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Dung is key to tracking elusive Cambodian tiger

A dog trained to sniff for tiger droppings will help conservationists determine if the big cats still roam one of Cambodia's largest nature reserves.

world Updated: Feb 14, 2009 05:19 IST

A dog trained to sniff for tiger droppings will help conservationists determine if the big cats still roam one of Cambodia's largest nature reserves.

Starting next week, Maggie, a German wirehaired pointer, will begin scouring the undergrowth and sniffing for tiger scent on trees at the 1,158 square mile (3,000 square kilometer) Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area in northeastern Cambodia.

The unorthodox move to employ a dog trained in Russia to search for signs of tigers comes after camera traps and field surveys failed to find the big cats last year. The last sign of a tiger was in 2007, when a paw print was spotted in the park. "We think this is the best method when we have a large area and not that many tigers," said Hannah O'Kelly, a wildlife monitoring adviser for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, which along with the wild cat conservation group Panthera is spending about $30,000 to bring Maggie and a second dog from Russia to Seima later this year.

Hiring the two dogs is part of a $10 million, 10-year initiative by WCS and Panthera, also based in New York, called "Tigers Forever." It aims to increase the numbers of tigers by 50 percent in Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Russian Far East and Thailand through a range of measures that include better monitoring, assessments of threats and efforts to minimize the dangers facing the big cats.

The campaign was launched in 2006 to combat a dwindling tiger population in Asia. Across the continent, the number of tigers has plummeted to as few as 5,000 tigers from a high of 100,000 a century ago due to poaching, habitat loss and other threats. It is unclear how many tigers remain in Cambodia.

Men Soriyun, a project manager for Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area, said he felt that dogs offered the best hope of finding the tigers and that the method could be used by other national reserves.

"The best way to find tigers in the jungle is to use dogs because they can find tigers by their smell," Men Soriyun said. Cambodia is the first country in Asia to employ the dogs to search for tigers, a method pioneered in Russia's Far East region which has hundreds of tigers spread across several thousand miles (kilometers).

Since then, dogs have been used to search for jaguars in South America and leopards in Africa.

All six dogs taught to search for tigers were trained by wildlife biologist and WCS consultant Linda Kerley in Russia's Lazovsky Nature Reserve. The best dogs for the task, she said, are hunting or sheep herding dogs that can easily detect the musky smell of the tiger's scat, excrement left by a wild animal.

"We don't want a dog that will hunt tigers," said Kerley, who accompanied Maggie to Cambodia. "We want a dog that wants to hunt for the scent of the scat."

The effort is part of a larger campaign by conservationists worldwide to mine animal droppings for genetic information that can save endangered species.

Elephant dung, for example, was used two years ago to calculate the population of pachyderms in Malaysia's Taman Negara National Park.