Tigers Need Cover: Multi-Scale Occupancy Study of the Big Cat in Sumatran Forest and Plantation Landscapes
Kelly, Marcella J.
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The critically endangered Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae Pocock, 1929) is generally known as a forest-dependent animal. With large-scale conversion of forests into plantations, however, it is crucial for restoration efforts to understand to what extent tigers use modified habitats. We investigated tiger-habitat relationships at 2 spatial scales: occupancy across the landscape and habitat use within the home range. Across major landcover types in central Sumatra, we conducted systematic detection, non-detection sign surveys in 47, 17×17 km grid cells. Within each cell, we surveyed 40, 1-km transects and recorded tiger detections and habitat variables in 100 m segments totaling 1,857 km surveyed. We found that tigers strongly preferred forest and used plantations of acacia and oilpalm, far less than their availability. Tiger probability of occupancy covaried positively and strongly with altitude, positively with forest area, and negatively with distance-to-forest centroids. At the fine scale, probability of habitat use by tigers across landcover types covaried positively and strongly with understory cover and altitude, and negatively and strongly with human settlement. Within forest areas, tigers strongly preferred sites that are farther from water bodies, higher in altitude, farther from edge, and closer to centroid of large forest block; and strongly preferred sites with thicker understory cover, lower level of disturbance, higher altitude, and steeper slope. These results indicate that to thrive, tigers depend on the existence of large contiguous forest blocks, and that with adjustments in plantation management, tigers could use mosaics of plantations (as additional roaming zones), riparian forests (as corridors) and smaller forest patches (as stepping stones), potentially maintaining a metapopulation structure in fragmented landscapes. This study highlights the importance of a multi-spatial scale analysis and provides crucial information relevant to restoring tigers and other wildlife in forest and plantation landscapes through improvement in habitat extent, quality, and connectivity.