Several species of vertebrates, particularly carnivores and other large mammals, are threatened by widespread declines and local extinctions because of dwindling resources as also conflict with humans. WCS – India has been applying science to advance the understanding of several threatened species and taxa, and based on this understanding, intervened to assist in population recoveries.
Our long-term research projects focus on endangered species such as the tiger, leopard, dhole, elephant and large herbivores. In India, we have pioneered the development of advanced wildlife study methods including line transect surveys for estimating large herbivore densities in forests; techniques for safe capture, sedation and radio-tracking of large and small carnivores; photographic capture-recapture sampling using camera traps, and habitat occupancy estimation from sign surveys for a diverse range of species.
Other focal areas of research include modelling wildlife population dynamics, development of advanced statistical models for animal population assessments, studies of human dimensions of wildlife conservation, development of rigorous field protocols, analytical approaches and software for wildlife population estimation, among others. Our robust methods and practices in wildlife conservation are being increasingly adopted by national governments as well as non-governmental conservation organizations across the world.
The tiger (Panthera tigris) has been the flagship species for biodiversity and wildlife conservation in India since 1972. The tiger being the top predator is on top of the food chain and helps keep the wild ungulate numbers in check, thus also ensuring a balance of the herbivores and the vegetation. It is hence that the well-being of the tiger is equated to that of the ecosystem. India has led global efforts to save tigers in terms of commitment and investments. Today, India supports by far the largest number of tigers globally.
WCS – India has played a significant role in tiger recovery efforts in the country since 1988. We have applied science to saving tigers on ground through extensive ecological surveys and conservation intervention projects. By developing cutting-edge methodologies and conservation models, and by sharing these freely with others, WCS – India has multiplied its conservation impact several fold world-wide.
Our scientific work started with a single research project on tigers and their prey, in Nagarahole during the late 1980s. While the initial work focussed on prey-predator relationships, relationships between large predator species, and factors enabling the coexistence of multiple large predators at high densities, the focus soon moved to assessments of population and demographic parameters.
We have developed new, reliable methods to monitor tiger and prey populations (see Development of Methodologies), and used these new approaches to rigorously monitor tiger and prey population dynamics, starting in Nagarahole, and soon (mid-1990s through the early 2000s) expanding to cover sites across the central Western Ghats, central India, western India, eastern and north-eastern India. Our long-term database of individual tigers, derived mainly from our camera trap surveys, now includes nearly 1000 individuals, cumulatively. Recent work examined how spatial and temporal associations between tigers, leopards and dholes change across a gradient of resource availability and human disturbance.
AP/Telangana: We are putting in place rigorous monitoring programmes for tigers and their prey in Amrabad Tiger Reserve, Nagarjunasagar Srisailam Tiger Reserve and Gundlabrahmeswaram (GBM) sanctuary in Telengana and Andhra Pradesh which currently hold low densities of both prey and tiger, but show great potential for recoveries if factors responsible for depressed densities can be addressed. We are working on a number of conservation interventions that are expected over time to lead to the gradual recovery of tigers and prey, and the rigorous monitoring programmes will help us track and understand those recoveries.
North-east India: WCS-India is working on a long-term project to facilitate cross-border wildlife movement along the fragmented Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong-Nagaland-Myanmar stretch. The aim is to connect Kaziranga National Park, which has a high-density source population of tigers, to the 2000-km2 Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary in Myanmar. Connectivity is expected to secure the low-density resident tiger population at Htamanthi. However, the linking process would involve securing habitats in Assam and Nagaland that lie in between the two parks.
Towards this end, the WCS-India project, supported by the Integrated Tiger Habitat Conservation Program (sponsored by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and KfW), has conducted ecological and social surveys in 41 villages of Nagaland, to gauge local support. As part of the ecological survey, the wildlife supported by the landscape was documented from direct sightings as well as indirect animal signs. Social surveys looked at the perception of the locals towards conservation, while also gathering information on animal sightings in the past and present.
Ecology and Behaviour of Threatened Species
Our scientists are developing a marine conservation programme with the strength of different national and international networks/organizations as well as several grassroots groups. Coral reef ecology, reef fish communities and community dynamics of the marine ecosystem and the role that local community institutions play in regulating marine resource use are the subjects of study. Current work focusses on (1) documenting patterns and processes of reef ecosystem (2) describing on-going shifts on reef ecosystems caused due to the impact of humans and climate change.
Development of Methodologies
WCS – India has been very active in the development of methodologies related to estimating population and other related ecological parameters. Many of the methods and study protocols developed by us are now widely used globally.
WCS – India was the first in the country to put in place a long-term monitoring program for ungulates and other herbivores, using line transect sampling in 1989. The study design, field protocols and analytical methods have all been continually refined since then. Camera trap sampling of tigers in a capture recapture framework was developed in Nagarahole in the early 1990s, and has since been adopted worldwide and used for a large variety of species with individually identifiable markings.
WCS – India has led and has been closely involved with the development of technologies, field protocols and analytical approaches related to camera trap-based density estimation, including field sampling schedules. We have developed a software program called ExtractCompare that allows speedy and reliable identification of tigers from camera trap photographs. More recently, we have developed a freely downloadable software package called SPACECAP. This new approach is more flexible than conventional capture recapture models and is less prone to biases arising from various factors.
WCS – India has also been closely associated with the development of approaches to investigating the spatial distribution of species when they are not always detected. One of the earliest occupancy models was developed by our program in 2002 and we have actively refined and extended the approach. This includes developing an analytical approach for situations when sampling for species’ presence is carried out along roads and trails.
All our methodological developments have passed the international scientific peer-review process. We also ensure that these methods are accessible to field biologists across the world by publishing more than 150 scientific papers, technical manuals and instructional DVDs, as well as through courses and workshops conducted by WCS – India staff for scientific researchers, faculty and students, forest managers, as well as frontline forest department field staff.