"[Richard Parker] made a sound, a snort from his nostrils. I pricked my ears. He did it a second time. I was astonished. Prusten? Tigers make a variety of sounds... I had heard all these sounds growing up. Except for prusten... Prusten is the quietest of tiger calls, a puff through the nose to express friendliness and harmless intentions."
- Yann Martel, The Life of Pi
Saving endangered species can't be done just in the zoo or aquarium - it requires collaboration with partners in the field, especially those working to protect the habitats where animals naturally live. Over the past several years, I've been able to work alongside several such partner organizations (albeit often in the less-glamorous but highly important role of fundraising). Some have been enormous organizations with budgets and staffs straddling continents, others have been very localized and grassroots-based.
Recently, I began hearing a lot about one such grassroots-project, one which has its origins in zoos and sanctuaries - The Prusten Project.
Caring for rescued tigers at the National Tiger Sanctuary, Courtney Dunn noticed that she could identify individual tigers by their calls. If it was possible to identify captive tigers individually, she reasoned, it could be possible to identify wild ones, thereby aiding in their study and conservation. For all of their dominant presence in a zoo, tigers in the wild can be notoriously difficult to find, let alone track, and scientists studying them often have to use other, indirect observations to learn about them. Camera traps. Tree markings. Poop. So why not vocalizations?
Keepers at different zoos and sanctuaries record the vocalizations of their tigers, which are then submitted for acoustic analysis. Not only are different vocalizations pinned to different individual tigers, but, using data collected on known, captive animals, scientists can then establish whether tiger vocalizations vary by age, sex, or other traits. The idea is that scientists may not see tigers, but by identifying their individual roars and other calls, they may be better able to map out a wild population, determining how many tigers inhabit a patch of forest and collecting data on them... even if they remain unseen.
Meredith Pennino, a volunteer for the project and keeper at Big Cat Rescue, records Bengali as part of our ex-situ study. (Photo Credit: Michael Kennedy)
Earlier this year, the wild-phase of the project was put into practice in Indonesia, home to the endangered Sumatran subspecies.
The most remarkable thing about The Prusten Project isn't the work that it's doing (though that is pretty awesome). It's that it was begun and is being carried out by caretakers who work with tigers in captivity and want to save them in the wild. It goes to show what kind of an impact a group of dedicated people, spread out across the country and across very different institutions, can have when they work together to save a species.
Learn more about The Prusten Project at their website