of recorded human story. In other words, the earth system and its ecological processes that gave rise to rich diversity of species including Homo sapiens that we fashionably call ourself are not the by product of theological intervention per se rather simply an outward manifestation of millions of years of evolutionary processes dating back 4.5 billion years or so. Human values, belief system, identities etcetera pose little or no eco-philosophical meaning in broader context when it comes to earth as planetary ecosphere, neither these values help bridge the gap between science and public opinions. Broadly speaking, politics, economics, laws, and other liberal arts are utilitarian domain by and by and pivots around anthropocentric welfare where ethics and philosophy revolves around the ultimate vested interests of human and its segregated unfortunate society where capitalism and its excruciating devastation ensures endless economic growth in the name of so called human development and progress where majority of the people must float over pool of defecated slum houses across the continental landscapes and tiny proportion of people continue to reap the richer harvest by exploiting human labor, ecosystems, biodiversity and of course the earth itself. The metaphor resonates Mother Earth being violated by handful of powerful people who created a system what come to known as free market capitalism where trades, profit, gross domestic products, supply and demands are at its core and where earth and its species including humans are seen as commodities waiting to be exploit and destroyed in the surface. The system is so powerful that it controls human mind and there is no real escape from it. This blog is not about the curse of

Star Chart : Size of suns in our galaxy. Our Sun is 5th one from the left and the longevity of our sun is roughly 10 billion years in which it now has 5 billion years left. Image Courtesy: My anonymous friend who is doing graduate study in Astrophysics.

capitalism and its destructive power that has caused all the planetary and human problems, it is rather an awakening call to challenge human perception that can lead to ultimate paradigm shift. Returning to where I started, recorded history for human development is no more than 3000 years and it is true that over the last 100 years or so human came to think progress has been made to improve life and to reduce mortality rate : Thanks to medicine and associated scientific revolutions. Progress ofcourse is a relative term, human progress does not suffice ultimate progress and progress does not mean profit or capitalism. The distinction between human development, progress and economic developments are not as clear as it should be. For example one can argue decimating the native people from their lands and to bring infrastructure, technology, jobs and money are real progress but the truth is it is in fact ecocide where only capitalism benefits and rest suffers. This mindset and actions are prevalent across the globe and ferociously promote and popularize via television, news, media, journalism, broadcasts, fashions, politcis, advertisements and even through education systems. Human development and progress must not be bounded by capitalism, profit, land degradation, exploitations from biological diversity (e.g. fish stock, rainforest, water, air, soil as abiotic components of course) and human labor. The short term view to improve human life through market instruments via free trade and capitalism is pure utilitarian perception and fail to take considerations of earth as self sustaining biosphere within our solar system . It fails to see the planetary mechanism and its intricacies. Philosophically and astronomically, it fails to see beyond earth where our solar system is one of billion of solar systems in our galaxy Milky Way. Our solar system is simply a dot in our galaxy and there are billions of galaxies in our observable universe. How earth came to originated and continue to evolve against burgeoning insults from capitalism (please note I mentioned insults stemming from capitalism and not from population growth or humans in general) as a system per se remain back bench topic both in social and cultural rubrics in spite of scientific and cultural revolutions in human domains across the continents. In my opinion, the ultimate question is as a human race are we standalone species to think that nothing matters other than us? The ultimate science and the answer to my question rooted into astronomical underpinnings where we need to see us beyond human as economically progressive superior species. We need to consider cosmic timeline to find the answer of true development and its implications. We need to see beyond 5 billion years when our solar system wasn’t even born. We need to go further beyond to see what really happened 13.5 billion years ago when small dot started to expand which fashionably come to know as Big Bang (neatly illustrated in the image here) and the expansion of that what we now know as observable universe. We humans evolved from universe, borne out from hydrogen and helium gas to start with. Earth is only habitable planet that we came to know about but we see earth as resource to be exploited for human and economic progress. We fail to see how earth is actually came to live simply by a chance when massive gravitational collapse of dense cloud of interstellar gas gave birth to our sun which then manage to form solar system where earth found a place not by choice but by chance. In fact, pop out your head from your kitchen window in cold dry winter night and you will see one or two red stars. These are undergoing exactly what happened when our sun born roughly 5 billion years ago. In other words, if something like that can happen simply by chance, it sure can disappear in the blink of an eye. For majority of the people, five billion years from now when sun will swell and emits solar energy enough to incinerate the earth in few seconds seem little or no meaning considering the vast timeline but ultimately few thousand years of human history within the vast cosmic timeline really is insignificant. As a human we have the power to see earth beyond our narrow view and we can choose to challenge our perceptions and mindsets to lead life not as a global exploitative human citizen of planet earth but as responsible biological entity of observable universe dating back 13 billion years when it started to expand and continue to expand as we speak. Where is our ultimate position in this vast cosmic space? It surely is not within our little utilitarian and destructive anthropocentric life that goes back only few thousands years of recorded human history.

N.B. This post is dedicated to my life-long friend who taught me astronomy more than I ever known. My friend instill thoughts that catalyzed an intellectual growth and process that I never knew existed within me. I thank my friend who soon will become a fine astronomy professor. I also like to thank professor Sandra Faber of University of California, Santa Cruz, for her brilliant and scholarly essay entitled “Why Astronomy?”.

Solving Biodiversity Crisis : Highlighting Math & Computer Programming at Kindergarten Schools

Solving Biodiversity Crisis : Highlighting Math & Computer Programming at Kindergarten Schools

