PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Maggie the German wirehaired pointer has arrived in Cambodia with an unusual task _ sniffing out tiger droppings in one of Cambodia's largest nature reserves.
The unorthodox move to employ a dog trained in Russia to search for signs of the big cats is part of a campaign to boost a tiger population in Asia that has plummeted to as few as 5,000 from 100,000 a century ago.
Starting next week, the salt-and-pepper, 6-year-old will begin scouring the undergrowth and sniffing for tiger scent on trees at the 1,158 square mile (3,000 square kilometer) Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area in northeastern Cambodia.
It is unclear how many tigers are even left in Cambodia, where _ like in much of Asia _ poaching and habitat encroachment are blamed for decimating the population.
The turn to dogs comes after camera traps and field surveys failed to find the big cats last year. The last sign of a tiger was in 2007, when a paw print was spotted in the park.
"We think this is the best method when we have a large area and not that many tigers," said Hannah O'Kelly, a wildlife monitoring adviser for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
WCS and the wild cat conservation group Panthera, also based in New York, are spending about $30,000 to bring Maggie and a second dog from Russia to Seima later this year.
The effort to find tiger droppings is part of a larger campaign by conservationists worldwide to mine animal droppings for genetic information such as DNA that can save endangered species.
Elephant dung, for example, was used two years ago to calculate the population of pachyderms in Malaysia's Taman Negara National Park.
Now, researchers are hoping the tiger scat will help determine the existence of tigers in Seima along with their sex, age and whether any are pregnant or even under threat.
"As we gain the technology to extract things from scat like DNA and hormones, all of sudden scat becomes a gold mine of information," said Linda Kerley, a WCS consultant who trained the dogs in Russia.
O'Kelly said the data from the dung would allow researchers to establish a baseline population of tigers for the reserve and then develop a conservation plan based on the numbers and the potential threats.
Bringing in the two dogs is part of a $10 million, 10-year initiative launched in 2006 by WCS and Panthera called "Tigers Forever." It aims to increase the number of tigers by 50 percent in Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Russian Far East and Thailand through a range of measures that include better monitoring, assessments of threats and efforts to minimize the dangers facing the big cats.
Men Soriyun, a project manager for Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area, said he feels dogs offer the best hope of finding the tigers and that the method could be used by other national reserves.
"The best way to find tigers in the jungle is to use dogs because they can find tigers by their smell," Men Soriyun said.
Cambodia is the first country in Asia to employ dogs to search for tigers, a method pioneered in Russia's Far East that led to an accurate count of the hundreds of tigers spread across the region's several thousand miles (kilometers).
Since then, dogs have been used to search for jaguars in South America and leopards in Africa.
All six dogs taught to search for tigers were trained by Kerley in Russia's Lazovsky Nature Reserve. The best dogs for the task, she said, are hunting or sheep herding dogs that can easily detect the musky smell of the tiger's scat, excrement left by a wild animal.
"We don't want a dog that will hunt tigers," said Kerley, who accompanied Maggie to Cambodia. "We want a dog that wants to hunt for the scent of the scat."
The fear, O'Kelly said, is that the dogs don't find any droppings.
"If we cover the whole area and we don't find any tiger scat, then we can be reasonably confident there are no tigers," O'Kelly said. "That would be very disappointing and I hope that doesn't happen."