In Chitwan National Park in Nepal, humans and tigers share the same footpaths: Humans during the day, and tigers at night. Tigers are normally active during the day, but new research has shown they’ve chosen to take the night shift in order to avoid people.

Scientists from Michigan State University installed motion-sensitive cameras in the park, as well as just outside the park’s borders. They wanted to test the theory that humans and tigers used different parts of the 360-square mile park. Chitwan is a major tiger reserve, with 25 or more breeding females and about 120 tigers in total. But the park is also a critical part of life for local humans, who collect wood, hunt and forage there. Chitwan is also the third most popular tourist destination in Nepal.

When the researchers looked at the footage they’d collected, they were surprised to see that rather than sticking to isolated areas of the park, the tigers used the same roads and trails as people. They’d just changed their schedules. Despite the relatively large tiger population, interactions between the two species are rare.

The findings go against typical conservation strategy. Conservationists have thought that tigers need separate reserves, and in some cases, this has led to clashes with local communities. People are sometimes relocated, or their access to resources becomes limited. The new evidence may help future conservation efforts create solutions that better serve the needs of both tigers and humans.

It’s a hopeful sign for tigers, which have dropped in numbers by 97 percent since the beginning of the 20th century. Three subspecies have also become extinct in the last 100 years, now all that remains are the Bengal tigers and incredibly rare Siberian tigers. Around the world, there are only about 3,000 tigers left, and they’re increasingly losing habitat. But at Chitwan, the population is thriving despite the presence of humans. Poaching is relatively low.

The researchers studied human attitudes toward tigers as well, and hoped to help locals understand that tigers are essential to the health of the forests the people rely on. It’s not always easy; tigers occasionally kill livestock and even people. But for now, the two species are surviving as neighbors.

Main photo credit: Michigan State University