THF Research Grant 2019/2020
This study led by Kate Allberry of The Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), University of Kent working with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) will evaluate the genetic diversity of tigers, leopards and clouded leopards in Peninsular Malaysia to assess how effectively designated forest corridors are facilitating gene flow and movement between small populations. If wild carnivores cannot move between habitat patches they will likely become functionally extinct due to inbreeding.
The Malayan tiger is currently classified as Critically Endangered under the IUCN Red List—only one step away from being extinct in the wild. In the 1950s, there were around 3,000 tigers in Malaysia. Today, less than 200 remain. This study is crucial to understanding whether or not the populations are sufficiently connected and will help to identify which corridors are most effective. This will also help to inform the allocation of limited resources on the ground for enforcement and habitat management. Wild population genetics studies have been conducted in other tiger-range countries but never within Malaysia, making this the first of its kind.
The project focusses on the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex in Perak and the Kenyir region in Terengganu. These priority areas lie within a Class 1 Tiger Conservation Landscape which are large contiguous areas of suitable tiger habitat able to support a minimum of five adult tigers.
During the pilot phase of this study, a team of Orang Asli were employed as research assistants and they proved to be adept at detecting feline scats, which is notoriously difficult. Their participation in this project has been a key factor in more effective data collection. New methods to extract DNA from paw prints were also successfully developed. This technique has not been applied to tigers or other big cats anywhere else and stands to advance methods of monitoring other elusive and critically endangered species.
Intensive fieldwork, involving surveys to collect DNA samples from feline scats found along trails, ridges and logging roads, will be conducted over twelve months together with the Orang Asli research assistants. Samples will be compared against 17 carefully selected and refined genetic microsatellite markers to identify tiger and leopards from collected scats. They will be processed promptly in between field surveys, to prevent the DNA from deteriorating.
This study is not only building the Orang Asli team’s capacity to serve as field biologists and guides, it is also creating an opportunity for local students to learn fieldwork and lab techniques with Kate Alberry.
Kate is a big advocate of women in science and will be using part of her grant to organize a Soapbox Science event in Malaysia which encourages female scientists to present their work.
Watch her interview here: