Tiger conservation programs in India

In our last post, we talked about tigers.  Here, we’ll share some more thoughts about how tiger conservation programs (and other conservation programs) can be created successfully.

We went to the Nature Conservation Foundation to find out about conservation in India.  We left after learning about many other things, too:  science; government policy; climate change; and working with local people.

It’s hard to sum up such a rich conversation, but there were two key ideas.

- Conservation should be based on science.  Without scientific data, conservationists may mean well, but their actions may not have the impact they want.

- Conservation policies should be created in harmony with local people.  Policies that tell local people what they can’t do — without considering the impact on those local people — are likely to fail.

How to be a Conservationist

MD Madhusudan (Madhu) and three young friends met 21 years ago.  Trained as scientists, they set out to explain the world through science.  They went to remote areas:  mountains, oceans and forests.

MD Madhusudan (Madhu)

MD Madhusudan (Madhu)

But the environmental impacts they studied in all these places were from one species:  humans.  So they started looking at how humans interact with the environment.  And then, they wanted to do something about it.

Now they work on programs all over India.  They investigate problems and causes.  They work to understand people’s attitudes.  They intervene by creating partnerships with local people.  And they stay with projects long-term, to measure success.

To Begin:  Understand the Problem

First, when starting a conservation program, it’s important to understand the problem.  For example, there are two areas where tigers disappeared in India:  Sariska Tiger Reserve and Keladevi Sanctuary (adjacent to Ranthambhore, where we saw a wild tiger).  According to Madhu, you could just put solutions in place to protect tigers… but they might be the wrong solutions.

Here’s why:  In Sariska, prey for the tigers was plentiful.  The problem was poachers.  But in Keladevi, local livestock had overrun the park, and tigers had lost their prey.  The problem in Keladevi was food for the tigers, and conflict with local people.  So in areas where tigers are threatened, the potential solutions may be very different.

The tiger we saw in Ranthambhore reserve

The tiger we saw in Ranthambhore reserve

Work With Local People

A major problem with large wildlife is that it creates lots of difficulties for local people — like restrictions on areas of forest, livestock being killed, and attacks on people.  How is it possible to save wild animals, like tigers, when they can cause such difficulties?

Amazingly, according to Madhu, people in India have shown their willingness to live in harmony with wild, dangerous animals such as tigers, leopards and elephants.  Understanding people’s attitudes toward wildlife is key.  People in India don’t hate elephants and tigers — mostly, they respect them.  But they do cause real problems.

NCF realized that it can’t do conservation without also helping address these problems.  By using this approach, they, and other conservation groups, have had some successes.  Here are just a couple of examples:

Problem:  Tigers Preying on Livestock

When they stray from their reserves, tigers sometimes go after people’s livestock — sheep, cows, horses, goats — in search of food.  People may then try to kill the tigers to protect their livestock.

Tiger we saw in Ranthambhore

Tiger we saw in Ranthambhore


Tigers may leave reserves for different reasons:  lack of prey, or too many tigers in one area.  And, even within their own territories, tigers may encounter livestock that have come there to graze.

So, to deal with predators, like tigers, NCF has worked with villagers on better fencing for protecting livestock.  They’ve helped farmers fence in areas so they can grow feed crops for their animals to graze, instead of letting them loose to graze.  In some areas, NCF has also started community-based compensation programs — sort of like having insurance for your livestock, so if an animal is killed by a tiger, the farmer gets paid.

Problem:  Cooking Fuel

Although it isn’t an NCF project, Madhu shared another great example.  In Bandipur, there are thousands of families living near the forest, and the average family was collecting about 3 tons of firewood each year.  This was taking a huge toll on the forest as a habitat for wildlife, including tigers.  The government protected the forest, which cut off the primary source of firewood for villagers.

Solution:  LPG Stoves

So, an organization called Namma Sangha provided LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) stoves to villagers at a reduced cost.  LPG stoves are healthier for people’s lungs than cooking over fire.  And, instead of gathering firewood, people now have more time to earn additional income.  Now, more than 17,000 families participate in the program.  (If that many families stop collecting firewood completely, that could mean 50,000 tons of forest preserved each year.)

