For the last seven years, Dr Ashley Brooks has worked on one of the world’s most ambitious conservation projects—to double the population of wild tigers by 2022.
His job, as World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) habitats and human wildlife conflict lead for the Tigers Alive campaign, usually involves running workshops, doing conservation site visits, and conducting meetings with government officials and community groups. But that part of the job is almost impossible at the moment. Brooks is stuck at home in his native Australia (where there aren’t any tigers, besides those residing in zoos), because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But despite not being able to travel to tiger-range countries, there is a lot of work to do.
Recovering tiger populations—which dropped to 3,200, their lowest recorded number, in 2010—is not easy. One male tiger needs at least 50 square kilometres for his home range. Tigers need one large prey meal per week to sustain themselves. So their prey, deer or wild cattle, need to be large and healthy enough, with large enough habitats, to sustain that level of feeding.
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Human tiger conflict frequency is low in Malaysia and Indonesia, but community tolerance is very low and any evidence of tiger in the vicinity will usually lead to its death.
As habitats and prey decline, tiger are known to prey on domestic livestock, bringing them into conflict with people. The illegal trade in tiger parts for consumption, medicine, or ornamental purposes is another problem. All of these factors mean that tigers are a conservation-dependent species—they need direct assistance and protection otherwise they will rapidly go extinct.
One of the most important ways of keeping tigers alive in the wild is ensuring they have enough space to roam, and people tolerate them. This is where Brooks comes in, working to reduce human-tiger contact and conflict and maintain tiger habitats. Here is how his typical pandemic-time working day goes:
6:30am: Woken up by the dawn chorus of birds in the park behind my apartment in Darwin, Australia. First action for the day is to make a coffee, catch up on the news, then take the dog for a walk in the park.
7:30am: Open emails. Being in an Australian time zone, I often receive emails overnight from European and US colleagues, so I address any that only need quick replies.
8am: Make second coffee of the day. Making a quick list of major items in my inbox from overnight, I start to reply to various issues for an upcoming WWF Human Wildlife Conflict (HWC) global meeting we are planning, and the research and launch of a global report on the severity and urgency of HWC. This is a key priority for WWF. As conflict increases, local tolerance to species decreases, and iconic species can be rapidly exterminated from an area. I’m helping to advise our global programme and provide lessons from tiger landscapes.
9:30am: Call with colleagues in the Tigers Alive team in Singapore and Indonesia. As work to protect tiger habitats becomes more effective, young male tigers will disperse into surrounding areas for new territory. We have to coordinate our work so that I’m prepared on the conflict and community side of things when tigers start to disperse. We talk through a pilot approach called ‘Smart Safe Cats’ we could trial in Nepal. This approach means closer communication between park managers, rangers, and villages to ensure early warning systems are in place for dispersing tigers, and raising awareness of the value of maintaining tiger habitats, so that tigers are lured into those areas instead of villages.
10:30am: Shut down emails and WhatsApp. Focus on editing and writing details for the WWF Thailand landscape tiger recovery plan.
12:00pm: Early starts mean I relent for an early lunch. Duck out to a café to stretch the legs and grab a salad and juice.
1:30pm: Call with tiger biologists at WWF Indonesia and WWF Malaysia. We are planning a technical workshop on Human Tiger Conflict (HTC). While HTC frequency is low in both countries, community tolerance is very low and any evidence of tiger in the vicinity will usually lead to its death. Also, the tiger recovery work we implement will lead to increased tiger numbers, and we must have a human-centered focus to this.
On the call, we discuss the HTC data from the past 10 years. We can see that the majority of HTC events are situations where people are working in fields, plantations, or doing housework in the village. We agree that the solutions should be community-based.
2:30pm: India office colleagues come online. I take a call from our landscape and species lead there, who is grappling with linear infrastructure (roads and rail) challenges across the tiger landscape in northern India.
Linear infrastructure poses many problems for tigers. Vehicle collision is one, but more problematic is that roads and rail are noisy, busy places that form barriers to tiger dispersal. The WWF India and Nepal teams have been working closely with their government partners to help design planned roads in a way that doesn’t cut tiger and prey movement. I’ve been part of similar strategising discussions in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar – so we exchange lessons and resources.
3:30pm: Eyes are getting heavy. Third and final coffee for the day. I walk away from my phone and laptop for a 20-minute break.
3.50pm: Quarterly call with the Communities Working Group for tiger landscapes. I lead this group of sociologists and communities to exchange lessons and strategise on a new approach I’ve developed called People-Centered Tiger Conservation. We are discussing potential pilot sites and which countries might want to take the lead on testing the approach.
Almost all our tiger sites have indigenous people living there, and all sites have communities who are often far from markets, remote rural populations and all the challenges that go with that. The people-centered approach differs from the past in we shift our approach to seeing communities as partners in tiger conservation, rather than just beneficiaries (from eco-tourism or money generated from selling local produce), and we must shift to monitoring the success through social tolerance metrics, and not incomes.
5:30pm: My brain is frying a little. I shut everything down and I head to the park for a 5-7km run. It’s a great way to clear the head.
7pm: Take the dog for another walk while I slowly stop sweating from the tropical heat. Replenish the water I’ve lost and start pulling ingredients out of the fridge for a Thai beef stir fry.
8:00pm: Watch the news or current affairs shows while I eat dinner.
9:30pm: Last call for the day. Mornings are generally free from calls, but night times often involve calls with European offices seeking updates on work or looking to support new sites [The European offices are the largest funders and supporters of tiger conservation]. Tonight, I’m on a call with WWF International’s [Nairobi-based] Wildlife Practice lead, Maggie Kinnaird, to update and discuss work on tiger habitat connectivity. A lot of our lessons across tiger landscapes mirror the challenges and opportunities faced by our colleagues working to conserve orangutans, snow leopards, elephants, and jaguars. We agree there’s an opportunity to develop a compendium of lessons on connectivity that could be shared across the network.
10:00pm: Log-off. Sleep.