wice a day Michelle Kral counts ‘her animals’ along six transects in the park: once in the early morning and again in the late afternoon. Michelle is a biology student at Leiden University and Imperial College in London. She stays in Bardiya from October to Christmas 2014. ‘Transects’ is a line on the map between two GPS locations – wayponts – of about two kilometers in length.
By systematically counting animals along these virtual lines for a longer period of time, and preferably over several seasons and years, insight is gained into numbers and types of animals – in short, the composition of the population. By comparing this with previous and similar studies, such as those carried out by Eric Dinerstein in the 1970s and Per Wegge in the nineties, you see ‘what happens in the forest’. We drive into the rattling Jeep into the Park. The first time we came here everything was new, we got lost, but now it’s routine. On the way to waypoint 1, we leave the Jeep and walk. Sometimes it is not difficult to ‘observe’, like in the savannah landscapes where you can look far. More difficult are the transacts through Riverine forests, where the vegetation is dense and the foliage hinders to see any animal. That is why we resort to counting droppings – the droppings of deer and feces from other animals. Ram Din Mahato, one of the Tiger Tops natularists, has been working in the forest all his life. He accompanies Michelle on her trips. Ram sees things we do not see: a distant branch in the river suddenly turns out to be a crocodile, a dot in a tree becomes a bird of which he mention the name in Nepali, English and Latin, a ragged print in the sand, yet the trace of a particular deer. Together with Michelle, he now traces the transects. She records all observations, including GSP coordinates. After the field trips have been completed, all data is stored in the computer. This finally will lead to a scientific article. She previously did similar work in Kenya and South Africa.
Jacques van Alphen, emeritus professor of ecology in Leiden and Amsterdam, supervises the work of Michelle Kral. We ask him a few questions: Why to count deer? Jacques: “Deer and other ungulates form the diet of the tiger. We want to have as many deer as possible in the park. So our research is now: how many deer live in each of the different vegetation types of Bardia National Park? This gives us insight into the (quantitative) relation between vegetation <> prey, and so we learn how the park should be managed to achieve the goal – as many deer as possible. And so more tigers … “Yes, the higher goal is obviously not counting those deer but to optimize the number of tigers in what we now call:” House of the Tiger “. Later on the research can expand with observations of the tigers, to see if they indeed frequent the places where most deer live. To this end, modern techniques are available – such as GPS collars and DNA analysis using scat. This will be part of a next phase of our research program. What we are doing now is just the beginning of a long series of experiments “What is the problem with the number of deer now?” Jacques: “The problem is the vegetation. Deer eat the high elephant grass (Saccharum spec.) only when it is young, but they do not eat it when it full grown and stemmy. Elephants and rhinos eat that high grass. If they make it short enough, the deer can eat it again and then keep the grass short – so that other, more nutritious grasses for the deer can grow in such places. But there are still too few elephants and rhinos.