Are wild tigers now extinct in Laos? In episode 72, Akchousanh “Akchou” Rasphone from Oxford‘s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit discusses her research which concludes that improvised snares appear to have decimated the country’s wild tiger population, a species whose worldwide population is now estimated to be around 200. Her open-access article “Documenting the demise of tiger and leopard, and the status of other carnivores and prey, in Lao PDR’s most prized protected area: Nam Et – Phou Louey,” was published in October 2019 with Marc Kéry, Jan Kamler, and David Macdonald in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation.

The Plight of the Tiger - Akchousanh Rasphone
The Plight of the Tiger - Akchousanh Rasphone
The Plight of the Tiger - Akchousanh RasphoneThe Plight of the Tiger - Akchousanh Rasphone
@rwatkins says:
Next time, in episode 73 of Parsing Science, we’ll hear from Courtney Coughenour and Jennifer Pharr, from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, about their research into what differentiates the likelihood that drivers – in their cars – will yield to pedestrians of different races and genders.
@rwatkins says:
Despite all of this, Doug and I were curious what hope Akchou might have for the future of big cats in the Nam Et-Phou Louey National National Protected Area.
@rwatkins says:
Across the 32,000 nights that they spent outdoors in the field, Akchou’s cameras captured nearly 10,000 independent encounters of wildlife. And from these records, they detected 43 different species of animals. But neither tigers nor leopards were photographed after the 14 times they were captured in 2013, the first year of their survey. This led Akchou to conclude that the species has effectively been “extirpated” in Laos, which is a scientific way of saying that they’d been completely wiped out … as she explains next.
@rwatkins says:
With 120 to 160 cameras taking pictures every time they were triggered for 50 days or more, Akchou and her team did indeed end up with lots of pictures: about 10,000 labeled images from this study alone. So Doug and I were interested in hearing how she and her team turned all this raw data into information that they could use in modeling the prevalence of the various species in the NEPL.
@rwatkins says:
If you’ve got a video doorbell, you’re probably familiar with the many false positives that they alert you to. Mine, for instance, has a special affinity for seeing a human face in a cluster of tree branches just beyond the front door. So, given the many images that must come from the thousands of days that Akchou’s cameras spent collectively gathering data, Ryan and I figured that there must have been many such images to wade through, and wondered how she went out doing so.
@rwatkins says:
Each of Akchou’s automated photographic surveys lasted for a minimum of 50 days. But despite being in a national protected area, Doug and I figured that at least some of those cameras would have been stolen or destroyed … maybe by poachers, maybe by locals, or maybe even by the wildlife that they were deployed to document. We asked Akchou just how prevalent this kind of thing is when collecting data remotely in the forests of Laos.
@rwatkins says:
As she just described, Akchou and her team collected their data through camera traps. Ryan and I followed up by asking her how she went about determining where to locate the cameras so that they stood the best chance of capturing the nocturnal movements of the last Laotian tigers.
@rwatkins says:
Archeologists may use material culture as their evidence; biologists, assays; and social psychologists, questionnaires. But in Akchou’s research, she and her team used photographic evidence to document the population density of identifiable species present in the NEPL, as she explains after this short break.
@rwatkins says:
According to Robert Peet [then at] Cornell University, biodiversity has two components: the richness of species, and their evenness. As she and her team employed this distinction in interpreting their findings, Ryan and I asked Akchou to tell us more about this idea.
@rwatkins says:
The NEPL is a remote region in Northern Laos, and the terrain there is quite rugged. So Doug and I were curious to hear how Akchou and her team went about accessing the region for this research.
@rwatkins says:
The NEPL has been widely regarded for its diverse community of carnivores. For instance, just a decade ago, it was noted as being an important site for tiger conservation in Southeast Asia. But – so long as poaching remains financially lucrative – there’s only so much that legislation and law enforcement can do to quash it. So Ryan and I were interested in learning what Akchou thinks might be the key to solving the region’s problem with snaring and poaching.
@rwatkins says:
Snares have been used throughout the ages to trap wild animals. Traditionally, subsistence hunters in the NEPL have made their snares from rattan and other natural products that are prone to decomposing relatively quickly. On the other hand, contemporary commercial poachers more often use the brake cables of motorbikes and bicycles … which, obviously, remain dangerous for much, much longer. So Doug and I were eager for Akchou to help us understand what drives this illegal commerce.
@rwatkins says:
As part of her work as a Senior Conservationist and Biodiversity Monitoring Expert with Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Akchou carries out field research in the mountains of Laos, specifically within the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area, or NEPL for short. So Ryan and I started out our conversation by asking her to tell us more about her homeland, as well as where her research is situated within it.
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Hosts / Producers

Doug Leigh & Ryan Watkins

How to Cite

Leigh, D., Watkins, R., & Rasphone, A.. (2020). Parsing Science – The Plight of the Tiger. figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.12137001

Music

What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers

Transcript

Akchousanh Rasphone: Because the bush meat demand is very high, especially in China, it would still be a challenge for any species population in this protected area, as well as any other habitats in Laos.

Doug Leigh: This is Parsing Science, the unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science, as told by the researcher themselves. I’m Doug Leigh.

Ryan Watkins: And I’m Ryan Watkins. Today, in episode 72 of Parsing Science, we’ll talk with Akchou Rasphone from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford. She’ll talk with us about her five-year study which found that improvised snares have completely decimated the wild tiger population in Laos … a species whose worldwide population is now estimated to be just 200 animals. Here’s Akchou Rasphone.

Rasphone: Hi, my name is Akchousanh Rasphone and people call me Akchou. I was born in Savannakhet Province, which is six hours south of Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I did my bachelor degree in Geographic Information Systems in Australia. And then I did [a] Masters in Geographical Sciences at the National University of Australia. Then I went on and did [my] post graduate diploma in International Wildlife Conservation practice at the University of Oxford. I did my PhD in Zoology, which my topic focused on integral interactions of carnivores in Northern Laos.

Leigh: As part of her work as a Senior Conservationist and Biodiversity Monitoring Expert with Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Akchou carries out field research in the mountains of Laos, specifically within the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area, or NEPL for short. So Ryan and I started out our conversation by asking her to tell us more about her homeland, as well as where her research is situated within it.

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