LPG stove

LPG stove

Madhu reminded us that some conservation problems come, not from criminals, but from honest, decent people doing reasonable things.  It’s easy for urban people to be concerned about saving wild animals.  But sometimes they overlook how someone else bears the cost of that conservation — like lost livestock, or lack of fuel to cook.

NCF is working hard to understand both sides of the equation, and hopefully, by respecting the needs of people, conservation can go hand-in-hand with programs that help people, too.


Study Guide Questions

1. What are the 2 key conservation principles we learned from MD Madhusudan?

2. True or False: All of the problems with loss of tigers in India have been caused by poachers.

3. Why would a tiger leave a nature reserve?

If you are an educator, we’ve created a page to help you leverage content we’ve created, including an index of our posts.

The dogsledding season ends in Minnesota (but continues in Greenland)

3_24_14StudentResponse (Lower)


Yesterday Amy and I said goodbye to the 70 sled dogs that we spent the winter working with at Wintergreen. We are heading to Chicago to visit schools. We will also be getting ready to head to the Amazon Rainforest in May. It is sad to think that another dogsledding season in Minnesota is coming to a close. However, the owners of Wintergreen, Paul and Sue Schurke, are about to head north on an amazing dogsled adventure. In a couple weeks, the Schurkes will fly to the one of the northernmost villages in the world—Siorapaluk, Greenland. Siorapaluk is a tiny village of less than 100 people in northwestern Greenland. Can you find Siorapaluk, Greenland on a map?


Northern Greenland is one of the last places on earth where people still hunt and travel using dogsleds like they have done for thousands of years. The Inuit hunters use large sleds call qamutiq. Sled dogs are usually connected to the qamutiq with a fan hitch. In a fan hitch, each dog has a long rope that connects it to the sled. The fan hitch works well for these dog teams that travel over jumbled sea ice.

greenland 2014


In Minnesota we dogsled over frozen lakes and rivers, as well as over trails through the woods. A fan hitch would not work because the dog team would be too spread out. We use a tandem hitch in order for the dog team to fit on narrow trails in the woods. The tandem hitch means the dogs are running in a line two by two.


When traveling in the Northwest Territories, we learned about one more way to hook up a dog team. There, the Dene First Nations people would traditionally run dog teams on really narrow trails in the woods. They would hook up their dogs in single file to travel on these trails.


These are three examples of how people traditionally dogsled in three different parts of the world. What kind of dogsledding would you like to try? What type of dogsledding would be best suited for the area you live in? Thank you for taking part in our Boreal Wilderness Adventure. We hope you learned a lot about dogsledding and the boreal forest. Let us know what your favorite lesson was! Do you have any suggestions for how we can make your learning adventures better?

Keep Exploring!


Dog of the Week: Inuk



Type of dog: Canadian Inuit

Age: 6, born in August of 2007
Favorite position: Lead


Hello. My name is Inuk. I am in charge. I just want to make sure there is no question, in case you were wondering. I run in lead. When I run with a partner, I tell him or her what to do. Usually I end up running with a younger dog. They can be so wild and curious. I quickly tell them what to do with a sharp bark or a growl. I am good at leading. I won’t let you down. You can depend on me. I am bigger than most of the other female dogs in the kennel. Like I said, I am in charge!

Presentation at Vermilion Community College

Dave and Amy will be giving a presentation at Vermilion Community College, sponsored by the VCC Foundation’s Barbara and Bill Rom Lecture Series Fund.

When: 5 pm on March 22

Where: Lecture Hall CL 104 at Vermilion Community College

Photo by Bryan Hansel

Photo by Bryan Hansel

Across the Continent by Kayak, Canoe and Dogsled

National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, Dave and Amy Freeman began a three-year, 11,700-mile journey across North America on Earth Day of 2010. Their human-powered trek took them from Bellingham, Washington to Key West, Florida via the Arctic. From coming eye-to-eye with humpback whales and grizzly bears to kayaking past Manhattan during rush hour and hunkering down as Superstorm Sandy battered the New Jersey coast, the Freemans have an unforgettable story to share.

Spring is Coming!




