By Joseph Allchin
Dhaka, Bangladesh–For years the Himalayan nation of Nepal lacked a functional government. Years of war and subsequent reorientation of the state, left vulnerable the nation’s rich fauna and in particular its tigers to the rampant poaching that has decimated wildlife populations across Asia. While Nepal’s politicians bickered, fears rose for its iconic tiger, one of its most majestic animals. But now Nepal’s big cat may be on the rebound.
“When tiger range countries (TRCs) met in St. Petersburg in 2010, we realized we needed to do something. The population [in Nepal] was a total of 121, [we] realized it had gone down dramatically,” said Sabita Malla, from WWF Nepal, on the sidelines of a recent global tiger conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
“During the civil war we knew that the rhino population was being decimated, but we didn’t know about the tigers,” explained Dr Marshwar Dhakal, from Nepal’s department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.
Tiger numbers and poaching of the big cats are harder to detect, Dhakal said, because poachers take the entire carcass to sell body parts for various traditional medical uses.
“Security forces were not prioritizing wildlife protection during the war,” he added. “Now peace has been restored the army is now deploying in protected areas to prevent poaching at its source.”
Latest estimates put the number of wild tigers in Nepal at 198, up from 121 in 2010–a rare success story in the fight to preserve the Critically Endangered big cat.
It’s not just redeployment of anti-poaching units that are making the difference: “Fifty percent of revenues [from tourism] are given back to local communities, which is much more than most other countries,” Dhakal said. This and “other financial incentives have built trust and partnership with communities.” The additional incentives incude relatively high compensation rates for attacks on humans or livestock by tigers.
“If we talk about areas of high tiger population density, they make a lot of money from tourism,” Malla said. Tourism was worth U.S. $370 million to the impoverished South Asian nation in 2012, and even as the civil war dented the sector’s revenues it has remained a vital source of income.
In the country’s Bardia National Park, “there used to be a lot of hunting for subsistence, so prey numbers had gone down, so those communities were brought under buffer zone management system,” Malla said. “They now get support for energy and other benefits and have handed over their guns.” She also notes that “connectivity corridors” were set up to connect the park to habitats in neighbouring India. “We estimated in 2013 that numbers in Bardia had increased from 18 to 50.”
It hasn’t all been plane sailing however. Increased numbers of tigers has inevitably meant increased conflict with the increasing numbers of humans. Nepal’s human population growth has slowed, but is still growing at around 1.2% a year.
Peace has also enabled infrastructure and industrial growth. “We are facing a lot of development infrastructure, which is the main reason for fragmenting habitats of tigers,” Dhakala said. “Other [government] departments seem to get priority in building infrastructure and they always prefer virgin land,” he lamented.
Tiger range countries have met every four years since 2010 for a “stock taking” exercise, which is funded by the Global Tiger Initiative. This has helped to share ideas about what works in the conservation of the cats. For instance, Nepal and neighboring India have seen success in intelligence-sharing regarding poaching in the respective countries. “Before 2010 countries had national, but not international programs and infrastructure; [a global forum] has helped to look into common issues and find solutions for them,” said Andrew Zakharenka of the Global Tiger Initiative Secretariat.
A global estimate put numbers at a mere 3,200 in 2010, down from over 100,000 a century ago. With little accurate data about numbers however, there is hope that a global census will be taken by 2016 to establish an accurate census.