Scars and Stripes: Tracking the tigers of Thailand
Not many of us get to share our work space with wild tigers but for Eric Ash of Freeland, the forests of Thailand and their tigers are part of his day job…
Tigers are elusive, solitary, and wild. Outside of certain protected areas in places like India, where they may be observed from the comfort of a vehicle, tigers are understandably wary of humans. This is certainly true for tigers in Southeast Asia, where their populations have plummeted, some struggling to hang on and others wiped out completely.
Our tiger monitoring work in Eastern Thailand relies, to a great extent on camera traps and the photos of tigers they provide. The use of camera traps, remotely triggered by heat and movement, has revolutionized the study and monitoring of wildlife over the past two decades. They can provide important insight into tiger behaviour, range, population, and ecology; information that can be used to develop protection strategies. Notably, this information is collected non-invasively, so we can rest assured that we can observe these tigers, in most cases, without interrupting natural behaviours.
I have worked for over five years to catalogue every camera trap image of these tigers (among over 100,000 camera trap images) identifying each individual by their stripe patterns. There is certainly something to be said for observing a tiger in the wild and the insight this provides on tiger behaviour. However, having spent an extraordinary amount of time cataloguing images of tigers in our survey area, I do feel a sense of these tigers as individuals, with the smallest glimpses into their stories and struggles. As an objective observer, I avoid anthropomorphizing these wild animals, but it is nonetheless easy to feel a sense of acquaintance when you check camera traps and see some familiar faces (or stripes, more appropriately).
We are fortunate that some of the individuals we have recorded since we started monitoring in the area in 2008 continue to be observed. This is also the case for many of the same individuals we have recorded years ago. This may indicate that poaching is at low levels, though we must always be vigilant.
The first tiger we recorded in 2008, a female with the rather uninspiring name of “F1”, was again photographed in 2016 during a survey conducted by Freeland and fellow NGO Panthera (the global wild cat conservation organization). We estimate her to be at least 12 years old, an age considered to be an accomplishment for tigers in the wild.
The magic of M2
Our most frequently photographed tiger, known as “M2”, has been the dominant male of one key area of tiger habitat for many years. An impressively large male, he has reigned over his large territory, defending it from rival males year after year. He is also estimated to be at least 12 years old. He wears the years and relics of hard-fought battles on an increasingly scarred face.
Life is tough for tigers in the wild
Securing a territory with enough food and water to survive is a challenging task, as is defending it from other tigers who may be younger, fitter, and equally desperate for access to food and mates. Battles between tigers are often violent and can result in serious injury, or even death. In addition, to survive a tiger must hunt prey that is extremely difficult to catch. For a tiger, a successful kill can happen as infrequently as 1 out of 20 attempts. Lastly, they must often avoid poachers’ traps as well.
Scars and stripes
The risks and challenges faced by wild tigers is evident with recent camera trap images showing M2 with fresh, open wounds, potentially caused by another tiger or a failed hunting attempt. In addition, for the past year, he has been living with a large growth on his front right leg. He certainly has his work cut out and it is uncertain if he will be able to surmount these challenges.
Tigers survive through great adversity and are remarkably resilient. Another tiger we have photographed, a scrappy male by the name of “M5”, sustained a severe eye injury, presumably in a fight, in 2012. Following his injury, he surfaced after a long period without detection in another survey area and spent the following years seemingly as a transient, moving from one part of the landscape to another. Nonetheless, he persevered despite the injury to his eye.
Despite this resilience, tigers are still under tremendous threat. In Thailand, potentially fewer than 200 individuals remain, representing some of the last populations for Indochinese tigers (Panthera tigris corbetti) remaining in the wild. It is this precarious position that compels us to maintain a high level of secrecy about specific locations where tigers occur, lest this information fall into the wrong hands.
I am humbled and honoured to have the opportunity to gain insight into the stories of these tigers and spend time in their forest. Their stories and the data gleaned from our surveys are made all the more dramatic when the stakes for tigers are this high. This underscores the importance of continuing our monitoring and protection work alongside the Thai government and our partners, including Panthera, and with generous support from David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and its TigerTime campaign.
It is my hope that with additional support these tigers can continue to write their own stories, deep within Thailand’s incredible forests, well into the future.
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