Mohammed Ashraf

The biological diversity of our planet are in deep crisis. The rate of extinction is overwhelming among all taxa purely due to human perturbation and argument is marshaled that earth has already undergoing 6th Mass Extinction Event. The last extinction event was of course 65 million years ago when dinosaurs gone extinct due to cosmic cataclysm and long before mammalian evolution. In spite of the fact that the probability of cosmic catastrophe for example super-size meteor from earth’s nearest asteroid belt ends up hitting our planet is relatively low but it does occur roughly of two million years interval. Therefore it is safe to say, extinction event will occur and it will eliminate human species and will give rise to new species over millions of years evolutionary time. The preponderance of humans’ interference on earth’s bio-geo-chemical cycles, ecosystems and biological diversity make humans more vulnerable to extinction and surely out pace any cosmic catastrophes that ever took place in millions of years of earth’s evolutionary timeline. The implication of anthropogenic negative impacts give rise to biodiversity and ecosystem conservation across tropical and semi tropical belts where species richness and diversity are highest. The science that govern the ecosystem conservation and management is deeply rooted into few hundred years of solid principles of ecology per se but both conservation biology and ecology remain crisis disciplines. For example, charismatic large vertebrates that are often served as flagship umbrella species across the tropics are seriously endangered due to human centric negative actions in spite of large scale conservation projects to revive their dwindling population size over the last half century. The reason for this mismatch between theoretical ecology and its practical implementations to help conserve species – the fundamental ecological unit of any ecosystem – partly relates to lack of mathematical underpinnings. Undoubtedly modern and quality wildlife ecologists recognize the importance of developing cutting edge mathematical algorithm that can solve many of the ecosystem and species diversity problems, it is nonetheless, beyond penetration for semi-educated average laymen who are in charge of conservation policy development or in political leverage to enforce species protection by and by. Ultimately the hodgepodge of thick bureaucracy coupled with weak administrative and political leverage makes a clear cut escape from the overall realm of wildlife science therefore leaving wildlife ecology and conservation as standalone ‘high-class’ obsession to protect biodiversity in the face of malnourished economy, social injustice, burgeoning human population, capitalism hence exploitation and of course hard core poverty and environmental degradation across tropical and neotropical belts. To reverse the trend, bottom-up approach but more importantly radical and revolutionary approach is needed. The kind of approach that integrates mathematics as fundamental language to convey messages across scientific and non scientific arena. This can only be achieved with wide scale integration of mathematics in kindergarten and elementary schools. The kind of mathematics that are not ramshackle hence bounded by dusty curriculum. For example, almost all kindergarten schools in ecologically rich but economically poor nations teaches math in old-fashioned way where numerical solutions of mathematical problems are either solved through using tedious calculator or manually by hand. It is however necessary to learn how to write steps to solve arithmetic and algebraic problems by hand but it is more important to embrace computer programming to write codes that can solve problems. This can out run old fashioned way of doing math by using scientific calculator per se but more so it introduce programming skills to students at very early stage. Almost all ecological and environmental problems are deeply entrenched into devising cutting edge mathematical models and simulation. These can only be performed by utilizing the power of computer programs. In other words the more efficiently one can write programming codes, the better his chance to solve complex problems. Therefore it is at paramount importance to introduce computer programming to students at very early stage of their education. The benefits are enormous and it certainly brings the concept of ‘modern problem solving approaches’ and put the students at the center stage of scientific arguments and consensus. For example, if I ought to know the kill rate that is how many deer an individual tiger can kill per year, I would need to develop a mathematical algorithm after collecting my field data on deer kill by tigers. This at a glance may daunting for kindergarten teachers to teach to their students but it is in fact easier than plotting a function by using scientific calculator. The conservation implication of numerically understand the kill rate is simple. It can enable us to devise management strategy for deer stock knowing how many deers an individual tiger needs per year for survival, breed and to successfully raise its cubs. The kill-rate algorithm can enable me to project future trend in terms of deer population size versus tiger numbers, ecosystem health, survival and mortality rate of both tiger and deer and so on : all critically important to answer in the face of rapid extinction of carnivores across tropical ecosystems. If students and I meant all students are taught math by utilizing the power of 21st century modern approach that is writing codes, chance are high we will end up having a generation pool who will chop off the thick bureaucracy, assimilate science and see the wildlife ecology from the lens of mathematical algorithms. The lectures, my first lecture on R and Maxima programming below will introduce the advantages of writing codes and to solve problems. If students watch the video and then gets motivated to write their own codes, this blog I just typed has achieved its objective. Enjoy coding folks.

Towards Sustainable Ecological Future!

Ashraf

Lecture on R Programming to Solve Mathematical Problems :

Lecture on Maxima Programming to Solve Mathematical Problems :

Video Lecture on GIS Based Tiger Conservation in Indo-Malayan Ecoregion

Global Tiger Day on July 29, 2019 just gone past. To mark the day and to highlight the plight of wild tigers, I have prepared and delivered a video lecture on GIS based tiger conservation in Indo-Malayan ecosystem. Folks who are seriously interested in carnivore ecology notably wild tigers of tropical Asia, may able to pick out some pointers from my lecture. The lecture could be equally beneficial to arm-chaired conservation groups, local civil society members, NGOs and other stakeholders and policymakers involved in safeguarding tiger habitat across Indian subcontinent.

Towards Secured Future for Wild Tigers of Asia

Ashraf

Founder of Species Ecology

July 29, 2019 : Global Tiger Day!

Image Courtesy: Panthera, Tiger Forever Program, New York

Today, July 29, 2019 is Global Tiger Day. Tigers are in deep trouble. Their population has plummeted dramatically over the last hundred years and 96% of the tiger population has disappeared in last century. There are approximately 3500 tigers left in the wild and their future is far from secure footing, It is estimated that 100 tigers get killed every year and habitat fragmentation, habitat encroachment by humans, unbridled economic growth and agricultural expansion are driving tigers into its brink of extinction. In spite of all these heart-breaking news, dedicated wildlife scientists from across the globe are in a mission to revive tiger population and recently a breeding population size is discovered in Eastern part of the Thailand. This is an awesome news to share with small community of tiger conservationists across the globe, especially on Global Tiger Day!

Towards Tigers’ Secured Future!

Mohammed Ashraf

Wildlife Biologist

Dear Mohammed,

We want to THANK YOU for your generous donation and support for our tiger conservation initiatives this Global Tiger Day. Together, we can make a difference for tigers and all wild cats worldwide.

To celebrate Global Tiger Day 2019, we are sharing this CNN Worldwide Great Big Story about our work in the Dong Phayayen – Khoa Yai Forest Complex (DPKY) of Thailand, where we’re leading efforts to estimate tiger populations and create plans for their recovery.

While tiger numbers are declining across much of their range, stories like this one remind us that there is hope for the future of these big cats. The remarkable recovery of tigers in areas challenged by rampant poaching is a credit to the hard-working scientists and brave rangers fighting tirelessly to protect them, and supporters like you who make it all possible.

We thank you for being a wild cat ambassador,

John Goodrich
Chief Scientist, Panthera

P.S.: You’ve already done a great deed for tigers. Would you take a minute to share this email with a friend so we can reach our $40,000 goal by midnight tonight?