Spring is in the air. While dogsledding last week, we witnessed a big change in the weather. The days are longer and the temperature has risen. The high temperature one day was 50 degrees Fahrenheit! The snow turned to mush. It kind of felt like skiing on top of mashed potatoes. This temperature was actually too warm for the dogs, so we didn’t run them during the warmest part of the day. Their fur coats are designed for -20, not 50 degrees Fahrenheit.


The Spring Equinox (also called the Vernal Equinox) is coming up. It is on March 20. Do you know what that means? This is the first day of spring. An equinox happens twice a year. The length of the day and night are exactly the same on this day, because the sun is shining directly on the equator. In other words, the plane of the Earth’s equator passes the center of the Sun.

During an equinox, the Earth's North and South poles are not tilted toward or away from the Sun and the length of the day is the same at all points on Earth's surface. Image by Przemyslaw "Blueshade" Idzkiewicz. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Earth-lighting-equinox_EN.png

During an equinox, the Earth’s North and South poles are not tilted toward or away from the Sun and the length of the day is the same at all points on Earth’s surface. Image by Przemyslaw Idzkiewicz.


The season in the northern hemisphere is the opposite of the southern hemisphere. When I said that the Spring Equinox is coming up, I meant that the Spring Equinox will happen in the northern hemisphere. On the same day, the Autumnal Equinox will happen in the southern hemisphere


A sign of the warm weather can be seen on top of the snow. Little black spots can be seen on top of the snow. These are snow fleas. Well, they are not really fleas—that is just their nickname. These insects are really springtails.


Close up of a springtail. Photo by Daniel Tompkins.

Close up of a springtail. Photo by Daniel Tompkins.

The polar vortex seems to be a thing of the past, but we still have several weeks of dogsledding left. This is a fun time to be out on the trail. After that warm day, the temperature dropped, making the trails fast and icy. The snow on the frozen lakes is covered in a crust of ice. This means we can easily travel anywhere on the lakes! With more daylight, we can spend even more time outside every day.


What is spring like where you live? Were you affected by the polar vortex this winter? How can you tell that the seasons are changing? What is your favorite season? We would love to hear from you!


Further Exploration:

The Reason for the Seasons lesson plans: http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/activity/the-reason-for-the-seasons/?ar_a=1

Sun and Earth lesson plans: http://education.nationalgeographic.com/archive/xpeditions/lessons/07/g35/seasons.html?ar_a=1


Dog of the Week: Millie




Type of dog: Canadian Inuit

Age: 4, born in March of 2010

Birthplace: Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge; Ely, MN

Parents: Ramona and Steve

Favorite position: Wheel


Hi! Guess what?! I just had a birthday. I turned four years old! Happy birthday to me! I like to pull dogsleds. I like to run fast. I work hard. I have lots of energy. Can you tell? Let’s go! Let’s go dogsledding. Put my harness on and I’ll show you how strong I am.


People sometimes look at me and say that I’m small. They assume that I can’t pull much weight. I prove them wrong every time! I might be small, but I can pull as much weight as dogs twice my size. I just want to go. Let’s go!


Tigers in India

Imagine a fort, deep in India’s forest, called Ranthambore Fort.  Now imagine you’re a maharajah — an ancient king, hundreds of years ago — vacationing there.  The forest is your playground — you hunt tigers there for sport.  You practice conservation, of a kind — you hunt, but not too many, so there will still be tigers there for hunting.

Ranthambhore Fort

Ranthambhore Fort

Although the days of the Maharajas are over, the fort still survives.  The area surrounding it is a national tiger reserve — and one of the few places you can still see a tiger in the wild.

The tiger we saw in Ranthambhore reserve

The tiger we saw in Ranthambhore reserve

Project Tiger

In 1970, India banned tiger hunting.  The first census of tigers in India showed there were fewer tigers than expected — 1,827 Bengal tigers.  So, in 1973, the country launched a national tiger conservation program called Project Tiger.

The Ranthambhore forest was named a tiger reserve, and later expanded in 1992.  Today, it covers about 400 square km (150 square miles), and it’s one of the most visited tiger reserves in India.

