Tigers have nearly tripled in Nepal, but at what cost?

The country now has 355 tigers, but critics say the conservation focus has put human neighbours at risk.

By Dina Fine Maron
Published 29 Jul 2022, 16:28 BST
A Bengal tiger wades in Nepal's Bardia National Park, one of the country's protected areas for the animals.
Photograph by Utopia_88, Getty Images

Nepal has become the world’s front-runner for tiger conservation. 

The country has announced that it has 355 of the endangered cats within its borders, almost tripling its known population since its estimate of 121 tigers in 2009.

At the Global Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2010, all 13 countries that have tigers in the wild pledged to double their tiger numbers. Only Nepal has met this goal.

The country's successes are largely the result of “strong government buy-in” for tiger conservation and the enforcement of strict anti-poaching policies, says Abishek Harihar, the deputy director of the tiger program at the wildcat conservation group Panthera, which supported Nepal’s recent efforts to survey its population of Bengal tigers.

At the start of the 20th century, more than 100,000 tigers roamed the planet, but loss of habitat wiped out more than 90 percent of their range, according to Panthera. Trophy hunting and poaching for their skins and bones—used in China and elsewhere in Asia to make products including tiger bone "wine," a traditional brew some believe will impart the drinker with the animal's strength, also substantially reduced tiger populations. Today, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and southern China have no tigers in the wild. (Read about how Siberian tigers are being poached for their body parts.)

Tigers 101
Tigers are icons of beauty, power, and the importance of conservation. Learn five surprising facts about these striped felines, including how large the cats can be, an adaptation some developed for swimming, and how much wild tiger populations have declined. February 2019 is National Geographic's Big Cat Month: found out more about it here: www.savearchie.com  

In Nepal, punishment for poaching a tiger includes 15 years in prison and a fine of more than £8,000, Harihar says.

Since the 1970s, Nepal has established five national parks where most of its tigers live. They’re  heavily patrolled by park staff and army personnel. Tiger protections also have helped other threatened animals—rhinos, elephants, and pangolins, among others.

Better sampling methods—such as camera traps—account for some of the improvements in Nepal’s tiger numbers. But there has also been a real population increase, with more tigers born, Harihar says. “Certainly, Nepal has gotten much closer to [its tiger goals] than other countries,” he says, though India, Bhutan, and Thailand have made gains in recent years too.

Nepal’s tiger announcement comes after the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority on the status of endangered animals, announced earlier this month that tiger numbers worldwide are “stable or increasing.” Its latest tally indicates that there are between 3,726 and 5,578 wild tigers—a 40 percent increase from the 2015 estimate. Much of the improvement came from better monitoring, not growing numbers of the endangered animals, IUCN noted.

Yet Nepal’s tiger progress has come at a cost: Some critics say that the focus on increasing tigers is at odds with community safety. In recent years, tiger attacks against local people living around tiger habitat have increased, as has predation on livestock, threatening livelihoods. Government agencies and conservationists “haven’t thought enough about how to keep people safe in those communities,” says Kumar Paudel, the director of Greenhood Nepal, a Kathmandu-based conservation nonprofit.

“I’m excited to see the tiger numbers," he says, "but the cost of this conservation feels really sad."

Tiger attacks on the rise

Between July 2021 and July 2022, tigers killed 16 people in Chitwan National Park, the big cat’s main habitat, according to Babu Ram Lamichhane, a biologist at the National Trust of Nature Conservation, Nepal. In contrast, he says, in the previous five years combined there were 10 attacks (and resulting deaths) in the park. 

Last month, a tiger attacked and injured a 41-year-old woman in Bardiya district, close to one of the largest areas of tiger habitat, while she was collecting firewood. The incident, according to The Kathmandu Post, incensed the community, and people blocked the main road, demanding better protection from wildlife. To disperse the protesters, security forces deployed tear gas shells and opened fire, leading to multiple injuries and one death.

Lamichhane’s group has found that tigers that injure or kill people are typically physically impaired or without territory—they’re stressed animals looking for easy prey. Increased tiger densities, he says, forces some cats to search for territory in fringe areas, where they’re more likely to encounter people.

Better monitoring of these animals and timely control, such as euthanising the tiger, can help reduce attacks, he says, adding that relocating felines that have previously attacked people isn’t a good solution because they may harm people elsewhere.  

Most people that live around the parks still depend on the forest for their daily needs, for example, wood for fuel, says Kanchan Thapa, the head of wildlife programs for World Wildlife Fund-Nepal. So the government and other conservation partners should focus on providing alternative livelihood options for these people, he says. 

With the release of the new global population numbers, the IUCN urged countries to continue expanding and connecting protected areas and called for further collaboration with communities living in and around tiger habitats.

“The major problem is the human-tiger interaction,” Paudel says, adding that governments need to “think about the social cost of conservation and how we can truly all share that.”

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