Science Bound Conservation is Required to bring Wild Tigers back from Near-Extinction-Crisis

Science Bound Conservation is Required to bring Wild Tigers back from Near-Extinction-Crisis

Mohammed Ashraf

Image Courtesy : World Wide Fund for Nature, Switzerland

Like all its felid cousins, tiger is graceful and awesome creature. It is in fact the largest carnivore in felid guild with its historical population range all the way from Turkey to Russia, Indonesia to Japan, and Iran to Thailand. Sadly, current population size is shrunk to mere 3% and tigers now live in handful of nations in South and South East Asia and Russian Far East. It is classed as endangered species with global population possibly range from 3500 to 3800 tigers that are now facing range of human persecution across tropical and semi tropical biomes. Historically, there were hundred thousands tiger but due to unbridled human population and economic growth and other associated causes, tiger numbers quickly plummeted to less than 4000 by the end of 20th century. Tigers now live in an isolated and fragmented patch mosaics surrounded by expanding human encroachments in the form of agricultural and cash crop mono culture expansions across Asia. In spite of the large scale global consensus to help safeguard the remaining wild tiger population over the past half a century and considerable investments on tiger conservation, wild tigers in their native ecosystems are far from secure footing. To help conserve the dwindling and remaining isolated population of tigers across its range nations, science bound conservation initiatives is more than an ecological imperative, it is an absolute priority.

Image Courtesy: Panthera Tiger Forever Program, New York

In the year 2010, ambitious Global Tiger Recovery Program (GTRP) was initiated by bringing together governments of all tiger range nations and international conservation organizations in St. Petersburg, Russia. This was the most exciting, monumental and largest gathering of international ministerial in conservation conference that ever took place to help recover single endangered species in Asia. The core objective of the GTRP is to double the tiger numbers by year 2022 coinciding with the Chinese New Year referring to Chinese Year of the Tiger. Surely, the GTRP gained enormous momentum both politically and socially and garnered significant recognitions from international conservation groups and forums. Even high profile Hollywood celebrities like Harrison Ford got involve and gave powerful speech at St. Petersburg. The declaration was made and signed by all tiger states which became St. Petersburg Declaration to help safeguard and double the remaining tiger population in the wild. Nine years has gone past since the inception of GTRP and St. Petersburg declaration, yet tigers long term future security is far from reality. One can make an argument that it is all elite and posh to held high profile international conference followed by submission of glossy and chick posters and publications focusing the plight of tigers, but in reality, the tiger numbers continue to decline in dramatic fashion with little over 100 tigers get killed per year across tiger range nations. Therefore, ‘Paper Tiger’ hardly managed to escape from the conference room and Ivory towers thereby failed to became healthy live tiger with secure future in the wild.

Image Courtesy: World Wide Fund for Nature, Gland, Switzerland

Lack of science bound study of tigers and under implementation of ecological science in national conservation policy framework may one of many reasons, tiger range nations are facing serious challenges to stabilize or increase tiger population size. Despite the fact, doubling the tiger numbers is a collective goal and does not translate to individual national goal, all tiger states have agreed to stabilize and make an endeavor to increase tiger population size via St. Petersburg Declaration. This unfortunately has not been achieved in most of the tiger nations except India and Nepal where dedicated and ecologically valid conservation action plans have been undertaken with marked positive outcome. Even in India, which holds over half of the tiger population and which still has millions of square kilometers of suitable tiger habitats, most of the forest are in fact empty forests. It is therefore not surprising that despite over 1.5 million square kilometers of tiger ecosystems exist in South and South East Asia, over 75% of the tigers are in fact living in less than 5% of the areas and under increasing anthropogenic pressures in the form of habitat fragmentation, agricultural expansion, tigers’ essential prey depletion and human encroachment. Doubling the tiger numbers by year 2022 is surely an ambitious goal but to make this goal a reality, standalone political will or emotional plea to save tigers is not good enough. Identifying key conservation areas within the broad heterogeneous patch mosaics of tiger conservation landscape (also known as TCL) is one of many objectives that require dedicated science bound conservation action plan. Considering to the fact that tigers now live in highly insularized and patchy habitat and facing human induced perturbations of all forms, identifying ecologically suitable habitats for tigers where breeding population size stands better chance for long term survival can help reach the target towards doubling tiger population size. In the contrary, where tiger numbers become too small or breeding females are absent, conservation actions and investment in those habitats may pose little significance to increase population size. Other important focus should be interconnecting those breeding areas with nearby forested ecosystems for young tigers to disperse and populate from its source population. This comes under creating source-sink structure and to manage the isolated and fragmented population size within meta-population form within the broad tiger conservation landscape.

Image Courtesy: World Wide Fund for Nature, Beyond the Stripes, Gland, Switzerland

In spite of the fact, scientific study of tigers actually begun in early 1960s by brilliant American wildlife biologist George Schaller and his pioneering work on tigers in Kanha National Park in India was first published in the form of seminal book called ‘The Deer and the Tiger’ in 1967, most of the scientific works on tigers still remain unnoticed by government officials working or in charge of conservation planning and implementation in tiger range nations. Major ecological advances were made by another American carnivore ecologist Melvil Sunquist in the early and mid 70s through radio-telemetry study in Chitwan National Park in Nepal to understand tiger population distribution, its hunting and feeding habit, its reproductive behavior and home range size and other ecological vital information. In the early 90s, Indian wildlife biologist Ullas Karanth and James Nichols (American Wildlife Scientist) pioneered the scientific study of tigers under modern ecological and statistical framework to accurately estimate tiger population size and density by utilizing the power of camera trap capture-recapture modeling method in Southern states of India. Following Karanth’s footsteps wildlife biologists Kae Kawanishi and Monirul Khan reliably estimate the tiger density for the first time in Malaysia and Bangladesh in early this century. We now have wealth of ecologically valid data on tigers: thanks to these pioneering biologists and their associates but ironically it did not help prevent chronic and dramatic decline of tiger numbers across tropical belts. Forty years or more have gone past and tiger conservation certainly entered into the realm of cutting edge statistically valid and ecologically sound modern research framework, yet reaching the target to double the tiger population remain far from reality.

Image Courtesy: World Wide Fund for Nature, Gland, Switzerland.

Armed with forty-years of scientific study of tigers, modern wildlife biologists and conservation ecologists alike from tiger range and non tiger range countries mainly from North America and Western Europe, are jointly collaborating whenever and wherever the opportunity exist to strengthen and build science based ecological conservation of tigers in Asia. Advancements in India and Nepal over the last forty years to help save tigers enabled surrounding nations like Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar to embrace scientific study to understand tiger population and ecology . These nations have made attempt to understand tigers’ demographic parameters within ecologically and statistically valid norm for the past ten years or so. For example, for quarter of century or more, Bangladesh conducted ad hoc study to estimate tiger population by using non scientific methods of several kinds. However, this has now all changed and recent studies were all driven by solid science of ecology, statistics and mathematical modeling. Reliable estimation of tigers in Bangladesh now reveals that tiger population size is in fact four times lower than what was estimated through ad hoc studies over many decades.

