There are only about 3000 tigers left, mostly spread across a hundred thousand square kilometers of Indian forest. To save them, we first need to know how many are left and where they are...and that's why we need tiger poop.
More than half the world's remaining wild tigers live in this huge forest region in India. With a tiger population density of only one every fifty square kilometers or so, it's incredibly challenging to keep track of them. As Dr. Yadvendradev Jhala of the Wildlife Institute of India explains, that's a major problem for saving the species:
"Tigers are cryptic, nocturnal and occur at low densities so they are extremely difficult to monitor. Unless we know how many tigers are left in the wild, and whether their numbers are increasing or decreasing, we will not be able to conserve them."
Until now, the only ways to monitor the tigers was a mix of looking for paw prints or setting up camera traps. Both have substantial drawbacks. Paw prints are good for keeping track of individual tigers, but are considered too inaccurate when it comes to monitoring the overall population. Camera traps are better for this purpose, but they're expensive both to set up and maintain the highly trained personnel needed to operate them.
This is where tiger poop enters the picture. Dr. Jhala took research teams to 21 different sites in central and northern India to search for two surefire signs of tiger presence: their paw prints and their feces. By adding tiger poop to the equation, the researchers were able to use the paw prints to estimate the tiger population. In fact, they found they could make just as accurate predictions as camera traps for less than a tenth of the price and a third of the work.
So how do you know when you've found tiger poop? Dr. Jhala describes the experience, sounding like a man who has perhaps spent a bit too much time thinking about tiger crap:
"Tiger faeces are the size of large beetroot and have a characteristic pungent, musky odour. Fresh tiger faeces are normally accompanied by urine sprays that smell like well-cooked basmati rice."
You know, if you remove the words "tiger faeces" and "urine" from that sentence, that sounds absolutely delicious. More importantly, the tiger poop could help save the species, as Dr. Jhala explains:
"By showing that it is possible to accurately estimate tiger numbers from their paw prints and faeces, we have opened up a new way of cost-effectively keeping our finger on the pulse of tiger populations and gauging the success of conservation programmes. This approach could be applied to monitoring other endangered species across vast landscapes."