On the far side of the world, rangers trying to protect tigers in Nepal depend on maps made in Missoula.
None of Kevin McManigal’s cartography students at the University of Montana have been to the Parsa Wildlife Preserve. But they’ve spent the past six months building the most detailed topographic record the 155,000-acre tiger habitat has ever had.
“We don’t have the advantage of being able to ground-truth it,” said Abby Issac, one of the half-dozen students on the project. “All of our data was coming from satellite images. I’d be looking at photos of a riverbed, and you’d see car tracks going right through it during the dry season. It was blowing my mind.”
The rangers trying to protect Parsa’s seven remaining tigers faced an equally confusing situation. Maps derive from projections – a mathematic formula that converts the features of a curved planet surface to a flat paper presentation. Most of the world has been mapped in what’s called a 6-degree projection.
But in 1995, a group of cartographers from Finland produced a series of maps for the Nepali government using a 12-degree projection. And they didn’t leave instructions for how to recalculate their results to 6-degree format. Those are the maps Parsa rangers have been trying to reconcile with what they see on their satellite-based GPS readers as they travel the park.
“A ranger will be out in the field, and his GPS unit says he’s standing somewhere while the map says he’s standing in a completely different place,” McManigal said. “It’s made it impossible to use with modern technology.”
Furthermore, the Finnish maps were based on aerial photos taken in the 1980s. Those original photos have been lost. And the countryside has changed.
“It’s like looking at a map of Missoula from 30 years ago and realizing, 'Oh, there’s North Reserve Street out there now,' ” said Aaron Kamoske, another of the UM cartography students. What appeared as footpaths in the old maps now have semitrailers driving along in current photos. Scattered settlements have grown together into long, roadside villages. And then there’s the nature of Nepal’s otherworldly terrain and culture.
Most Americans know Nepal for the Himalaya Mountains and Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world at 29,029 feet above sea level. But Nepal’s southern border with India dips down to barely 330 feet elevation. These tropical grasslands and hills support the tiger habitat protected by Chitwan National Park and the adjacent Parsa Wildlife Preserve.
Nepal has barely 8,000 miles of road in the whole country – only half of which is paved. Montana’s state highway system alone is almost 13,000 miles. Nepal has 30 million people to Montana’s 1 million.
“It’s a more complex landscape than I was used to,” Kamoske said. “There’s all this development on the hillsides that’s terraced, and you’re wondering – maybe that’s a trail? But it’s going straight up to a village with nothing else connecting it.”
Nepal has also pioneered a national park management system using buffer zones where local residents can continue to use land on the fringes of protected areas in traditional ways like farming or timber cutting. It also tends to be where wildlife poaching takes place.
That’s what attracted the attention of Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization.
Panthera tries to conserve all of nature’s major predatory cats: tigers, lions, leopards, snow leopards, cheetahs, jaguars and cougars. Barely 2,000 tigers are believed to survive worldwide. That’s half the number of cougars estimated in Montana alone.
“The rangers will use these maps to track people down to their house, so every building and hut we could see on the satellite images was put on the map,” McManigal said. “In other places, the old map would show a village and our Panthera reps would call around and find out that village was gone, so we had to take them out.”
Chitwan has a major tourist business, but Parsa remains mostly undeveloped. Panthera tiger program director John Goodrich said it faces intense resource pressure from people on both sides of the Nepal-India border.
“You’ve got people sneaking in to cut grass and collect mushrooms, all the way up to poaching tigers,” Goodrich said.
On the other hand, an ongoing political dispute between Nepal and India has resulted in an economic embargo on the border. Nepali political parties aligned with India have refused to allow shipments of fuel, food or other goods through Nepal’s only customs ports for nearly three months. That’s also blocked delivery of the tiger maps.
“The deadline for the maps was the first of November, and we had them in the tubes and shipped to London,” McManigal said. “But then they had to cancel their trip because of the fuel situation. Now, I think they’re trying to smuggle the maps to the rangers. This is an awful time for the tigers. With all the political unrest, it’s open season for poachers.”
In addition to providing the maps, Panthera also assists with training and logistics for local law enforcement. Although based in New York City, Panthera’s landscape analysis lab director Hugh Robinson is a faculty affiliate at UM’s wildlife biology program.
“We do things like ‘smart programming,’ where we’re keeping track of where the patrols go, where they find snares, and using that spatial data to catch poachers,” Robinson said. “It’s a lot like the predator-prey dynamics we study as wildlife biologists, and then using the same techniques to catch poachers.”
Robinson did his graduate research on cougars in British Columbia, Washington and Idaho, and then came to Missoula to do postdoctoral work with UM forestry professor Mark Hebblewhite. When Panthera offered him the job in 2011, fellow UM professor Dan Pletscher suggested trying to move the lab to Montana.
It took some convincing, but Panthera eventually did make a three-year arrangement to base Robinson in Missoula. In addition to having a campus full of wildlife biologists, ecologists and statisticians, Robinson also found the services of McManigal’s map-makers.
“High-end cartography is my passion,” McManigal said. “GPS and the democratization of mapping came at the loss of the art form.”
The difference between a good map and a poor one is the same as food – you might not be able to say what’s wrong, but you know when it tastes bad. With a map, a wrong choice of color shading on hillsides can make elevation marks hard to read. Arbitrarily placed names can wind up on grid lines, when there was lots of open space right beside them. The legend, where all the dimensions, coordinates and production history go, can be clean or cluttered. A bad font choice can get you lost.
Good maps get you jobs. Among the Nepal mapping crew, Amy Lippus has found work at Adventure Cycling, Gavin Wally has served with Missoula County, Dan Quinn has worked with Five Valleys Land Trust and Patrick Warner got a mapping internship at the Missoula Police Department.
“People sometimes say to me ‘Aren’t all the maps already made?’ ” McManigal said. “You have no idea.”