Image Courtesy : Panthera, Tiger Forever Program, New York

These latest studies provided us not only with good sets of quality data on demographic parameters and distribution patterns of tiger over spatial and temporal scales covering hundred and thousands of tiger conservation landscape but also revealed great deal of ecological information about tigers that in the past were simply absent. For example, Sunquist and Karanth’s work revealed tigers’ hunting efficiency is by and large 10%. In the surface it may mean little but when put into ecological and conservation perspectives, the percentage can enable wildlife biologists to answer critical ecological questions. Adult individual male tiger require between 2500 kg to 3000 kg of meat per year. Breeding female raising litter of 4-5 cubs needs considerably more meat on the hoof and works out roughly 3500 kg per year. Majority of the tiger habitats are increasingly becoming empty forest where tigers’ prey base remain scarce. On the other hand millions of years of evolution have made tiger as one of the most top-notch landscape species on earth in which it is designed to hunt down large ungulates (hoofed mammals) weigh between 50kg to 1000kg depending on the landscape where these preys and tiger inhabit. To take tigers hunting efficiency into account, if an ecosystem is blessed with 500 healthy deers weighing on average 50kg per individual, an individual adult tiger would then able to hunt down 50 of them per year hence barely meeting the annual energy nutrition budget. Conservation implication of tiger’s hunting efficiency then simply translates to effective management of prey population. In fact, prey population is the critical determinant of long term tiger population viability. Classic landscape predator sitting at the top of the food chain and governing the ecosystem as if prime minister of the nation, cannot be survived, reproduced and repopulated without adequate, regular and healthy supply of nutrients and proteins. Just like lions in Africa cannot live by consuming millions of tons of insects, tigers cannot live by eating smaller prey weighing less than 50 kilograms in tropical Asia. Its all rooted into hunting efficiency and how many prey animals weighing over 50 kg that tiger can kill per year.

Image Courtesy : Gurudeep Ramakrishna

In order for GTRP to become a successful longterm tiger ecology and conservation project with functional objective to double the tiger numbers, ecological study of tiger focusing several key sets of elements are at fundamental and paramount importance. Identifying key conservation areas where at least 10 – 25 breeding population size is present, followed by joining these population by creating effective wildlife corridors (aka dispersal corridors) to increase tiger population dispersal and gene flow will help increase reproductivity, survival chance and population status in the long run. Several wild tiger populations pivoted around with breeding tigers are necessary in this remit. Equally, protecting prey population base at level that meets tigers annual nutrition budget is at critical importance. Annual tiger and its prey survey that embrace science would enable tiger ecologists to effectively monitor demographic patterns over spatial and temporal scales : essentially vital to understand whether conservation actions are in fact helping to increase tiger and its prey base or simply not working. Doubling the tiger numbers largely depends on whether a tiger nation has laid out a tiger conservation action program based on solid science of ecology, wildlife biology, statistical modeling and other interdisciplinary subjects in the field survey to data processing and analysis. Results can then be translated in laymen terms to educate policymakers, local conservation leaders, general public and law makers across tiger nations where probability of long term survival for tiger is relatively high. These in turn will help create sufficient political synergy and power to safeguard this awesome and magnificent animal that is now very near to extinction. George Schaller, who pioneered the scientific study of wild tigers over five decades ago in India, warns us that: “Future generations will be truly saddened, if this century has so little wisdom, compassion, such lack of generosity of spirit, that it eliminates one of the most dramatic animals that has ever lived on this planet.”

29th July, World Tiger Day

29th July, World Tiger Day

Viviana Granado

Professor Viviana Granado

In World Tiger Summit convened in November 2010 in St. Petersburg, Russia it was proposed, among other things, to make aware of the importance and need to preserve these big felid which remain endangered. For this reason, July 29 is marked as International Tiger Day.

In South America there is carnivore felid binomially known as Panthera onca but common name is “Jaguar” and in Argentina “Yaguareté” (which means true beast in guaraní), “Creole tiger” and also “stained”. It is the biggest felid in the Americas and the third one globally. Like all landscape big cats, Jaguar can also forage over 20 km per day looking for potential prey. This species consume 1500 kg of meat which implies 2000 kilograms on the hoof annually. Jaguar’s average life, in the wild is about 15 years. Collaborative study between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay in the Atlantic forest revealed that there are less than 300 Jaguars inhabiting in only 3% of the ecoregional landscape. In Brazil, the reduction stems from large scale urbanization and property development to house burgeoning human population. In Paraguay the loss of natural habitat is a consequence of the expansion of monoculture cash crop plantation for example soybean and in Argentina, the habitat of the yaguareté in the Missionary Jungle is still relative intact. However, in this ecoregion Jaguar population size is approximately 100.

Jaguar can drag its prey which can be 4 times more than its own weight right at the top of the tree. Jaguar is the only big cat that is capable of dragging prey all the way to tree top.

It is critical to engage in dialogue among these countries with an objective to devise tripartite Jaguar conservation program that can co-benefit current development of economic, societal and political infrastructure. Restoring natural biological corridors, the yaguareté of different population could get to reproduce and favor the genetic variation avoiding inbreeding. Until now, it was not possible to reintroduce captive Jaguar due to lack of habitat suitability. It is at paramount importance to halt deforestation, introduce reforestation program with native plants and to interconnect the core forested areas with suitable wildlife corridors for jaguar dispersal in Atlantic forest.

In Argentina the yaguareté is distributed in three core areas: Yungas Jungle (Salta and Jujuy), the Missionary Jungle (Misiones) and the Dry Chaco (Chaco, Formosa, Santiago del Estero and East of Salta). It is estimated that in the Yunga there are between 120 and 150 specimen, in the region of Chaqueña between 20 individuals and in the Missionary Jungle from 50 to 70 yaguaretés.

