Using Technology to Help Wild Cats and People Coexist

In Central India, F&ES doctoral student Jennie Miller is helping develop strategies to limit the increasingly frequent interactions between humans and wild cats that have triggered massive declines in populations of tigers and leopards.

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

leopard Jennie Miller
For centuries, populations of tigers and leopards in central India have plummeted in the face of habitat degradation, the loss of prey, and a rise in sport hunting. Over the last few decades, however, it has been the increases in poaching and “retaliation killings” by livestock owners that have become the greatest threats facing these big cats.
Jennie Miller, a doctoral student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, says the best strategy to stem these losses is to limit the interactions between these rare cats and livestock animals. And she’s developing strategies that use spatial technology to achieve this goal.
In an interview, Miller describes the relationship between wild cats and humans in this part of the world, how simple technologies can reduce conflicts, and the risks of working so close to these predators.

Can you describe the research you’re doing in India? 
In a nutshell, I’m creating geospatial tools to help people and big cats sustainably coexist. In many parts of Asia, people graze their livestock in landscapes shared with tigers and leopards. Big cats regularly kill domesticated livestock since they are easy prey, causing profound livelihood loses for livestock owners. For example, in the Kanha Tiger Reserve in central India where I work, more than 400 cattle, buffalo, goats, and pigs are killed each year. Though this is less than 0.5 percent of the 85,000 livestock in the area, even a small number of attacks can create a sense of insecurity and frustration for livestock owners. To reduce attacks, owners sometimes lace livestock carcasses with pesticides to poison the cats when they return to feed. Since only about 3,500 tigers remain in the wild, every cat counts for the survival of the species.
jennie miller goat
My research aims to help reduce this human-carnivore conflict by minimizing carnivore attacks on livestock. I’m building spatial models to understand where tigers and leopards are most likely to attack livestock. These models also generate “risk maps” to predict where future attacks may occur to assist the Forest Department and villagers when managing and grazing livestock. If livestock can be grazed in habitats where carnivores are less likely to attack — for example, away from dense forests where tigers hunt — then coexistence between people and tigers and leopards may be more feasible.
What are the threats facing these animals? And, for that matter, the people who live in these communities?
Over the past few centuries, habitat degradation, prey loss, and uncontrolled sport hunting have caused massive declines in tiger and leopard populations. However, in the past few decades, poaching and retaliation killing have emerged as the two greatest immediate threats for these big cats. Recent surges in the value of tiger and leopard body parts in international markets in southeast and east Asia — where they are sold for traditional medicine — are motivating a spree of illegal poaching, especially within India, which supports half the world’s wild tigers.
Retaliation killing — when villagers poison carnivores after losing livestock — also contributes to species declines, particularly since these incidences often kill young dispersing tigers and leopards as they move through agricultural fields to colonize or join other populations in nearby protected areas. And poaching and retaliation killing can be closely linked, since poachers may capitalize on a livestock owner’s desire to remove a troublesome tiger.
miller studies remains Jennie Miller interviews a forest guard.
Attacks on humans are rare — far less frequent than deaths due to car accidents or even snake bites. Perhaps due to their rarity and primal essence, the media often sensationalizes these “man-eater” attacks, which can further instigate anger, fear, and retaliations from people. Nonetheless, attacks do occasionally happen. People who share forests with tigers and leopards are very aware of these risks and take precautions to avoid chances of attack, such as staying indoors at night, traveling in groups and regularly protecting small children. There is a great amount of respect — driven by a mixture of fear, appreciation and reverence — for large cats in India.
What does the mapping technology you’re using reveal? 
We’re at an exciting point in time where spatial technology like GPS units and satellite data are enabling the development of simple tools for management and conservation. One example is “spatial risk mapping,” which I use for my research. Basically, I recorded the GPS coordinates of hundreds of dead livestock in my study site as well as random sites to measure variation across the landscape. I combine these with information about the location of other environmental and human features, such as roads, villages, forests, and shrubs. I then build statistical models to predict the probability of a tiger or leopard attack on livestock across the landscape.
The end result is a map that can help visually identify where attacks might occur in the future. These maps can serve as powerful tools because they transcend language and education barriers by visually representing risk and so could be useful to help villagers in remote areas protect their livestock.