Ranthambhore sign

Tigers share the park with leopards, striped hyenas, langurs, macaques, spotted deer, and a larger type of deer called sambar deer.  In Ranthambhore, deer are the tigers’ primary prey.  Tigers can eat 27 kg (60 lbs) of meat at a sitting.  A tiger might eat about once a week.

Sambar deer - the tiger's favorite food

Sambar deer – the tiger’s favorite food

The Challenge of Counting Tigers

Bengal tigers, or Indian tigers, are the most numerous species in the wild, although all tiger species are endangered.  Now, about 1,700 live in the wild in India.  About 670 more Bengals live in countries nearby.

In Ranthambhore, there are between 50 and 60 tigers.  It’s hard to get an exact number — it’s difficult to keep track of tigers, especially because they’re most active at night.  And some tigers disappear for periods of time, reappearing later.

Another picture of the tiger we saw

Another picture of the tiger we saw

However, there is one thing that helps in counting:  a tiger’s stripes.  No two tigers have the same pattern of stripes — their unique patterns are like human fingerprints, and help scientists and rangers keep track of individual tigers.

Conflict with Local People

Tigers are territorial – a female tiger needs a territory large enough to feed her and her cubs.  Males have a much larger territory, usually overlapping the territory of one or many females.  One challenge for Ranthambhore is that the park already is at capacity.  As a result, some tigers have left the park in search of new space.

Although there are other forests within range, they aren’t protected, and there isn’t a corridor for tigers to get there.  Ranthambore has rivers on two sides, and villages on the other two.  About 200,000 people live nearby, and roaming tigers can cause difficulties for local people.

Ranthambhore with farm fields in the background

Ranthambhore with farm fields in the background

People in the area have been killed by tigers.  And tigers that leave the park may prey on livestock.  As a result, people sometimes fight back:  one tiger from Ranthambhore was found poisoned in December 2013.  However, the Rajasthan Forest Department and WWF-India work to protect straying tigers whenever possible.

Tourism in Ranthambhore

It was amazing to see a tiger in the wild.  It was a little unsettling, though to see all the jeeps clustered nearby, hear the engines revving and see Jeeps jockeying to get tourists in good positions to take photos.

Jeeps of tourists watching the tiger

Jeeps of tourists watching the tiger

However, tourism in Ranthambhore does seem generally well-run.  A government guide is required, safaris are at specific times only, and vehicles must exit the park by 6 pm.  That means the tiger’s most active time, at night, is relatively undisturbed by humans.

Year of the Tiger:  2022

Although tigers in Ranthambhore are doing fairly well, worldwide tiger numbers have been on the decline, and some species are extinct.  In 2009, the world population of wild tigers was about 3,200.  In the 1990s (although it’s a rough estimate), there were 5,000 to 7,000.

This is due to habitat loss, conflict with local people, and the sale of tiger parts for medicines and other products.  (We learned about the illegal tiger trade and demand for tiger products when we visited ENV, in Vietnam.)

However, there’s some good news for tigers.  As Jamie and Jason mentioned in their recent post, 13 countries with wild tiger populations have launched an initiative to increase the number of tigers.  The next Year of the Tiger on the Asian lunar calendar is 2022:  by then, the goal is to reach a world population of 6,000 wild tigers.

Hopefully, by improving conservation programs, enforcing existing laws, and especially by working closely with local people, the number of tigers in the wild will grow.  India has by far the largest tiger population of any single country, so its efforts will make a tremendous difference.

In our next post, we’ll talk about more about tigers, and how conservation groups can work with local people.  We’ll share a conversation we had with one of the founders of Nature Conservation Foundation, where we learned a lot about what it takes to make a conservation program successful.

Study Guide Questions

1. In the whole world, about how many tigers are there in the wild today?

2. True or False: All tigers have the exact same pattern of stripes.

3. Name two challenges that tigers cause to local people.

4. Why can’t the people that manage Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve try to double the amount of tigers in the reserve?


If you are an educator, we’ve created a page to help you leverage content we’ve created, including an index of our posts.

Dog of the Week: Bullet


Photo by Kathy Yelton.

Photo by Kathy Yelton.

