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University of Minnesota

Saving wild tigers

December 23, 2008

University students get up close to a tiger cub at the Pratubchang Wildlife Breeding Center in Thailand.

University students get up close to a tiger cub at the Pratubchang Wildlife Breeding Center in Thailand.

View more photos from the U's 2008 Thailand field course.

U professor leads tiger conservation projects in Asia; establishes field course in Thailand for students

By Pauline Oo

When Daniel Kohn signed up for a three-week January course, little did the University of Minnesota senior know he would end up landing a job in northern Thailand less than a year later. Kohn, who graduated from the U in May, is currently conducting tiger prey surveys at the Western Forest Complex--the largest contiguous forest area in Southeast Asia.

"More than anything, it was the friendships I helped build with the people working here at Khao Nang Rum Wildlife Research Station [in the heart of the Western Forest Complex] during the course that motivated me to come back," says Kohn, who plans to continue his graduate studies in conservation biology when he returns to the United States in 2009. "They made me feel like part of the family ... I spent weeks getting to know the rangers and research technicians, who are now some of my best friends."

Large Mammal Research Techniques in Tropical Forests is the brainchild of J.L. David Smith, a University professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology. The course is offered in partnership with the Khao Nang Rum Wildlife Research Station and Mahidol University, one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in Thailand.

A group of 16 students will call the wildlife station home between December 27, 2008, and January 18, 2009. Like their counterparts on the inaugural trip last winter, the students will learn a host of wildlife conservation techniques, such as animal handling and immobilization, camera trapping, prey and scat assessment, and radio-telemetry.

Since tigers are at the top of the food chain, the conservation of wild tigers involves the preservation of not only their habitat, but also the prey populations (like deer, wild boar, and sambar) that support them. According to the World Wildlife Fund, only about 4,000 tigers remain in the wild—down from more than 100,000—and they occupy only seven percent of their historic range. Poaching for pelts and bones (the latter used in traditional Chinese medicine) threatens the animal's survival, as does loss of prey and habitat due to uncontrolled development.

The ultimate goal of the field trip, says Smith, "is to give students experience in designing and doing field research on large mammals," and in this case, with a cultural element thrown in.

"We're exposing them to what conservation is like in another country, what the problems are and how their approaches are different," says Smith, who saves tiger habitats by connecting them so tigers living in one reserve can go to another, allowing a larger population and a higher probability of survival.

Smith came to the University of Minnesota as a graduate student focused on population studies in 1974. His interest in tigers came about a couple of years later, following two unconnected events: the death of a Smithsonian Institution researcher he was to work with in Africa and the hospitalization of another researcher in Nepal, after he was attacked by a tiger.

"I was never going to work on tigers," says Smith. "But my [research colleague] fell over one day in the office with a brain tumor and was dead three months later. So I didn't have a project. I went to the people at the Smithsonian, and they said, 'Why don't you go help out in Nepal.'" (It turns out that the researcher in Nepal was studying tigers, and the same office at the Smithsonian that would have funded Smith's sojourn to Africa was funding his project.)

Today, more than 30 years later, Smith's involvement with wild cats and his Rolodex of contacts in Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, China, Bangladesh, and Mongolia has grown. He established the Collaborative Laboratory for Asian Wildlife Studies, or CLAWS, on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul in 2007. (Virtually all its projects, which focus on the conservation of an individual species or group of species, are conducted in partnership with an Asian government agency or university.) He recruits graduate students from abroad and trains them in conservation in the hopes that they'll return to their homeland and work to conserve tigers and their habitat. (Nearly 80 percent of his students have been from Asia.) And almost all of his American students end up visiting or working in Asia after their first three years at the U.

"The best part of the [field] trip was being completely immersed in a different culture in a very remote part of the world," says recent grad Caitlin Smith. "I will never forget my experiences in the jungle—showering in the river, hearing elephants make their way through the jungle while I was trying to fall asleep in my hammock, [listening] to gibbons howl, and [watching] tropical birds all around us while eating breakfast. Who can say they have experienced that?"

University students pay about $3,500 for the three-credit course, which includes airfare, food, lodging, and transportation. "It's absolutely [a] great price for the trip," she adds.

Since a 1989 moratorium on logging, Thailand has created more protected areas than almost any other country in Asia in the last 10 years, says Smith, who typically spends four to five months a year outside the United States. The Khao Nang Rum Wildlife Research Station, which serves as home base for the students' daily field activities, is just one place that's beefing up its staff, building the next generation of large mammal researchers who can care for Thailand's wildlife sanctuaries and help the country find a balance between development and conservation.

Smith says the health of the tiger population is an important indicator of biodiversity and a barometer of sustainability.

"[Former Indian Prime Minister] Indira Gandhi once said at a big tiger meeting in New Delhi that when our countries are no longer fit for tigers, they're not going to be very fit for us either," says Smith.

Related links
Tiger research at the U of M and the field course in Thailand
University's CLAWS project in Nepal slide show
Western Forest Complex in Thailand