What have you learned so far? 
Since tigers and leopards both use stalking hunting tactics to attack prey, I expected them to show similar hunting patterns. However, I found that tigers and leopards differ greatly in where they tend to kill livestock: Tigers attack most often in dense forests away from human infrastructure like roads and villages, whereas leopards kill in more open vegetation and aren’t as deterred by human presence. In fact, on several occasions, leopards boldly strolled into villages at night and killed livestock in bamboo enclosures adjacent to people’s mud huts while they slept inside!
People generally know how to avoid tiger attacks but could perhaps benefit from more conservation support for actively protecting livestock from leopard attacks.
— Jennie Miller
I also expected livestock owners to have a strong sense of where both tigers and leopards kill. Yet when I interviewed owners and compared their perceptions about where these two cats tend to kill, I found that owners have a very accurate sense of where tigers attack but a poorer understanding of where leopards attack. I suspect this disparity occurs because tigers are constrained to hunting in dense forests but leopards can kill in a broader diversity of habitats, making it generally harder to predict where a leopard will attack. This means that people generally know how to avoid tiger attacks but could perhaps benefit from more conservation support for actively protecting livestock from leopard attacks, such as by strengthening night enclosures or hiring livestock herders. 
What do you hope will come out of your research?
These results provide valuable insights into how big cats, livestock, and people interact which I hope will help strengthen animal husbandry and livestock management to better protect livestock and reduce human-carnivore conflict. I’m working with the Forest Department of Kanha Tiger Reserve to integrate these spatial risk models into management to help guide their conservation efforts. For example, risk maps can be used to understand carnivore hunting behavior and patterns, especially the distinction between tigers and leopards, for developing strategies for protecting livestock. In considering the risk of an attack alongside other grazing considerations — such as browse quality and access from villages — livestock owners may also be able to make grazing decisions in a more informed way.
miller studies remains Miller inspects the remains of a cow killed by a wild cat.
What other skills have you had to develop to conduct this research? 
Learning Hindi has enabled me to more personally relate with villagers in India to understand the ramifications of livestock losses, as well as to understand the jokes made by my field assistants. Since I surveyed dead livestock and collected tiger and leopard scat for a year, I quickly developed a tolerance for bad smells, maggots, blood, and feces. I realized this a few months into fieldwork when I found myself elbow-deep in a bucket of water and tiger feces, separating the hair from particulate matter in order to identify prey contents. And to this day, I still reach for my GPS when I smell road kill. But more seriously, I also acquired a deep respect for the villagers and forest guards who literally risk their lives daily to live alongside tigers and leopards.
Have you ever felt unsafe doing this work, walking in places where these animals lurk?
Definitely! Though tigers and leopards rarely attack people, one or two people — usually solitary livestock herders or forest guards — are attacked in Kanha Tiger Reserve every year. These big cats don’t usually approach groups of people, so I always took a team of three to 10 people with me when surveying livestock carcasses. We also tried to avoid visiting fresh kills to reduce the chance that the cats would still be feeding when we approached. But sometimes this couldn’t be avoided and I can recall several cases when we knew a cat was lingering nearby.
Once, when my team and I were walking through a dense forest towards three cow carcasses killed the night before, the villagers in front of me said they could hear the tigress walking. When we reached the carcasses a few moments later, there was fresh blood on the carcass, indicating that she had been feeding a few minutes before we arrived. That day I truly began to understand the risks that villages take in living with these cats.
What made you want to focus your research in India? 
In January 2005 when I was a sophomore in college, I accompanied my father, a yoga and meditation teacher, on a visit to India to meet his guru. During our trip I saw first-hand the sudden tragedy of the tsunami in coastal Chennai and also heard stories while on safari about man-eating tigers in the dense jungles of Corbett Tiger Reserve. I was mesmerized by the people’s vibrancy and resiliency despite these unpredictable hardships, and greatly impressed by the extent to which Indians are economically and spiritually connected to nature. The trip helped inspire me to major in ecology and take classes in South Asian religion, art and language, and to later return to India as a Fulbright Scholar to study bird conservation in the western Himalayas. After a year of research in India I was hooked. I hope that I can continue working in India for the rest of my life.