Assessment of captured conflict tigers
Captured tigers form conflict situations must be assessed to determine the best course of action. Potential outcomes include:
- Releasing the tiger where it is
- Translocating the tiger elsewhere
- Rehabilitation followed by release (with or without translocation)
- Removing the tiger permanently from the wild
Both rehabilitation and translocation can be high risk strategies and are extremely costly to execute well. In many cases the only viable options may be permanent removal from the wild or release. Clearly such decisions should not be taken lightly and a through assessment of the situation should be made, including:
- Health assessment
- Demographic considerations
- Available resources
Health assessment: Captured conflict tigers should undergo a full health assessment. (See Clinical examination). Poor health and inability to hunt effectively can certainly play a role in conflict between humans and tigers. There have been numerous cases of conflict tigers being injured or incapacitated in some way and resorting to predating on domestic animals or humans when they are unable to stalk and kill wild prey. In recent years, in Russia, there has also been an association between conflict and infection with Canine Distemper Virus. (Details of capture and immobilisation of tigers are given elsewhere). During the health assessment, particular attention should be paid to the following:-
- General body condition: If the tiger is thin or underweight effort should be made to ascertain why this is the case. Are there injuries which have reduced its ability to hunt, for example? Or evidence of disease? In an otherwise healthy animal, poor body condition may be an indicator that there is insufficient prey within the tiger’s territory to support it. In this case it may be appropriate to consider translocation.
- Reproductive status: Pregnant females are under increased metabolic stress and heavily pregnant animals may be less able to hunt. Those that are lactating will be nursing cubs, and the conflict may have occurred in response to a perceived threat. Nursing mothers should not be removed from the wild unless the cubs are also present and can be assessed at the same time. If this is not the case, but the mother is injured a GPS collar may be used to track the mother back to her cubs so the whole family can be assessed, and appropriate action can be taken.
- Ambulation: One of the key requirements of hunting is the ability to move quickly and precisely. Damage to any of the limbs or digits may hinder this. In some cases, this damage may be reversible and the tiger therefore a candidate for rehabilitation and release. A common example of this is when a tiger may have been impaled by porcupine quills, causing soft tissue damage. Animals with bony injuries, such as fractures or amputations, do not tend to recover function as well, and therefore are less suited for rehabilitation and release. This is particularly the case when joints are affected.
- Teeth: There is historic anecdotal evidence that ‘man-killers’ are the result of broken canine teeth. While this theory has been contested, teeth can be a good way of aging an animal and getting an idea of its general condition and fitness. For example, an older animal, with multiple broken teeth, may be more prone to conflict and not as well suited to release.
- Infectious disease: If tigers caught during conflict interventions are suffering from, or suspected of suffering from, a serious infectious disease that may be passed to other tigers, a period of treatment in rehabilitation may be necessary. Infection with Canine Distemper Virus would be an obvious example.
- Collection of samples: Capture due to conflict is a great opportunity to screen for infectious disease. Such diseases could have implications at both the individual and population levels and the opportunity to sample these animals should not be missed. If facilities or finances do not allow for testing at the time, samples should still be collected and stored for screening at a later date. As a minimum all animals should be blood sampled, this should include 5 ml in heparin, 5 ml in EDTA, 5 ml in a plain tube and a further 10 ml which should be collected in a plain tube and then spun and separated for serum. In addition, at least three blood smears should be made. One of these should be stained with Diff-Quick, the remainder should be fixed with ethanol and frozen. A manual PCV should be recorded wherever possible. Additional samples of value include oral, conjunctival and genital swabs, urine and faeces, and the removal and storage of any ticks present.
Demographic considerations: Demographic factors, such as age and gender, can contribute to decision making. Such considerations can help us to understand the wider impact of removal and the likelihood that strategies such as translocation will be successful. Although this section makes reference to animals which should be prioritised’ it is important to realise that it is unlikely that managers will have to face a choice between two individuals. Instead these guidelines are designed to help managers make the best decision for the animal in question.
- Cubs and subadults: Orphaned cubs may often be involved in conflict after their mothers are poached or severely injured. The tendency is often to bring such animals into captivity, assuming they will be unable to sustain themselves in the wild. However, cubs as young as 7 months old have been reported to be able survive in Russia, a country which arguably has the harshest environment. Cubs even younger than that may be capable of survival if they are supported with supplementary feeding. If, instead, these animals are removed, it will be much harder to release them later. In most cases they will become to habituated and will not have had the benefit of learning to hunt in the wild, making them unsuitable for release. Young adults and adolescents (aged between 1 and 3) may be most suitable for translocation as this is the age when they would normally be dispersing and establishing territories. They are also less likely to have established territories or be breeding already, meaning their removal is less likely to disrupt local dynamics and they are less likely to try to return. However, translocations are expensive and complicated and should be undertaken with caution.
- Mature adults (aged between 3 and 11) should ideally be released on site. Any form of removal may disrupt the local population structure and affect breeding. Translocation of these animals is likely to be unsuccessful as they will often return to their previous territories. Even if these animals are successfully removed (through translocation or removal from the wild), other tigers will often move in to take over the territory and problems may re-start. Therefore, removal is only indicated if these animals are injured, unwell, or predating on humans.
- Old animals (aged 12 and above) are most suited to permanent removal. Even if there are no obvious external signs of ill health these animals are more likely to suffer from age-related disease, such as arthritis, and this may well be driving the conflict behaviour. Such animals may have already lost their territories to a challenge from a younger, fitter animal and may be transient. They are also less likely to be actively breeding. These combined factors may mean their removal has less of an impact.
