Coming home

Look: These tigers are living shockingly close to humans — and thriving

It’s not too late to reverse a disastrous trend.

UQ/Matthew Luskin

It’s almost a foregone conclusion that when humans move in, other large animals become scarce.

UQ/Matthew Luskin

UQ/Matthew Luskin

With reduced access to food and danger from both hunting and habitat destruction, large animals are being pushed to smaller and more isolated habitats.

UQ/Matthew Luskin

But a new study shows that with appropriate distance from humans, unexpected animals may return to areas right on our doorsteps.

Researchers from the University of Queensland looked at the 14 largest species in tropical forests throughout Southeast Asia, comparing modern populations with historical numbers.

UQ/Matthew Luskin

Their research, published in Science Advances, found that areas with the most deforestation saw the steepest decline in animal populations. The four areas in the study with the most human activity saw two-and-a-half times more animal displacement than the six with the least amount of human activity.

UQ/Matthew Luskin

But researchers found some surprising exceptions.

UQ/Matthew Luskin

UQ/Matthew Luskin

Tigers, elephants, wild boars, and clouded leopards actually had larger populations in areas with more human development.

UQ/Matthew Luskin

That doesn’t mean human development is a good thing for wild animals. Researchers say the strange trend results from “a convoluted geo-climatic legacy interacting with modern disturbances.”

In other words,

the picture is much more complicated. Efforts to curb poaching and restore forests are often strongest in national parks near human settlements, and that’s exactly where researchers saw increased animal populations.

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“Singapore has actually experienced the natural re-wilding of sambar deer and wild boars, which are now frequently observed in an urban forest, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.”

Lead author Zachary Amir

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The study doesn’t present a universal trend. In fact, researchers found a different mix of animal species in every forest they studied. That makes it hard to form a conservation strategy that’s beneficial overall.

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And while some animals are thriving near humans, others aren’t so lucky.

UQ/Matthew Luskin

Tapirs, sun bears, Sumatran rhinos, and other species have seen significant population declines, with or without efforts to limit human impact.

UQ/Matthew Luskin

UQ/Matthew Luskin

So living near humans isn’t necessarily good for animals, but the researchers suggest the data can help us be better neighbors.

“These results provide hope for wildlife in forests previously considered too far degraded or too close to cities.”

Study author Dr. Matthew Luskin

UQ/Matthew Luskin

The conservation tactics used in places like Singapore

could help animal populations grow elsewhere, according to lead author Zachary Amir, “but before this can happen, humans need to get our act together and limit poaching.”

UQ/Matthew Luskin