It was an unusual phone call about a secret meeting. Philip J. Nyhus, assistant professor of environmental studies, was on the line with longtime colleague Ronald Tilson, from the Minnesota Zoo, a leading expert on tigers.
Recalls Tilson, “I called up Philip and I said, ‘You want to go to Beijing?’ And he said, ‘Sure … what for?’ and I said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ ‘What are we going to do?”’ [Nyhus asked], and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ‘What’s the agenda?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He says, ‘Well, who are you going to meet?’ and I said, ‘Other than Weisheng, I don’t know.’”
Wang Weisheng, director of the wildlife management division of China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA), wouldn’t divulge what the meeting, in 2005, was about. Nor would he put it in writing. Tilson and Nyhus just needed to trust him. “He says, ‘You have to come to Beijing, and you have to come soon. Please come,’“ Tilson said.
Nyhus and Tilson had worked with Wang before. Prior to this phone call, the team had been tapped by the Chinese government, specifically the SFA, to determine if any South China tigers existed in the wild. They published a 2004 paper indicating that the subspecies that once roamed China’s countryside (an estimated 4,000 in 1950) was most likely extinct in the wild. “That was the first time it was stated,” said Nyhus, “the first major survey since the World Wildlife Fund did it about a decade before.”
Then things got quiet. Until the mysterious phone call.
Despite the challenges of raising money for plane tickets and getting visas on two weeks’ notice, Nyhus and Tilson made the trip to Beijing in 2005.
“They basically invited us to come back and look for potential areas where we could restore the South China tiger,” said Nyhus. Finding and fully evaluating those areas, though, would be a monumental task. “Everything else,” Tilson said, “finding the tigers, finding the prey, finding the habitat, that all can come with time, it can be recreated in a sense. But unless you have that actual place, it won’t happen. And so that was where Philip became the key to this whole project.”
So began the quest to determine if China possessed a suitable area where South China tigers (of which about 70 exist—almost all, except for nine in Africa, in Chinese zoos) could be reintroduced into the wild. Nyhus, a specialist in the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping, would spend the next three years (and counting) working with Tilson and biologist Jeff Muntifering of the Minnesota Zoo, the Chinese government, Colby environmental studies majors, and many others to attempt an unprecedented conservation effort. “As with any scientific endeavor,” he said in May, “it could come to a screeching halt. But if it does move forward, and if we do find … a place that we could think about restoring the tigers, this would be the first large-scale reintroduction of tigers ever undertaken in the world.”
The world’s population of wild tigers has been in steady decline for decades. At the beginning of the 20th century, according to Nyhus, about 100,000 existed; today, the number is about 4,000. Nyhus and Tilson write about the path to extinction in their forthcoming book, Tigers of the World (2nd Edition): The Science, Politics, and Conservation of Panthera tigris (William Andrew, 2009). “Official government eradication campaigns, uncontrolled hunting, extensive deforestation, and large-scale relocations of urban populations to rural locations all led to the decline and fragmentation of wild tiger populations,” they write.
Nyhus, with collaborator Tom Dabmer (left) and staff from Hubei NNR, evaluates potential tiger habitat using Geographic Information System (GIS) maps created by Colby students.
Photo by Jeff Muntifering
As soon as Nyhus returned from the 2005 trip to Beijing, he brought Colby students into the project. In order to determine if a suitable area existed, the team would need maps of possible locations within the tigers’ historic range with details about elevation, slope, land cover, types of vegetation, protected areas, people, and boundaries. Summer research assistants Brendan Carroll ’05 and Carolyn Hunt ’05 went to work on maps of the areas: Hupingshan and Houhe National Nature Reserves (NNRs), in northern Hunan and southern Houhe provinces, and Mangshan and Nanling NNRs in southern Hunan and northern Guangdong. “They developed base maps that were useful for that initial field reconnaissance. And that wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t worked here at Colby,” Nyhus said. These preliminary maps provided rough information about things like boundaries, rivers, and roads.
When Nyhus returned to China, he and his colleagues used the maps as they explored the area. And so began the work that continued through the summer of 2008: advanced environmental studies students work on maps, and Nyhus and the team of biologists and SFA officials use the maps both in the field and in meetings with Chinese officials. “It’s funny,” said Courtney Larson ’08, one of the students who worked on the maps this summer. “On the field maps we have to maintain everybody’s names that have worked on them. It’s becoming a longer and longer chain. We wrote something like, ‘Maps created by Courtney Larson, Jeff Carroll [’08], modified from maps created by Greg LaShoto [’07], Katie Renwick [’07], Brendan Carroll, Carolyn Hunt…. ” She laughs. But this is pretty serious stuff.
In 2006 a memorandum of under-standing established the South China Tiger Advisory Office (SCTAO) through the Minnesota Zoo and with support from Colby. The advisory office will determine if the reintroduction is feasible and, if so, will recommend to the Chinese government where and how to put China’s tiger back into the wild. Following a trip to China this summer, Nyhus was optimistic. “From the highest levels, SFA in Beijing, Wang Weisheng, to the provincial level, to the park level, there was enormous excitement, interest, sharing of information, and it was a really positive experience,” he said. “I think the Chinese have already decided they want their tigers back. The tiger is an important part of China’s history and culture, and I think this is something that a lot of people within China want to happen and I think it will happen.” Whether it happens through this project or another, Nyhus said, China seems determined.