This Tigress Needs a Dating App

By Chris Hallam, M.Sc.
Panthera Regional Coordinator for Southeast Asia

Tiger camera trap

Twenty years ago in Russia, my colleague Dr. John Goodrich tracked a tigress in estrus as she wandered widely, desperately searching for a mate. Her constant calls were some of the loneliest and most mournful sounds he’s ever heard.

If only there were a dating app for tigers. Dr. Goodrich’s tigress eventually did find a mate, but for many others, the desperate search continues — pawing through our imaginary “Tiger Tinder” as they might, they never see a match.

We’re following one such tigress right now: 197F. Born in a wildlife sanctuary in Southeast Asia in late 2011, she was safe from many of the threats often faced by tigers in the wild until she and her brother, 205M, came of age and set out to claim their own territories. 197F traveled farther than her brother, for a total of 120 kilometers. Her new home range is another protected area, but she’s the only known tiger for miles.

The site in which this lone tigress now resides is connected, via a network of forest reserves, to one of the first and most successful Tigers Forever sites. I’m not going to name either site, as some believe that this may tip off poachers to these areas. We’ll call the site inhabited by a thriving tiger population the “Source Site” and the site inhabited by the lonely tigress the “Destination Site.”

Tiger 1

When Panthera first visited the Destination Site in 2012, there were tracks of at least one female and one male tiger, the sexes easily distinguished by differences in the size of their paw prints. The following year, we worked with a partner NGO and the government to implement a camera trapping survey in an attempt to determine how many tigers there were in the area.

The results were disappointing—we photographed a single tigress, but not the male we’d previously seen. His tracks hadn’t been spotted for months. He may have been poached, but it is more likely that he was a dispersing young male passing through in search of greener pastures.

As one of Panthera’s key criteria for selecting a recovery site is evidence of a breeding population, you may wonder why we would choose to work in a site that has just one female tiger. The answer is Panthera’s strategy of working in the “best of the worst sites”—that is, tiger habitat areas that have the potential to sustain a viable population, but where tiger numbers are currently depressed.

That’s why you don’t normally see Panthera’s name associated with the world’s great tiger reserves like Nagarhole, Kanha, Corbett, or Ranthambore. Tigers are doing well in those areas thanks to solid conservation practices by the Indian government and NGOs. Panthera focuses on the areas where tigers are declining and likely to disappear without intervention.

Tiger 2

When we shared photos of 197F with our government partners, we were able to determine that she had been born in the Source Site just three years before. This proved that tigers could disperse form the Source to the Destination Site. All we had to do was protect the area and wait—surely a male (and hopefully other tigers) would move down from the Source Site to join our tigress, starting a healthy breeding population. There was hope yet for our lonely tigress!

This same approach resulted in a nearly miraculous rate of recovery for tigers in two of Panthera’s field sites in Nepal, so we expected it to work well here, too. In the Destination Site, as well as the forest reserves connecting it to the Source Site, which I’ll call the Corridor Area, we ramped up protections: distributing more PoacherCams, training rangers, documenting and investigating forest crimes, and exploring community conservation programs.

We also conducted camera trap surveys in the Corridor Area, where we found 197F’s brother and another tigress. Plus, we’re increasing patrols at border areas of the source site, allowing us to identify poacher access points and routes to potentially stop poaching before it occurs.

Tigers have not yet flooded the Destination Site as they did in our previous work in Nepal. This is likely because in Nepal, the Source Site is surrounded by human-dominated landscapes, and the Destination Sites were among the only places for dispersing tigers to go, creating a funneling effect guiding tigers to the Destination Site. 

As our current Source Site is embedded in a vast area of tiger habitat, there is no such funnel—tigers may disperse in any direction. Nearby protected areas, where tigers may choose to roam, are less frequently patrolled, and potentially less safe.

So, what do we do next? We intend to continue increasing protection, thereby increasing our funneling effect. Some of our methods to do this include building ranger skills through additional training and resources like GPS units, camping gear, fuel, and food, as well as high-tech solutions like Panthera’s PoacherCam, which will equip rangers to better detect and react to wildlife criminals before they act. 

Tiger 3

At 6 years old, our lone tigress is in her prime. She will be able to mate for years to come, so we’ll work hard and watch closely in anticipation of the male that we know will someday arrive to help her start a new thriving tiger population.

We hope 197F will be a key player in realizing Panthera’s ultimate vision for tigers: landscapes made up of multiple connected source populations where breeding creates a surplus of tigers that populate the wider landscape. Only then can we be certain there will be tigers forever.