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05/03/2013

Tracking poop to help big cats

Bengal
Four-year-old Bengal tiger "Mulan Jamila" plays with its keeper Soleh at the Al Khaffah Islamic school in Malang, Indonesia's East Java province in March. (Reuters)

Saving endangered wildlife means taking the extra step. For instance, remember how scientists have resorted to giving Viagra pills and showing porn to Giant pandas?

Well, scientists trying to track Bengal tigers are also using a unique method: tracking poop.  

Here is why: Bengal tigers are native to Southeast Asia and there are about 1,850 in the wild. But since it’s tough to count them because they are so elusive, researchers in Nepal have developed a system they think will make it easier to figure out how many tigers live there. They are using genetic data out of their poop, reports Mother Jones.

True thing.

The Nepal Tiger Genome Project has collected more than a thousand samples from the southern part of the country known as the Terai Arc landscape, believed to be one of the last remaining tiger habitats. DNA from the poop allows researchers to study and catalog the genetic material and to create a database of all the country’s tigers.

To gather the samples, the project sent surveyors — armed with specimen vials and field surveys for logging the GPS location, type of forest cover, and condition of the scat — into four national parks and the wildlife corridors that tigers are thought to use.

The hope was they would collect 700 samples but the crew turned up 1,200 over two months.

“We collected a lot more s*&% than we thought we would,” Dibesh Karmacharya, executive director of the project, said to Mother Jones.

The poop project isn’t just useful to keep track of Bengal tiger numbers but also is a weapon to tackle poachers. If part of a tiger is confiscated from poachers, researchers can use the DNA to see if it’s been previously cataloged in their system.

The project was founded in 2011.

Raveena Aulakh is the Star's environment reporter. She is intrigued by climate change and its impact, now and long-term, and wildlife. Follow her on Twitter @raveenaaulakh

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