Female Jaguar and her cub

The population size of this species is low enough to consider functionally extinct in some part of this region. The cause of population decline is not only due to habitat loss but also due to the hunting and persecution. Retaliation is also one of many causes due to human-Jaguar conflict over cattle or other farm animals. In our country measures are being implemented to reverse this sorry-state-of-affair. In 2001 new wildlife law came into force chiefly “National Natural Monument” and the secretary of the environment and sustainable development government implemented a National Plan for the Conservation of the Yaguareté. Argentina has a native forest protection law that is not being implemented. At this point it should be noted that the NGO Greenpeace Argentina only a few days ago, carried out an amparo action on behalf of and representing the “animal species yaguareté”that lives in the region of the Argentine Big Chaco against the clearing that destroyed much of its natural habitat. It is the first time in the legal history of our country that it becomes a plaintiff of the cause to a species.

Habitat suitability for jaguares in the Atlantic Forest. The colored area inside left corner inset details the locations of the study area in South America. The map was created with ArcGis 10.3 (www.arcgis.com)

Finally, it is important to highlight the role of our Creole tiger in the trophic network of these ecosystems, it is the top predator. It means that it limits the populations of its prey, regulating them and maintaining the vigor of the same when predating those unwell or old specimens.

29 de julio, Día Mundial del Tigre

Viviana Granado

Professor Viviana Granado

En la Cumbre Mundial del Tigre realizada en noviembre del 2010 en San Petersburgo (Rusia) se propuso, entre otras cosas, concientizar sobre la importancia y necesidad de conservar a estos grandes felinos incluidos en la lista de especies en peligro de extinción de la UICN (Unión Internacional para la Conservación de la Naturaleza). Por tal motivo cada 29 de julio se celebra el día Mundial del Tigre.

En América se encuentra una especie de felino carnívoro, Phantera onca, llamada comúnmente “jaguar” y en Argentina: Yaguareté (“verdadera fiera” en guaraní), “tigre criollo” o también “Manchado”. Es el felino más grande del continente americano y el tercero a nivel mundial. Puede recorrer en un día 20 km buscando, por ejemplo, presas; esta especie consume unos 1500 kg de carne que implica unos 2000 kg de presas vivas al año. Tiene un promedio de vida, en estado silvestre, de 15 años aproximadamente.

Young Jaguar

Un estudio realizado1 en estos últimos años en la región ecológica del Bosque Atlántico que se extiende entre Argentina, Brasil y Paraguay, revela que menos de 300 ejemplares viven en sólo el 3% de su hábitat original. En Brasil la reducción se debe principalmente a la creación de grandes ciudades para albergar a millones de personas; en Paraguay la pérdida de hábitat es consecuencia de la ampliación de las zonas de cultivo de soja y en Argentina el hábitat del yaguareté en la Selva Misionera, se redujo muy poco; sin embargo en esta ecorregión habría menos de 100 ejemplares.

Yaguarete

Es fundamental un diálogo entre los tres países que lleven a un consenso en cuanto a recursos económicos y políticos a fin de diseñar e implementar de forma urgente un Plan Maestro de Conservación. Restaurando corredores biológicos naturales, los yaguaretés de diferentes poblaciones podrían llegar a reproducirse y favorecer así a la variabilidad genética evitando la endogamia. Hasta el momento no es posible la reintroducción de individuos nacidos en cautiverio debido a la ausencia de áreas naturales suficientes para contenerlos, por tal motivo la medida más urgente de llevar a cabo en el Bosque atlántico es frenar la deforestación, implementar programas de reforestación con flora nativa y crear nuevas áreas protegidas conservando y monitoreando las ya existentes.

En Argentina el yaguareté se distribuye en tres áreas núcleos: la Selva de Yungas (Salta y Jujuy), la Selva Misionera (Misiones) y en el Chaco Seco (Chaco, Formosa, Santiago del Estero y Este de Salta). Se estima que en la Yunga hay entre 120 y 150 ejemplares, en la región Chaqueña entre unos 20 individuos y en la Selva Misionera entre unos 50 y 70 yaguaretés. La situación poblacional de esta especie se encuentra al límite de su supervivencia.

Unlike other big cats, Jaguar is perfect swimmer

Las causas de su estado poblacional tan crítico no sólo se debe a la pérdida de hábitat sino también a la caza y persecución en represalia del Hombre por el ataque a su ganado y al atropellamiento en rutas. En nuestro país se están implementando medidas a fin de revertir esta situación, por eso en el año 2001 por la ley 25463, se lo declara “Monumento Natural Nacional” y la Secretaría de Gobierno de Ambiente y Desarrollo Sustentable implementó un Plan Nacional de Conservación del yaguareté; asimismo hay ONGs que trabajan desde hace años con el yaguareté y otras especies en peligro de extinción en Argentina, como la Red Yaguareté y la Fundación Vida Silvestre entre otras.

Habitat suitability for jaguares in the Atlantic Forest. The colored area inside left corner inset details the locations of the study area in South America. The map was created with ArcGis 10.3 (www.arcgis.com)

Pero si bien hay conciencia sobre el estado “muy grave” de esta especie en particular, las acciones que se vienen implementando no alcanzaron todavía a modificar sustancialmente las poblaciones naturales del yaguareté. Argentina tiene una Ley de protección de Bosques Nativo que no se está implementando. En este punto cabe aclarar que la ONG Greenpeace Argentina hace tan solo unos días, realizó una acción de amparo en nombre y representación de la “especie animal yaguareté” que habita en la región del Gran Chaco argentino contra el desmonte que destruyó gran parte de su hábitat natural. Es la primera vez en la historia jurídica de nuestro país que se pone como actora de la causa a una especie.

Finalmente es importante destacar el rol de nuestro tigre criollo en la red trófica de estos ecosistemas, es el predador tope. Significa que limita las poblaciones de sus presas, regulándolas y manteniendo el vigor de las mismas al predar aquellos ejemplares enfermos o viejos.

