Cautious optimism aside, years of work still must be done if tigers are to roam free. While finding the location is key—and Nyhus and his colleagues may have done so this summer, in the northern Hupingshan-Houhe location—big questions remain. Where would the tigers come from? How much prey can the area support? Since the population of South China tigers is highly inbred, will they breed and survive, or will they need to be hybridized with healthier tigers? What effects might reintroduction have on other living creatures in the area? These are some of the topics being researched and discussed, and exploration will become far more detailed over the coming months and years, if and when a location is finalized.
But it all comes back to the maps.
The area under extensive evaluation is about 1,000 square kilometers (about 400 square miles), large enough for roughly a dozen tigers. “I can’t tell you how many now, because we don’t know,” said Nyhus. “We recognize [the area is] not ideal; it’s not that big compared to other areas in Asia that have tigers. It has a lot of really rugged topography that’s going to make it difficult logistically and make some of the area unavailable,” he said. Though tigers lived in this area historically, they don’t like steep slopes, and this area includes cliffs that shoot up thousands of feet.
Those cliffs were the subject of a GIS mystery this summer, before Nyhus explored the area on foot. The information from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) that the students were using to decipher the topography didn’t recognize these “no data zones.” “When he was out in the field he’d be hiking around and then he’d stop and take GPS waypoints,” said Larson. Nyhus found the cliffs, took GPS points and elevation notes, and the students incorporated the data when Nyhus returned.
Cliffs weren’t the only things Nyhus helped the students fill in. “At the waypoints he would take notes just describing what the location was like and then also comparing it to those maps,” said Larson. Upon his return, Nyhus and the students compared the notes to the maps. “He said, you know, ‘The land-cover layer is good for the forest pixels, but it doesn’t pick up agriculture well’—like it doesn’t differentiate grassland and agriculture very well. So that was a big thing that we had to work on once he came back, ’cause we really do want to know where the agriculture is—it’s pretty important.”
Evaluations are still underway, but Nyhus was able to describe—and indicate on the map—an area thought to be suitable. “We think it’s probably one of the two best places within the historic range of the South China tiger to bring it back,” he said, despite that only a small number of tigers could live there. Still, Nyhus is optimistic about the broader implications. “It will be a foothold in the beginning of what could be a larger process of restoring natural, wild ecosystems in South Central China.”
Tilson says it wouldn’t have happened without Nyhus, whom he calls the navigator. “The navigator is the one who uses maps and finds the way, and … the maps that he and his students have created have allowed us to see where we want to go and to arrive over there and be able to show this picture to our Chinese counterparts,” he said. “The navigator is always the most important person in any voyage.”
"I think the Chinese have already decided they want their tigers back. ... And I think it will happen."
-Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Philip Nyhus
Part of what makes Nyhus so crucial, says Tilson, is his ability to show rather than just tell. “They all have sort of a sense of what this place looks like, but, at best, it’s just photographs. And Philip now has this three-dimensional map that he can project and it’s like being a bird flying over the park, and he can turn it any way you want it and he can spin it on an axis, and all of a sudden you see the entirety of this whole place, and you can talk about here is where tigers can live, and here and here and here,” he said, his voice rising with excitement.
As Nyhus stands before groups of government officials, academics, and scientists in China, he is more than just the map guy. “I do the spatial analysis, but I’m also very interested in policy and the human dimension,” he said. And while a primary concern is finding an area that’s suitable for tigers in terms of topography and prey, other factors exist
Because this land was converted into national park within the last 30 years, people still live there. “If we are going to consider putting tigers back, we need to understand both the biology of the park but also the people of the park,” he said. The area they’re considering most seriously now, in Hunan and Hubei provinces, includes homes abandoned as people fled for cities. “We talked to many families that expressed a strong desire to have other opportunities. It’s a really rough, rugged life when you’re up at eighteen-hundred meters, far from any village, market, roads, electricity.” Tiger-human conflict, mainly caused by tigers eating agricultural animals, is also a concern. Such conflict has, in the past, led to people hunting wild animals—endangered or not.