Dale Miquelle ’72 is a long way from his hometown of Boston. He worked as a conservation biologist in Alaska and Nepal before heading to Russia, where he’s the Country Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Russia Program and leads the Siberian Tiger Project at the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve. He hopes his work to track and study these endangered big cats helps, ultimately, to save them from extinction.
How did you become an expert on Siberian tigers?
I have always been fascinated by wild animals. Even at 10 years old, I was creating a “wildlife library” of articles from Ranger Rick and other kids’ magazines. There was a zoo within walking distance of our house, and I could spend hours watching animals there. After Williston, during an Outward Bound course in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, our group met a bear biologist. As he described his job, I was thinking, “This is what I want to do.” After I got an M.S. from the University of Minnesota, I was asked to join a project on Bengal tigers in Nepal. I was hooked.
Is your work ever dangerous?
We have conducted a project to capture and radio-collar tigers for nearly 20 years. Any time you decide to capture a large, dangerous predator, there is the potential for tragedy—either for the animal or the people. You do it only when you are sure the gains (knowledge) outweigh the potential costs. We set very strict rules of engagement. Fortunately, we never lost a tiger due to the collaring process. We did have a tiger break out of a snare and attack the closest person, who was approaching the animal to dart him. I had to scare off the tiger, a large male, using only a flare, a bit like the flares used for roadside accidents.
Why do you track tigers?
There’s an incredible amount of information that can be gathered by following tiger tracks in the snow: where they travel, what they kill, how they communicate with each other (scent-marking trees), and basically, how tigers “think.” But there are things you can’t learn from snow-tracking that are essential to conserving tigers: how much space each individual needs, the social structure of the population, how often tigers need to make a kill to survive, and what tigers die from. We also use camera traps to develop estimates of abundance. Each tiger has a unique set of stripes (like human fingerprints) that allows us to identify and follow each individual over many years.
What threatens their survival?
Three specific threats: poaching of tigers for traditional medicines and their skins. Tigers could go extinct in the near future due to this insatiable demand. Then there are many “empty forests” in Asia because prey species have been killed by local people seeking protein. Finally, loss of habitat is the long-term threat. About 95 percent of tiger habitat that existed 150 years ago is gone. Tigers remain in scattered “islands” of forested habitat of Asia. If clearing of forests and continued expansion of human-dominated landscapes is not halted, tigers, and most wildlife of Asia—from orangutans to Asian elephants—are doomed.
What kind of equipment do you use?
Nobody in our team carries rifles or any kind of defense except bear spray and flares that can be used to scare animals. Working in the forests with wildlife is a lot less dangerous than walking in New York City at night: you need to know what you’re doing, use some common sense, and be prepared.
Can we save tigers?
An answer to the question, “Can we save tigers?” is really the answer to an even starker question: “Can we save ourselves?” If we as a global community cannot find the space and the means to save tigers—a species so charismatic and culturally sacred in so many countries—then the odds of saving ourselves are indeed poor. We need to save tigers as much for our own sake as for theirs.
Describe the view out your window.
The eastern horizon is an orange glow as the sun prepares to rise out of the Sea of Japan. To the north, west, and south our small village is surrounded by the Sikhote-Alin Reserve. The landscape is amazingly similar to northern New England—the same hills, the same forests and species of trees, but fewer people. Because we are at the merger point of Asia and the boreal north, we have an unusual combination of wildlife: tigers (from the south) and wolves (from the north); similarly Asian black bears and brown (grizzly) bears, leopards, and lynx.
How did Williston contribute to your becoming a conservation biologist?
Williston fueled my intellectual curiosity, and encouraged thinking “outside the box.” Some of the most successful scientists are people who can look at a problem or question from a completely new perspective, so, as odd as it sounds, creativity and innovative thinking are key characteristics of successful scientists. Williston certainly provided me with teachers and an environment that forced me to think critically.
Any advice for would-be biologists?
Get involved with the local wildlife department. Volunteer wherever and whenever you can for wildlife projects, even if they are only remotely related to what you want to do. Give 110 percent in whatever you do—people will remember that, more than the details of what was accomplished. Finding work is about making relationships with people, so learn how to be an effective communicator and how to make contact with people. Wildlife conservation is really about managing people—not wildlife—so skills in working with people will be critical to success.