Fuentes: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep37147#f1

https://www.conicet.gov.ar/el-yaguarete-resiste-en-apenas-el-3-de-su-habitat-y-buscan-frenar-su-extincion/

https://www.redyaguarete.org.ar/lineas-de-accion/

https://www.vidasilvestre.org.ar/nuestro_trabajo/areas_protegidas/

Doubling the Tiger Numbers to Meet Tx2 Goal by Year 2022 : GIS Based Delineation to Explore the Fundamental Fallacies

Doubling the Tiger Numbers to Meet Tx2 Goal by Year 2022 : GIS Based Delineation to Explore the Fundamental Fallacies

Mohammed Ashraf

Wild tiger marking its home range

Wild tigers (Panthera tigris) are charismatic mega-carnivore in felid guild that serve as flagship keystone species in tropical and semi tropical ecosystems across South and South East Asia. Historically tiger populations range many countries covering as far as Turkey, Uzbekistan and Iran in western Asia to Singapore, Korea, Philippines and most of Southern China in East Asia (see figure 1). Empirical and anecdotal evidence suggest there were over hundred thousands tigers that roam free across broad geographic landscape in the Palearctic and Indo Malaya biogeographic realms over the past hundred years. Sadly, tiger numbers shrank dramatically and 96% of the tigers disappear due to various anthropogenic negative impacts across their once contiguous and broad ecological landscape of Asia. There are probably less than 3800 tigers left in the wild and recent estimate suggests that approximately hundred tigers get killed by poachers every year. Tigers now live in an increasingly human- dominated insularized and fragmented landscape in handful of nations in South and South East Asia and Russian Far East. Habitat encroachment by humans, habitat degradation or agricultural conversion/expansion and habitat fragmentation are some of the leading drivers that pushed tigers into brink of extinction. To reverse these negative trends and to halt tiger population decline, ecoregional based preservation, restoration and habitat connectivity in conjunction with identifying key conservation areas where breeding tiger populations pose high probability of long term survival in heavily fragmented Tiger Conservation Landscapes (TCL) across Indo Malayan ecoregion should be placed at top conservation priority for tiger range nations across tropical and semi tropical belt.

Figure 1 : Historical tiger range across Palearctic ecoregion. GIS Data : World Wildlife Fund, USA

Keystone mega vertebrates for example Mountain Lion (Puma concolor) in North America, Jaguar (Panthera onca) in South America, Lion (Panthera leo) in Africa and Tiger (Panthera tigris) in subcontinent Asia and Russian Far East are classic landscape predator which helps maintaining the overall biodiversity and ecological structure, composition and functions of the ecosystems and biomes in which they inhabit. Recent study on Mountain Lion (aka Cougar, Puma ) population by Mark Elbroch in Greater Yellowstone National Park in United States revealed astonishingly high species diversity in entolomogical, ornithological and mammalogical fronts. Elbroch’s study points out where keystone apex carnivore lives and hunt, their kills alone attract large numbers and high diversity of invertebrates and other vertebrates including birds and mammals in kill sites. Large carnivores often hunt large herbivores often weigh ten time more than their own body weight. Elbroch and his research team found out that Mountain Lion that kills 700 pounds Elk (aka Wapiti) leaves large proportion of the carrion (dead meat) which then become home to significantly high diversity of invertebrates notably beetles, slugs, insects and other entomologically important species. Rotting carcasses attract other carnivores including bears, foxes and wolves at the kill sites. The way Mountain Lion shapes up the ecosystem in North America, it is by some carnivore ecologists, refer to as true ecosystem engineer that help promotes high diversity of species thereby contributing to maintenance and sustainability of the ecological services, functions and significant diversity. Elbroch’s finding is valid for other obligate carnivores in Felid guild for example Jaguars and Tigers. Tigers in tropical and semi tropical Asia often hunts large ungulate (hoofed mammal). For example, in India, tiger prefers to hunt down the largest bovine : The wild Gaur (Bos gaurus). Weigh over 1000 kg, more than three times the weight of Bengal tiger, it is the largest extant (not extinct yet) ungulate in Indo Malayan ecosystems. Although, data on tiger kills focusing large to medium sized ungulates are sporadic and often scarce, it is nonetheless inferred that large kills like Gaur will attracts significantly higher number of other subordinate carnivores, other mammals and birds at the tiger’s kill sites. Therefore, healthy tiger population actively hunting down large ungulates in tropical ecosystems in Asia is true indication of the healthy ecosystems as they shape up the overall structure, diversity, compositions and functions of the ecosystems. It is not surprising that tiger serves as flagship umbrella species in India and other South Asian nations to bring about overall biodiversity conservation. On the other hand, declining population of tigers and the sorry-state-of-this-affairs apparent in tiger range nations are true indication of incremental damage and loss of intact and pristine ecosystems. Elbroch’s study on Mountain Lion kills is by no means limit only to Cougar, in fact this landmark study and its findings now enable us to give a true name to apex carnivores like Puma and Tigers as classic landscape ecosystem engineer.

In spite of significant ecological (and economic and societal) contributions by tigers, tiger numbers are declining exponentially with severe consequences leading to ecosystem malfunctioning and total breakdown of food-chain where tigers act as top predator. Recognizing the steep and dramatic decline of tiger population across Indo Malayan ecoregion, Global Tiger Recovery Program (GTRP) – the most ambitious and high-level international conservation initiative ever undertaken for single-species recovery in Asia – was launched in year 2010. GTRP was strongly supported and multilaterally embraced by some of the most prestigious international conservation organizations for example IUCN, WWF, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Smithsonian Institution. The fundamental goal of the GTRP is rooted into doubling the tiger numbers for the next 12 years from year 2010 right till year 2022 by coinciding with the Chinese New Year of the Tiger. The project was fashionably named as Tx2 or TX2 which arithmetically translates to Tiger times 2 hence doubling the tiger population size. In year 2010 when GTRP was launched in the form of St. Petersburg Declaration which then agreed by all 13 tiger range nations along with international conservation groups, tiger numbers were estimated to 3200 across Indo Malayan and Russian Far East ecoregions. Six years later in year 2016, tiger numbers were estimated to 3890 – a 21% increase since GTRP was launched. Doubling the tiger numbers from 3200 to 6400 by year 2022 is surely challenging and ambitious goal considering to the fact that nine years have gone past since the St. Petersburg Declaration and current estimation of tiger population across its range nations is far from reaching Tx2 target. The grim reality is tiger numbers are face with serious anthropogenic threats of various fronts and majority of the tiger nations are in fact loosing their tigers. For example Myanmar (former Burma), Cambodia and Vietnam have not witnessed any breeding population size since 2008. Hence, it can be inferred that these nations have already lost the species or tigers are simply functionally extinct due to the fact that no breeding tigers have been detected for the past 11 years. Countries like China, Thailand, Laos and part of India are facing similar problem where either breeding population has not been detected or population size become too insularized and small that tigers’ chances for long term survival in that particular ecosystem is none therefore the species may be functionally extinct.