Type of dog: Canadian Inuit dog

Age: 9

Birthplace: Churchill, Manitoba
Favorite position: Lead


Hey there young ones. I’m Bullet. I was born north of here—in Canada. I was adopted by John Stetson and spent several years in his kennel. Then I moved to Wintergreen. I like to run in lead. I’m an expert at this dogsledding thing. I’m getting to be quite old for a sled dog, but I still keep up with the young dogs. In fact, last week I ran in solo lead. It takes a dog with confidence to do that. I had two young whippersnappers running behind me. If they started to goof off, I would just turn my head and give a sharp bark. That usually got them to behave. They knew to pay attention to their elder.

Iditarod, the Ultimate Dogsled Race Across Alaska



People often ask us if we have ever been in a dogsled race. Amy and I have been working with sled dogs for many years, but we have never been in a dogsled race.  The Canadian Inuit Dogs that we work with are too slow for racing. They can pull a lot of weight and handle extreme cold and harsh conditions, but they are not built for speed. Most dogsled racers use Alaskan Huskies, which are much faster. Right now there are hundreds of dogs and dozens of mushers competing in the most famous dogsled race in the world, the Iditarod. The Iditarod is almost 1,000 miles long and takes most teams between 10 and 14 days to complete.


You can follow the Iditarod on the internet. They even have a “teacher on the trail” that helps classrooms all over the world follow the race. Right now Aliy Zirkle is in the lead and the top teams are about 3/4th of the way through the race. The Iditarod goes from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. The teams race up and over mountain passes, through the forest, down rivers and over the sea ice and tundra. It is a very challenging race.


The race follows the route to Nome the mushers historically followed to haul supplies across Alaska. The race also commemorates the part that sled dogs played in the settlement of Alaska. The mushers travel from checkpoint to checkpoint much as the freight mushers did in the past. However some modern dog drivers like Doug Swingley, Martin Buser, Jeff King, Susan Butcher and Rick Swenson move much faster than their old-time counterparts, making the trip to Nome in under ten days. Historically the freight mushers used larger dogs that were more like the Canadian Inuit Dogs that Amy and I work with. They are slower than the racing dogs, but they are very strong and can pull a lot of supplies.


Iditarod route

Amy and I have really enjoyed following the Iditarod. It is amazing how fast the dogs and their mushers can travel across 1,000 miles of Alaskan wilderness. We hope that you will follow the Iditarod as well. Would you like to race in the Iditarod someday?


If you would like to run the Iditarod, what are some of the things that you would need to do to train and prepare for the race?


What do you think would be the hardest part of running the Iditarod?


What do you think would be the most fun, or rewarding part of running the Iditarod?


Keep Exploring!


Dave Freeman


Further Exploration


Iditarod website: http://iditarod.com/

Iditarod education portal for teachers: http://iditarod.com/teachers/

Iditarod activities for students: http://iditarod.com/teachers/students/

Irrawaddy River Dolphins and Endangered Animals

In Cambodia, we did a homestay (like we did in the Mekong Delta, in Vietnam).  Jamie did a video post about our homestay, which you can see here.  We learned a lot about how local families live, and even went to a Cambodian wedding. And, we made a stop to see the Irrawaddy river dolphins nearby. 

Irrawaddy river dolphins are found in Southeast Asia, in coastal areas and in three rivers.  One of these rivers is the Mekong, which flows through Cambodia on its way to the sea.  Click here for a map of the Mekong.

Irrawaddy river dolphins can reach 2.75 meters (about 9 feet long).  They have blunt, rounded noses — as opposed to the pointy noises of bottlenose dolphins.  (Did you know that all dolphins are part of a group called cetaceans? Aquatic mammals including dolphins, whales and porpoises are all cetaceans.)

Irrawaddy dolphin in Cambodia from Wikipedia.  Foto: Stefan Brending / Lizenz: Creative Commons CC-by-sa-3.0 de

Irrawaddy dolphin in Cambodia from Wikipedia. Foto: Stefan Brending / Lizenz: Creative Commons CC-by-sa-3.0 de

Unlike most dolphins, which live only in salt water, Irrawaddy river dolphins can live in either fresh water or salt water.  Because they live in the river, which is a confined area, they’re especially affected by human activity.