- Gender: In stable populations, adult females outnumber adult males by up to four to one, and females rear their cubs alone. Therefore, in the most general terms, more female tigers are required for breeding, and maintaining the population, and thus females should be prioritised over males. Natural mortality in adolescent males is high as this is the time when they would normally disperse, travelling long distances to find suitable habitat and fighting to establish territories. Given this, the removal of young males may be form part of this natural loss and may have little effect on the wider population. However, the removal of an established adult male may have much greater consequences. There may be fighting between younger males who want to take on the territory and challenges from established neighbours seeking to expand. Incoming males have been known to practice infanticide, which may result in the loss of cubs, and injury or death to females that try to protect them. The longer instability persists, the greater these effects. By comparison the removal of a breeding female may have a much smaller impact, affecting only herself and any dependent offspring.
Facilities and resources: In many cases the facilities and resources available may be very significant factors in deciding the course of action. Both translocation and rehabilitation are extremely complicated and costly to execute well. Managers should not be ashamed of recognising that they may not have the resources needed to carry out such interventions safely, – instead such reflection and pragmatism should be applauded. After all, there are considerable risks in carrying out these interventions, and these risks are made even greater when resources are limited.
- Translocation not only requires ample funding, but a suitable release site. Such sites must be remote from human habitation and well stocked with suitable prey, capable of supporting an additional predator. Poor choice or overuse of a release site may make the situation worse, as demonstrated by a translocation program for leopards employed in India. In this instance large numbers of conflict leopards were translocated to the same area over a relatively short period of time. This resulted in an increase in the frequency and severity of conflict in the surrounding area (Athreya, Odden et al. 2011). The IUCN has compiled comprehensive guidelines on translocations (IUCN, 2013).
- Rehabilitation is even more involved and expensive than translocation, requiring specialist facilities and personnel. The challenge is not only that the animal recovers from its injury, but that it does so relatively quickly and without becoming accustomed to, or losing its fear of, human presence or worse still associating humans with food. Assuming the animal manages to recover, it must be released, raising all of the potential issues of translocation. One particularly good example of a rehabilitation facility is the PRNCO tiger centre in Russia. At the time of writing this organisation had successfully rehabilitated and released five tigers back in to the wild. This success is due, in part, to the limited contact the animals have with people at the facility. The centre is isolated and is not open to visitors, much of the management is done remotely and animals are housed in large naturalistic enclosures and often fed live prey. Details of some active tiger rehabilitation centres are given here.
- Both translocated and rehabilitated tigers should be radio-collared and closely monitored, to ensure they are capable of sustaining themselves following release. Such monitoring not only safeguards the welfare of the tigers but may also provide an early warning system for nearby communities, thereby increasing public safety. Collaring may also be a useful tool when deciding whether to release a healthy conflict tiger on site. The ability to remotely monitor such an animal can provide some reassurance to local communities and again provide an early warning system if the tiger moves towards villages or livestock again. Alternative monitoring techniques such, as camera traps placed around villages, can also be useful and may be used in a similar way. However, these may be less sensitive and more subject to delays. Whatever system is used, having some form of monitoring in place can give wildlife managers the confidence to trial keeping such animals in the wild, when without it they would have felt duty bound to remove them.
- Permanent removal of a tiger from the wild into captivity also raises significant questions about the availability of adequate resources. Once a decision to permanently remove a tiger from the wild has been made, the issue becomes largely one of welfare rather than conservation. In many range states euthanasia is unacceptable for cultural and/or religious reasons, but the cost of maintaining tigers in captivity is considerable and often unsustainable. Even if the necessary funds are available, there is an argument that this money would be better spent elsewhere. In addition to the financial considerations, there are also profound welfare concerns, and these must not be underestimated. If a tiger is kept in captivity for the rest of its life there is a moral duty to provide a high standard of care and welfare. Wild animals are likely to be severely stressed in captivity and those that are old, or have been taken in due to injury, may suffer chronic pain.
- The outcome for removed animals is rarely positive. As an example, between 2007 and 2014 ten tigers were captured and removed from the Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Five subsequently died in a captive enclosure within 14 months, one was translocated to a zoo, two were released in the national park and were lost to follow-up, and two were translocated to Bardia National Park and died within a few months (Dhungana et al, 2016., M. Gilbert & A. Sadaula, pers comm). In some circumstances it may be possible to move non-releasable tigers to zoological institutions that can provide high quality facilities and care, but these are often outside of the range country. Nobody wants to euthanase tigers, but in cases where there is no reasonable hope of rehabilitation and release euthanasia should at least be considered as an alternative to permanent captivity in miserable conditions. Any tiger that is euthanased should of course be subjected to a thorough post-mortem examination.
Taking into account local circumstances, law, religion, and culture, some tiger range countries have developed their own manuals on the handling of tigers captured during HTC situations Examples are given here:
- Veterinary guidelines for the handling of Sumatran tigers in conflict situations (Ligaya et al, 2012) – English version
- Veterinary guidelines for the handling of Sumatran tigers in conflict situations (Ligaya et al, 2012) – Indonesian Bahasa version
- Guidelines on the veterinary care of the endangered large felids found in the Russian Far East (Alshinetsky, M. 2007).
- Standard operating procedure to deal with emergency arising due to straying of tigers in human dominated landscapes (NTCA, November 2019, pp 47-78.