Figure 2 : Fragmented Tiger Conservation Landscapes in Indo Malayan Ecoregion as reflected in Green overlay against the historic range of tigers in Asia. GIS Data : World Wildlife Fund (WWF) USA

Politically motivated high level inter-ministerial gathering to help rescue dwindling wild tigers of Asia certainly captured large scale international media coverage focusing GTRP in St. Petersburg in 2010. Tx2 was launched to double the tiger numbers by year 2022, millions of dollars were committed by international conservation groups and donor organizations from across the hemisphere and significantly remarkable numbers of groundbreaking ecological studies have been carried out to understand the demographic parameters and distribution patterns of tigers. Wild tigers entered into the realm of glossy publications and became ‘Paper Tiger’ whilst ‘Wild Tigers’ continue to disappear with a rate of 100 tigers a year due to anthropogenic insults across its range nations. ‘Paper Tigers’ were presented in international symposiums, workshops and conferences over and over to captivate the political, social and scientific momentums prior to and after St. Petersburg Declaration with little or no actual implementations of conservation action plans on the ground to increase tiger population. In spite of all these, large bodies of academic research papers focusing tigers already exist and the booming numbers of conservation organizations (mainly in the west) along with international campaign and media coverage investing on bringing the iconic tigers from near extinction crises are simply an ironic flip side of the same coin against the backdrop of habitat destruction, conversion of virgin tropical tiger ecosystems to monoculture cash crop to meet high demand for oil palm, aquaculture shrimp farms, rubber and teak plantation for the high market demands for western culture.

Figure 2 : GIS based image of heavily fragmented tiger conservation landscapes (TCL) against the background of historical tiger range. GIS Data: Global Forest Watch, World Wildlife Fund and IUCN

Despite the fact 70 million hectares of land that is earmarked as potential Tiger Conservation Landscape (TCL) still exist and three years left to reach Tx2 target by 2022, global tiger population size has not markedly increased. Chances are high that Tx2 target will not be achieved given the timeline therefore question arises with regards to Tx2 in terms of its planning, efficacy, statistical rigor and pragmatic implementation. 70 million hectares of TCL translates to total of 76 tiger conservation landscapes (see figure 2).

Figure 3 : GIS image : Red areas represent tiger presence and yellow areas comprise tiger’s functionally extinct status over the last 10 year. GIS Data : WWF USA, IUCN

These fragmented ecosystems are the last remaining habitats for tigers and other endangered faunas and floras. St. Petersburg Declaration on doubling the tiger numbers hence Tx2 was based on these TCL on figure 2 and out of 76 TCL, 29 of them or 38% of them were further earmarked as high priority TCL for meeting Tx2 target. GIS data on where tigers inhabit in terms of breeding population size and where tigers are functionally extinct that is no tigers were detected since 2008 already exist. Figure 3 delineates the TCLs where tigers are present (red in the map) and where tigers are functionally extinct (yellow in the map) in Indo Malayan ecoregion.

Figure 4 : GIS overlay delineates large swaths of Tx2 areas (blue in the map) where tigers have already functionally extinct hence impossible to double the tiger numbers in these TCLs reflected as blue by year 2022. GIS Data Courtesy : WWF USA and IUCN

Further analysis of GIS data (see figure 4 : All the blue areas are TCLs selected for meeting Tx2 target) on TCL earmarked as Tx2 under GTRP – St. Petersburg Declaration reveals majority of the TCLs to meet the Tx2 target to double the tiger numbers are in fact empty forest when it comes to tiger presence. For example, large swath of ecoregional TCLs straddling the border between Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos were selected for doubling the tiger numbers when data reveals that these areas have already lost tigers or tigers are functionally extinct (refer to figure 3) due to small and insularized population size with no presence of breeding females. Therefore it is not surprising that Tx2 target will not be met by year 2022 and the wild tiger will remain as paper tiger in the Chinese Year of the Tiger. After all how can tiger numbers be increased let alone doubling it when no tigers have been detected in majority of the tiger conservation landscape (TCL) that are chosen as Tx2 landscape. One can marshal an argument that so called ambitious Tx2 project initiated with weak foundation where prioritizing key tiger conservation landscapes were left out. On the contrary, pockets of fragmented ecosystems under TCLs with tiger presence still exist (see figure 3 : Red in the map) in southern and central India and in Indonesian island Sumatra. Tx2 failed to select these areas as priority TCLs to increase tiger numbers. Had these areas been earmarked as Tx2 landscape, paper tigers could have stood the chance to escape from conference rooms to become true wild tigers to roam free in Asia. Tiger are true landscape carnivore and it requires large areas (often as large as 100 sq km) for hunting, roaming, breeding and establishing its home range. It poses good reproductive capacity and given adequate prey base and quality habitat, its population can bounce back relatively quick. GIS data reveals large tract of fragmented tiger ecosystems exist in India and Sumatra where tiger presence is confirmed. Connecting these isolated and fragmented ecosystems by creating ecological corridors (aka wildlife corridors) to connect disjunct population for gene flow and confirmed breeding purpose hence managing the source-sink meta population structure of tiger conservation landscape against the backdrop of human-induced negative impacts should be at the top conservation priority for Tx2 to reasonably achieve part of its goal to double the tiger numbers by year 2022.

To raise a cub, mother tiger requires 3500 kg of meat per year. It translates to roughly hundred deer a year for one adult female tiger with cubs.

Tigers are breathtaking high profile landscape carnivore that provokes sheer sense of joy and excitement whenever and wherever one can see them. From historical hundred thousand population to mere 3800 within the last 100 years is true testimony to the fact that species long term survival rate is slim unless ecologically valid science bound conservation action plans are at place in an effective timeline. St. Petersburg Declaration to revive tigers from brink of extinction was popularized and spot-lighted over the last nine years yet tiger numbers continue to decline with limited positive impact of to reach Tx2 target to double the tiger numbers by year 2022. In the face of current anthropogenic impacts that looms over almost all tiger conservation landscapes (TCL), prioritizing the conservation action plans that incorporate GIS based ecological data on tiger presence and absence and to focus on creating ecological corridors to connects fragmented tiger landscapes across Indo Malayan ecoregion are top priorities to meet at least the partial target of Tx2 to double the tiger numbers by year 2022. Conservation focus should be on small isolated pockets of tiger conservation landscapes where tigers’ presence is fully confirmed as oppose to large swath of areas where tiger have not been detected for the past five years. Tx2 goal can only be achieved if it shifts its priority from focusing on areas where tigers have not been sighted for over the past 5 years to areas where tiger presence is 100% confirmed for example southern and central Indian fragmented tiger conservation landscape and Sumatran rainforest.

Connecting Ecological Corridors to Conserve Outstanding Biological Diversity in Indo Malayan Ecoregion : Tiger as Touchstone Umbrella Species!

Connecting Ecological Corridors to Conserve Outstanding Biological Diversity in Indo Malayan Ecoregion : Tiger as Touchstone Umbrella Species!