In the Mekong there are likely between 78 and 91 individual dolphins left.  The Mekong River population is listed as Critically Endangered.

Irrawaddy dolphin fluke (or tail) that we saw

Irrawaddy dolphin fluke (or tail) that we saw

Irrawaddy dolphin diving back under water

Irrawaddy dolphin diving back under water

The WWF (World Wildlife Fund) has identified Irrawaddy river dolphins as a “flagship species” — which means that they reflect the health of the river for other species.  In other words, if the dolphins are doing well — with clean water and plenty of fish — other species will, too (including humans).

Threats to Dolphins

A major threat to dolphins has been fishing.  Fishing with gillnets (long, rectangular mesh nets) has trapped and killed dolphins.  In 2012, the country passed a law prohibiting gillnets in large stretches of the Mekong (although fishing in other ways is still allowed).

Gillnet photo from Wikipedia: Pedro Ramirez Jr./U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Gillnet photo from Wikipedia: Pedro Ramirez Jr./U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

As we researched this post, we learned that tourism is another activity that has impacted the dolphins.  One problem is noise and activity from tourist boats.  Although there used to be some rules about where tourist boats could go, it seems that at the moment, dolphin tourism is fairly unregulated.

However, the dolphins are important to the local community and economy.  20,000 tourists visited the dolphins in 2011 — which means that tour boats, hotels, restaurants and local artisans all benefit.

Conservation programs to protect the dolphins have been created, starting in 2003 — by both NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and the government.  In one brief visit, it’s hard to see and understand all the human impacts and issues, but it seems that some programs have been more successful than others.  The most successful programs have enlisted local people in dolphin conservation, and found benefits for the local community in the process.

There’s also another potential threat:  a new dam on the Mekong River is being planned by Laos, a country bordering Cambodia.  The dam would be in an area upstream of the dolphins.  If the project goes through, it will certainly impact the dolphins.  According to WWF, some dolphins would be killed by sound waves from explosives.  The rest would suffer due to the dam’s effects on water quality.

The Irrawaddy river dolphin’s future is uncertain.  But with continued work from WWF and other organizations, it’s hopeful that this remarkable species will continue to survive.

Endangered?  How Do We Know?

When you see something listed as endangered, do you know where that information comes from?  It comes from the IUCN — the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.  It’s the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization, based in Switzerland.

The IUCN publishes the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which helps identify endangered species.  The IUCN currently monitors 71,576 animal and plant species!  Thousands of scientists and experts help maintain the list, which provides valuable information to help monitor specific species.  The Red List also helps identify global trends and set conservation priorities — so organizations can decide what kinds of conservation actions to take based on the best available research.

The list puts threatened species in one of three categories:  Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered.  Species can also be listed as Extinct or Extinct in the Wild. Other species at lower risk are classified as Near Threatened or Least Concern.

IUCN Categories: EX=Extinct, EW=Extinct in the Wild but perhaps some exist in captivity, CR=Critically Endangered, EN= Endangered, VU=Vulnerable, NT=Near Threatened, LC= Least Concern

IUCN Categories: EX=Extinct, EW=Extinct in the Wild but perhaps some exist in captivity, CR=Critically Endangered, EN= Endangered, VU=Vulnerable, NT=Near Threatened, LC= Least Concern

The IUCN also has other initiatives – such as the Save Our Species fund (which recently gave WWF a grant to help equip and train rangers to monitor gillnet fishing in the Mekong).  IUCN’s Mangroves for the Future program helps protect coastal ecosystems.  And its Water and Nature Initiative works with governments and local communities to manage water resources.  This includes sustainable use of water, but also aims to help reduce poverty by improving access to water for all communities.


Study Guide Questions

1. Name 3 different kinds of cetaceans.

2. True or False: Irrawaddy dolphins live only in rivers.

3. What is the endangered status of the Irrawaddy dolphin in the Mekong river?

4. What is a flagship species?

5. If there are no animals of a certain species in the wild, but there are some in zoos, then what would its endangered classification be?


If you are an educator, we’ve created a page to help you leverage content we’ve created, including an index of our posts.