Officials hope for rise in tiger numbers amid new and emerging threatsAs count of the wild cats begins, new action plan is needed to sustain them by conserving habitats, increasing prey density and mitigating conflict with humans, experts say.
Nepal is conducting the national tiger census from Sunday, with authorities hoping to see an increase in the number of big cats, continuing the trend of the country’s strides in tiger conservation over the years.
Bedkumar Dhakal, spokesperson for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, said that the census will last until mid-January.
The tiger population in the country, as per the last count conducted in 2018, stands at 235, quite close to achieving the “TX2” target.
As per its commitment to the Global Tiger Recovery Plan (TX2), which was endorsed by 13 countries with tiger population, during the 2010 Saint Petersburg Declaration on Tiger Conservation, Nepal has been working to double its tiger population up to 250 by 2022.
Nepal’s success in increasing tiger population has received accolades at home and abroad but concerns too have been growing as the big cats’ number is growing.
“Progress so far is good. We have seen a remarkable increase in tiger population—of 94 percent in 10 years—from 121 in 2009 to 235 in 2018,” said Hemsagar Baral, country director of the Zoological Society of London, Nepal Office. “But we need to maintain the momentum. We need to work on corridor improvement and protecting potential habitats. Further action plans are needed.”
The 2016-2020 action plan of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation aimed to improve and restore critical tiger habitats and corridors.
When there are more tigers, they need more food. Maintaining the prey density is a major challenge to sustaining the tiger population.
The 2016-2020 action plan also had the objective of managing grasslands and wetlands that are vital for the tiger as well as its prey species.
The government is yet to come up with a new action plan.
Prey densities across all protected areas were found to have declined between the 2018 census and the previous census held in 2013.
According to the report “Status of Tigers and Prey in Nepal” published by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation in 2018, prey numbers had declined from 25.33 per square kilometre in Parsa National Park to 22.02.
In the Chitwan National Park, the prey density went down from 73.63 per square kilometre to 70.7.
The Banke National Park had the lowest prey presence among the parks as it slipped to 8.1 animals per square km in 2018 from 10.27 per square km during the previous census. The Bardiya National Park, which has earned accolades for posting an impressive growth in tiger population, taking their number up to 87 in 2018 from 50 in 2013, has witnessed a decline in prey density from 92.6 to 77.51 animals per square km. The prey population in the Shuklaphanta National Park went down to 68.04 from 78.62 animals per square km.
“While controlling poaching continues to remain a challenge, there are emerging threats,” said Dinesh Neaupane, a wildlife researcher at the Resources Himalaya Foundation Nepal, an organisation working in the field of natural science and biodiversity.
“There are risks of habitat loss due to climate change. As we work to increase the tiger population, we also need to constantly find places for the big cats to live.”
According to Neupane, tigers lately are being sighted in the Chure range also.
“The big cats are moving up… in the high hills,” Neupane told the Post. “We need more studies on why tigers are climbing mountains. Is it because of the rising temperatures?”
A massive decline in the number of tigers in the Chitwan National Park from 120 in 2013 to 93 in 2018 also had raised alarm bells among conservationists.
Studies have shown that the increase in invasive species in the Chitwan National Park led to the decline in habitat.
Loss of habitat and prey also leads to human-tiger conflict, which poses a major challenge to conservation efforts, experts say.
In the first eight months of the fiscal year 2020-21, at least 10 people were reported to have been killed in tiger attacks in the Bardiya National Park and its buffer zones alone.
Conservationists, however, say it would be wrong to make a blanket assumption that human-wildlife conflict has gone up just because of the increase in tiger numbers.
“There is a need to study and understand the whole dynamics of the human-tiger conflict,” said Kanchan Thapa of WWF Nepal, who holds a PhD in tiger conservation. “Every individual case needs a detailed analysis.”
In a 2018 report, the Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation said tigers contribute only around 2.78 percent to the total human-wildlife conflict at the national level as compared to 67.52 percent by elephants.
Naresh Subedi, a wildlife expert and spokesperson for the National Trust for Nature Conservation, also says since tigers’ contribution to human-wildlife conflict is comparatively less, there is a need to study the cause of the conflict.
“By finding out the cause of such conflicts and the nature and the dynamics of such conflicts, we can work to minimise human-tiger conflicts,” Subedi told the Post. “Conflict mitigating programmes and monitoring and rescuing of problematic tigers [those that often stray into settlements] will help in human-wildlife coexistence.”
Nepal’s tiger conservation efforts date back to 1972, when the tiger ecology project was launched in Chitwan. This followed the establishment of Chitwan National Park, the first national park in the country.
Banke National Park was established in 2010 while Parsa Wildlife Reserve was designated a national park in 2017 for tiger conservation.
Established in 1976 as Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve, it was designated a national park in 2017.
The first tiger census was conducted in 2009.
As per the last census conducted in 2018, Chitwan National Park was home to 93 tigers, Bardiya National Park had 87 tigers, Banke National Park had 21, Parsa National Park had 18 and Shuklaphanta National Park had 16.
Officials said surveys will be conducted in all protected areas to count the number of tigers.
The National Trust for Nature Conservation, WWF Nepal and the Zoological Society of London Nepal are providing technical and financial support to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation to conduct the census.
Officials say they have divided the tiger bearing areas into three complexes—Chitwan-Parsa, Banke-Bardiya, and Shuklaphanta-Laljhadi-Jogbudha.
According to Dhakal of the Department of the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, the current census project will cost around Rs30 million.
“The census will be conducted in various phases starting from the Chitwan-Parsa complex. We will be using a total of 3,328 camera traps” said Dhakal. “In the subsequent phases, the enumerators will count tigers in other two complexes. Around 100 surveyors have been trained for the first phase alone.”
Officials are using 13 elephants to count the tigers—seven in the Chitwan-Parsa complex and three each in the two other complexes.
Nepal increased its tiger population from 121 in 2009 to 198 in 2013 and then t0 235 in 2018.
Tiger census is usually conducted during the winter because of higher chances of spotting them easily.
“Winter is the best time for tiger census,” said Thapa of WWF Nepal. “Vegetation is usually intact during this season and tigers come out of bushes to look for dry places. They try to find paths to jungle firelines, vegetation-free areas and floodplains where chances of tiger sightings are high.”