Jenny Kaden, RZSS Senior Lab Technician, explains how our tigers at Edinburgh Zoo are helping wild tigers get along with their human neighbours in Nepal… thanks to their poo! (And some help from the RZSS WildGenes team.)
Tigers in Nepal
The forests of the Terai region of Nepal are home to one of the world’s most elusive top predators, the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris). While it is easy to admire the beauty and power of these carnivores from the comfort of your sitting room, living with them can be an altogether different experience.
One of the biggest threats to tigers is conflict with the humans sharing their habitat. Both humans and tigers use the same forest for essential resources and this overlap can lead to predation of livestock by the tigers or even attacks on the villagers themselves.
As the human footprint increasingly extends into forest landscapes and successful conservation efforts in Nepal lead to growing numbers of tigers in the wild, incidences of tiger sightings and interactions between tigers and people become more frequent.
For tigers to make a full comeback in Nepal, it is essential to have the support of the people that live side-by-side with these amazing animals.
Genetics and tigers
Jenny Kaden (RZSS Senior Lab Technician - centre) and Dr Alex Ball (RZSS Conservation Programme Manager - left) join the lab team at the Centre for Molecular Dynamics Nepal (CMDN).
The Living With Tigers collaborative programme, run by Chester Zoo and Green Governance Nepal, aims to put initiatives in place to reduce the amount of human-wildlife conflict in Nepal. The project has been working directly with the local villages to try and understand the socio-ecological issues at play, as well as using genetics to answer questions about the tiger populations and their main prey.
Here in Scotland, we have been developing a genetic test that will identify what wild tigers are eating. At the RZSS WildGenes Lab, based in Edinburgh Zoo, we have developed a metabarcoding protocol which allows us to use genetics to analyse the contents of faecal samples.
Being able to search for genetic ‘barcodes’ and identify each species within the samples means we can find out if the tigers are eating livestock and where. We can also find out if there are specific wild prey species that these tigers rely on.
We trialled the protocol using faecal samples from leopards and tigers collected by keepers at Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park. After months of development, we got everything working and were ready to transfer the protocol to our partners in Nepal.
Collaboration with the CMDN Lab
While the field teams are busy in the forests, work is also underway in the Centre for Molecular Dynamics Nepal (CMDN) in Kathmandu. The CMDN is the leading molecular genetics lab in Nepal, and we have had the pleasure of previously collaborating with them on the Himalayan Wolves Project.
Dr Alex Ball (RZSS Conservation Programme Manager) looks on as CMDN lab technicians Jyoti Joshi (Right) and Hemanta Chaudhary (Left) work through the protocol
Alex and I travelled to the CMDN lab last year to train their lab technicians in the newly developed protocol. The excellent lab skills of the CMDN technicians meant that the training sessions went smoothly and an entire run through of the protocol was quickly completed.
We selected a range of samples to work on, covering the two main national parks in Nepal, Bardia National Park and Chitwan National Park.
DNA extracted from the faecal samples of wild Nepalese leopards and tigers was run through the metabarcoding protocol, culminating in a Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) library being run on site at CMDN. These NGS methods allow huge amounts of genetic data to be generated from multiple samples at the same time.
This was the first time this protocol had been run in Nepal and everyone in the lab was excited to see the results as they came in. It got quite crowded around the laptop as the first results were revealed!
Dr Alex Ball and CMDN Lab staff crowd around the laptop to see the first results of the diet metabarcoding protocol.
It’s a success!
Initial analysis of the data showed that the tigers sampled in the Bardia and Chitwan National Parks were eating a variety of wild prey species, not domestic livestock. This is good news and a key test for the new protocol.
Work can now begin on the huge number of samples collected throughout other regions of Nepal, including the buffer zones between human settlements and the national parks.
As well as the important data that is going to be generated for the Living With Tigers project, successful transfer of the metabarcoding protocol means that the CMDN lab now have another molecular tool at their disposal, helping them to research and protect Nepal’s wonderful and varied wildlife.
RZSS WildGenes Senior Lab Technician
The training in Nepal is part of a larger project focusing on Human-Felid conflict within and around the National Parks of Nepal. It’s a combined effort with our partners at Chester Zoo, the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCru) at Oxford University and CMDN.
The work of the RZSS WildGenes Lab is also supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.