Return of the tigersPolitical will to fulfil international commitments will be Nepal’s ultimate test to meet conservation goals.
In mid-April, as the country reeled under a stay-at-home order amid the Covid-19 pandemic, there was news from the far western region which would start a new chapter in Nepal’s tiger conservation efforts. A tiger was spotted at an elevation of 2,500 metres in the Mahabharat range forest area of Dadeldhura district, making it the first ever sighting of the predator at such a high altitude in Nepal.
Tiger species is usually found in Nepal’s five protected parks and adjoining forest areas in the low-lying Tarai belt where, in 2018, the Nationwide Tiger and Prey Survey recorded an impressive 19 percent increase in tiger numbers from the 2013 estimate of 198 individuals, taking the national tiger population to two hundred and thirty-five.
While the latest sighting would require an in-depth study of tiger movement, the 2018 census of the tiger population, which also looked into the prey density in tiger habitats, has shown that there is a direct relation between prey density and tiger population.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, conservationists have bemoaned the decline in both population and range of wild tigers, due to rampant poaching and habitat destruction, which directly resulted in a poor prey base.
Ten years ago, the global tiger population had reached an all-time low of around 3,200, prompting governments in 13 tiger-range countries to commit to TX2 at the St Petersburg 'Tiger Summit'—the global goal to double the number of wild tigers by 2022—the next Chinese Year of the Tiger.
In the last decade, Nepal has shown the world how strong site management, anti-poaching measures, and a stabilised prey base can contribute to an increase in the tiger population. In 2018, Nepal even made international headlines as the first country on track to meet the TX2 goal; but poaching, habitat loss and prey depletion remain daunting challenges to reach the target in the next two years.
While the five protected parks have seen a remarkable recovery in tiger populations, conservationists say the tiger population has hit a saturation point and there is a challenge of maintaining the prey base for the big cats that need large territories, food and water.
According to a 2018 study conducted by 49 conservation experts from 10 tiger-range countries, tiger sites are unique and would require intensive efforts for population recovery and tiger conservation. The study, which looked into 18 recovery sites across Asia, also said that under 'optimal circumstances', the tiger population could more than triple.
Nepal is one of the 10 tiger-range countries identified under the World Wildlife Fund’s global tiger conservation programme which could contribute up to a 15 percent increase in the global tiger population within a human generation. Shuklaphanta, Banke and Parsa are the three tiger sites identified in Nepal which currently sustain fewer tigers than their carrying capacity, and are areas where conservationists say correct interventions could enable a tiger population recovery.
Nepal has tackled many challenges in the past decade to recover the tiger population. It was clear from the start that the decline in their population was a direct result of poaching and destruction of habitat. For the record, the 2009 tiger population survey had only estimated 121 big cats. While poaching remains the leading challenge in protecting the predators, political will to fulfil international commitments will be Nepal’s ultimate test to meet its conservation goals.
There should be no two thoughts about preventing the tigers’ natural habitat from getting fragmented and maintaining prey density for the increasing tiger population, the results of which will only benefit Nepal and indicate that our ecology is healthy and thriving with biodiversity.