Scientists Use DNA From Poop to Track Rare Tigers

Mother Jones

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Update: Kathmandu-based reporter Kashish Das Shrestha was also along on this reporting venture, and has published his story on the Tiger Genome Project on his website, Sustainable Nepal.

Bengal tigers can be elusive. They’re classified as an endangered species, they’re mostly nocturnal, and if they had their way, they wouldn’t see many humans, either. Native to Southeast Asia, there are only an estimated 1,850 left in the wild. That makes counting them somewhat difficult—but researchers in Nepal have developed a system that they think will make it easier to figure out how many tigers live there. They’re pulling genetic data out of their poop.

Founded in 2011, the Nepal Tiger Genome Project has collected more than a thousand scat samples from the southern part of the country known as the Terai Arc landscape, one of the last remaining tiger habitats on the earth. Not to get too graphic, but when tigers do their doo, it sloughs off some of their cells on the way out, from which scientists can extract DNA. The DNA allows the researchers to study and catalog the genetic material and to create a database of all the country’s tigers.

Dibesh Karmacharya is the executive director of the project, which he runs through his biotechnology company, Intrepid Nepal, and the Center for Molecular Dynamics-Nepal, a research organization that he also directs. Karmacharya returned to Nepal after 14 years in the US working in biotech, and started the lab to focus mainly on molecular diagnostics for human diseases. The lab’s work on the Tiger Genome Project brings together two things Karmacharya loves—animals and genetics. “I wanted to be a wildlife photographer,” he told me in his office in Kathmandu last week. “I could never get a job doing wildlife in the US. I ended up getting a job in genetics, because that was my skill.”

Dibesh Karmacharya, executive director of the Nepal Tiger Genome Project. Kate Sheppard

The wildlife genetics work started when the World Wildlife Fund asked the lab to help track snow leopards, a threatened species native to central Asia. After seeing the success of the snow leopard work, Karmacharya and several researchers from the US—Marcella Kelly, an associate professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech, and Lisette Waits, a professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife at the University of Idaho—proposed the Tiger Genome Project and secured a $270,000 grant from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to fund the initial work. (Full disclosure: I was in Nepal to help with a USAID-sponsored environmental reporting workshop.)

To gather the samples, the Tiger Genome 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 to pass between parks. Project leaders hoped to collect 700 samples, but the crew turned up 1,200 over the course of more than two months. “We collected a lot more shit than we thought we would,” Karmacharya joked.

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Scientists Use DNA From Poop to Track Rare Tigers

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