Researching tigers while riding an elephant: Ph.D student studies spatial distribution of tigers in India

Seth Bodine

Riding on the backs of elephants in India, surrounded by grass that grows up to 20 feet tall, a Colorado State University student researched the population and spatial ecology of tigers.

Pranav Chanchani, a Ph.D student in ecology, received funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, World Wide Fund for Nature and additional equipment and logistical support from the government of India. He worked in three natural parks, including Dudhwa National Park on the border of India and Nepal.

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elephant in elephant grass (2)
(Photo courtesy of Pranav Chanchani.)

Chanchani started in 2008 with coursework, did research in India for four years, came back in 2013 and is now finishing his dissertation. He was guided by wildlife ecology professor Dr. Barry Noon, who has been working in India since 1994.

Chanchani said he started studying tigers because they are considered an “umbrella species,” or animals that indirectly protect others in the ecosystem.

“If you preserve a species like the tiger, you end up conserving many other species of mammals, birds and other life forms that occupy those habitats, and benefit from those areas being preserved,” Chanchani said.

While the study was originally entirely ecologically based on studying the spatial distribution of tigers, it eventually tore off into areas of focus Chanchani said. He also studies the coexistence of humans and tigers, and the relationship between humans, tigers and the forests.

India’s forest cover is less than 4 percent, and there is a large amount of pressure on the resources provided from them, Chanchani said. 

“Unlike national parks in the U.S., say, Yellowstone or any other place where you can really set aside large amounts of lands for nature preservation, we aspire to do that in our national parks in India,” Chanchani said. “But, it’s much harder to achieve that because there’s a very high social dependence on forests and national resources.”

(Photo Courtesy of Pranav Chanchani).
(Photo courtesy of Pranav Chanchani.)

The tigers themselves were seen by setting thousands of motion-setting camera traps in the area. Chanchani said each tiger has a unique pattern of stripes, almost like a fingerprint.  

Statistics and probability played a large role in the research. It was used to help distinguish the absence and non-detection of tigers.

“So, a lot of people will think that ecologies is a discipline for naturalists, and of course ecologists have a deep abiding interest in natural history,” Chanchani said. “But now, I’d say it is as much statistics as it is ecology.”

While the study was done mostly on elephant back, there were many times when Chanchani was on the ground.

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(Photo Courtesy of Pranav Chanchani).
(Photo courtesy of Pranav Chanchani.)

“When you’re out there the feeling is in many ways like being a species of prey in a forest,”Chanchani said. “Tigers don’t naturally prey on humans, but they’re known to do it.”

Chanchani has had two instances where he has encountered tigers in a close environment.

“It’s a complex set of emotions that includes fear, that includes awe, and at that point you know you are at that creature’s mercy,” Chanchani said. “But, you also have an understanding that unless provoked or threatened, they won’t go after you and attack you. Every experience is quasi-spiritual it seems, because I can’t think of any other interaction with a living being that can evoke such a complex feelings and emotions.”

The experience of encountering a tiger is also a humbling experience, Chanchani said. 

elephant_transect
(Photo courtesy of Pranav Chanchani.)

“In many ways it kind of just reminds of your place in the world,” Chanchani said. “Technology has kind of allowed human beings to master of dominate the environment, but when it comes down to it, you’re just another creature in a complex world, in a complex ecosystem.”

One of Chanchani’s findings is that the tigers population is not consistently the highest in protected areas. The areas that have higher population in areas of human use, such as places of timber extraction.

“I think that raises a lot of questions about the kinds of spaces we need to conserve this species and the threshold for human disturbance,” Chanchani said.

Chanchani is still researching the coexistence of tigers and human beings.He said this brings ramifications on how conservation is planned, and zoned, if the goal is to separate humans from tigers, and hopefully minimize the chance of a tiger being poached. Chanchani’s findings influenced the creation of two new protected areas, the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve in 2014 and the Nandhour Wildlife Sanctuary in 2013.

“Clearly, the most rewarding part of my career … is really my interaction and my relationships I have with my students,” Noon said. “… and, obviously, when you’re working with doctoral students, you’re working from anywhere from four to six years, that’s the typical duration from start to end. So, you form a very tight collaboration.”

Collegian Science Reporter Seth Bodine can be reached online at news@collegian.com or on Twitter at @Sbodine120.