Mohammed Ashraf

Bengal Tiger as Umbrella Species

In spite of the large scale investment on tiger conservation over the last quarter of a century, tiger numbers continue to decline at dramatic rate. Considerable conservation efforts, initiatives and campaigns both nationally and internationally have been spearheaded with mixed results. In some nations, tiger numbers dropped to near zero with little or no hope for long term survival in the wild. In other nations, population seem to be stabilized and only few nations managed to increase tiger numbers so far. India and Nepal have made good advancement to increase tiger numbers over the last decade or so and governments, civil societies and NGOs of these nations alongside international donor organizations are collaborating to help secure tiger population and its habitats for long term persistence of wild tigers. Since the 2010 Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg in Russia, the first most high-level government meeting for conserving single species in Asia, states of all thirteen nations where tiger population is arguably present, made commitment to help protect tigers in their respective nations through ambitious project called Tx2 which aim to double the tiger numbers from current population of 3900 to 7800 by year 2022 – coinciding with next Chinese Year of the Tiger. It certainly is an ambitious project that came under St. Petersburg Declaration agreed by all the thirteen tiger range states. Three quarter of the time has elapsed since St. Petersburg Declaration with only three years left to double the global wild tiger population, countries have lost tigers, large numbers of tiger habitats across Asia has been converted to mono culture cash crop cultivation, tigers essential prey population has been decimated, forests and grasslands are encroaches and decimated and direct killing of tigers for its body parts, retaliation continued unchecked and unabated. The future of tigers’ survival in the wild looks bleak and pessimistic. In the face of current population status of tigers and considering to the fact that time is ticking to meet St. Petersburg Declaration for Tx2 deadline by year 2022, it is critically important to revitalize our tiger projects that can reflect more holistic approach of tiger conservation where significant potential to approach tiger conservation as key proponent of overall biodiversity conservation should sits right at the heart of all tiger ecology and conservation action plans across Indo-Malayan tiger landscape.

This young transient Bengal tiger was captured in came trap in restored wildlife corridor in Bhutan. Wildlfie corridors play essential role for improving dwindling population size by aiding tigers to disperse from its source pool that are often small protected areas in many parts of Asia. Image courtesy : World Wide Fund for Nature, 2017 Report – Beyond the Stripes

Tigers are truly a high profile landscape predator which require relatively large landscape for hunting, breeding, foraging and for home range establishment. It is a flagship carnivore that has catalyzed significant social and political momentum in the past and often served to raise ecological and conservation education across the hemispheres. Since, its ecological and behavioral attributes are deeply rooted into harnessing the opportunities of large landscape, it is critically important that tiger conservation initiatives focus on safeguarding landscapes that are beyond protected areas where majority of

Tiger Conservation Landscape : These are the only areas where tigers now live against the ongoing anthropogenic disturbances in heavily fragmented ecosystems as indicated in green. GIS Data Source : World Wildlife Fund, Washington D.C. USA.

the tigers now inhabit. In spit of the fact that there are still seventy million hectares of landscape available for tigers across Indo-Malayan biographic ecoregion, over eighty percent of the current tiger population is restricted within protected areas of various sizes. Protected areas lone cannot help secure long term survival of breeding tiger population. For tigers to live this century and beyond, it is essential that landscape corridors that link source population currently residing in protected areas are created and maintained for healthy breeding tigers to disperse and establish their own home range. Sadly, it is often outside of the protected areas where land degradation, agricultural expansion, mining, energy and other anthropogenic disturbances that take place. Creating ecological corridors to connect protected areas will ensure that the entire tiger landscape has been protected. It will significantly enhance ecological diversity and gene flow not only for tigers but also for large suits of species of flora and fauna that share lands with tiger.

Panthera tigris

Tigers are classic keystone umbrella species that help protect multitude of endangered mega fauna including Orangutan and Rhinoceros in tropical and semi tropical ecosystems across South and South East Asia. For example, where critically endangered primate Orangutan (Pongo abelii) and Sumatran Rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) live, hundred percent of their land overlap with tiger habitats. Over thirty percent of endangered Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) population falls under tiger landscapes in countries like Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Since these species are also endangered and often served as flagship species, conserving tigers simply means, these species receive automatic protection. Hence the word ‘umbrella species’ for tiger conservation has special meaning in terms of bringing about high profile vertebrate conservation management and education across Indo Malayan landscape. Some of the most outstanding and most richest biological assemblages are found in tiger landscapes in Asia. Four Biodiversity Hotspots – the worlds most richest part in terms of biodiversity – lie in Indo Malayan ecoregions and three of these Biodiversity Hotspots are in India and Nepal alone. They cover majority of the tiger landscapes hence conserving tigers not only help protect these critically important global biodiversity hotspots but also help safeguarding astonishingly high numbers of species from all taxa notably mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fishes – the essential components of tropical diversity. The diversity of ecosystems from tall grasslands in Eastern India to Himalayan foothills, the temperate high altitude forests where critically endangered Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia) roams in Nepal to the largest mangrove swamp of Bangladesh where only remaining Bengal tigers live, conserving tiger habitats beyond protected areas through creation, restoration and maintenance of wildlife and ecological corridors for dispersal, gene flow, ecosystem functions is not just for tigers itself but more importantly for multitude of charismatic and enigmatic species that are facing global extinction assaults stemming from human induced disturbances across tropical and semi tropical Asia.

Current tiger range (green) and Tx2 range (red) to double the tiger numbers by year 2022 against the background of historical range of tigers (Panthera tigris). GIS Data Source : World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Washington D.C. USA.

Landscape based tiger ecology and conservation management has been well integrated in many parts of South Asia and its effectiveness to improve tiger population size is well documented in Nepal, Bhutan and India. Fragmented tiger ecosystems in the form of protected areas in India for example simply are not enough, if tigers to survive well beyond this century. Considering to the fact, over 70 million hectares of forests are still available for tigers to disperse through establishment of ecological dispersal corridors, restoration and establishment of landscape corridors will not only help benefits to increase tiger numbers, given adequate protection of course, but will immensely benefits large suits of biologically diverse flora and fauna along with multiple numbers of critically endangered flagship vertebrates like Snow Leopards, Great Indian Hornbills, Indian Rhinoceroses, Asian Elephants, Burmese Pythons, Orangutans, and Sumatran Rhinos to name few. Long term survival of these species in the wild depends on securing long term future for tigers in Asia.

Promoting ecological science across the hemispheres

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