Tigers see roaring success but mega projects may get in way of conservationEver-increasing physical infrastructures have already impacted the wildlife, their behaviour and movements.
In September 2018, when the government declared its tiger population had reached 235, it put Nepal ahead of other countries on track to meet the international goal of doubling the tiger population by 2022.
Nepal’s success in reviving the wild tiger population in the last decade was applauded around the world, giving hope to conservationists fighting to save the wild cats from extinction, as the census put the number of big cats at 235, nearly double of the recorded 121 tigers in 2009.
As per its commitment to the Global Tiger Recovery Plan (TX2), which was endorsed by 13 countries that are home to wild tigers, during the 2010 St Petersburg Declaration on Tiger Conservation, Nepal has been working to double its tiger population to 250 or more by 2022 from its base tiger population of around 125 that year.
“As one of the 13 tiger bearing countries, our goal was to double the tiger population to 250 by 2022. In 2018, we had 235 tigers in the wild. We believe that the tiger population has further increased and we will meet the global goal,” said Pem Narayan Kandel, secretary with the Ministry of Forests and Environment.
“Nepal’s conservation efforts that secured tiger habitats, extended tiger habitats in protected areas, restored forest corridors, prioritised habitat management by improving grasslands and wetlands, increased community participation in conservation, and conducted tiger-related researches have helped us recover our tiger population.”
However, the government secretary, as he counted the government’s activities in meeting the global target, also outlined numerous challenges ahead for protecting the country’s tigers.
According to Kandel, poaching and illegal trade, loss and degradation of habitats, linear infrastructures traversing through their habitats, human-tiger conflicts, climate change impacts, wildlife diseases and the Covid-19 pandemic and its impacts are some of the pertinent challenges for tiger conservation in the country.
With less than a year to meet the goal of doubling its tiger population, which conservationists believe Nepal will comfortably achieve, the road ahead is still fraught with challenges.
As the country marked the 11th Global Tiger Day on Thursday, conservationists and wildlife researchers pointed out that the country’s infrastructure projects in critical tiger habitats are emerging as one of the leading obstacles to tiger conservation in recent years.
“Nepal has recorded a nearly 93 percent growth in its tiger population in the last eight years,” said Kanchan Thapa, conservation biologist with the World Wildlife Fund, Nepal. “These populations are well within the carrying capacity of our protected areas. The government has identified strategic sites as corridors and bottlenecks for tiger movement that are important for wildlife. All these corridors are functional as they sustain small to large mammals like tigers, elephants and rhinos.”
But the growing infrastructure inside their habitats is what bothers conservationists like Thapa who have conducted several studies on tiger ecology.
“Development of large linear infrastructures happening along the most prioritised conservation sites is a challenging issue in present times,” said Thapa, during the webinar ‘Tiger Conservation and Infrastructure Development’ organised on Thursday. “Roadways, irrigation canals, the postal highway and transmission lines pass through these important sites.”
Thapa’s findings have shown that the density of linear infrastructures is 108 per sq km in tiger bearing protected areas and it becomes more crowded in corridors that connect tiger habitats where the density is 477 per sq km.
These ever-increasing physical infrastructures have already been impacting the wildlife, including tigers, their behaviour and movement.
Earlier this year, a study, ‘Impacts of Infrastructures on Environment and Biodiversity in Tarai, Nepal,’ concluded that country’s linear infrastructure projects in lowland Tarai regions have been adversely impacting the environment, biodiversity, including wildlife movement from the protected parks and adjoining forests.
The study pointed out that negative impacts of these infrastructure projects were observed on the forests, wild habitats, wild animals’ movement, hydrological cycle and human-wildlife conflict.
Authorities mandated to protect wildlife also admit that such infrastructures have already been affecting them, their behaviour as well as movement.
“Such projects are impacting wildlife in at least five protected areas in the Tarai. Among such projects, it’s the highways or road networks that have more effects,” said Deepak Kumar Kharal, director general of the Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation. “Irrigation canals also have their impacts. As Nepal is in its peak days of rapid infrastructure development, there will be railways, underground pipelines, and transmission lines coming in future.”
According to Kharal, irrespective of the scale of damage and impacts they leave behind, linear infrastructure projects fragment wildlife habitats and traditional habitats are disturbed forever and struggle to sustain as before.
“Sometimes wild animals even migrate elsewhere and the quality of habitat is degraded due to such infrastructures. As such development has picked up pace after the 1990s, we have also seen an increase in alien invasive plants that further damage natural habitats,” said Kharal. “While such construction activities are ongoing, conservation staffs’ efforts have deviated from core conservation work to minimising the damage caused by such projects.”
Besides causing degradation of natural habitats and impacting wildlife movement, infrastructures that traverse such critical wildlife habitats and corridors also result in loss of valuable wild animals as they are struck by vehicles.
Traffic movement along the East-West Highway affects wild animals from Parsa National Park, Chitwan National Park, Banke National Park, Bardia National Park and Shuklaphanta National Park.
The country was shaken by the death of a female tiger from Parsa National Park on the Pathlaiya-Hetauda section of the highway after being hit by a speeding vehicle. The incident highlighted the dangers posed by linear infrastructures like the East-West highway for wildlife.
It was the third known tiger death in the last few years due to speeding vehicles. In Bardia National Park, a tiger was killed in 2016 and another in 2019. A speeding vehicle was reported to have injured a tiger in Parsa National Park last year but the animal was never found.
In Parsa National Park, of the 22 wild animals that died in 2019-20, 11 were killed in road accidents. Of the total 123 animal deaths in the park in the last four years, a majority had died in road accidents, according to the park’s data.
Elsewhere, Banke National Park has seen most of the untimely wildlife deaths caused by speeding vehicles in recent years. Of 82 animal deaths, both natural and unnatural, 72 were in road accidents in the fiscal year 2017-18. In 2018-19, 45 wild animals were killed in traffic accidents out of the total 67 deaths in the park.
In Bardia National Park, 35 animals were killed in road accidents in 2019-20.
This evidence shows that the country's infrastructures are not friendly for wildlife, including endangered species like tigers.
“National parks have seen a significant number of roadkills every year. There also have been tiger deaths due to unregulated movement of vehicles,” said Thapa. “Dedicated crossings for wildlife like underpass and overpass could have been crucial for saving those wild animals and facilitating their movement.”
During the virtual discussion, conservationists stressed the need for making infrastructures that facilitate the movement of wildlife without significantly affecting their natural habitats.
Arjun Jung Thapa, director general of the Department of Roads, admitted that linear infrastructures lack mitigation measures like overpass, underpass, fencing, walls, canopy bridges and tunnels which ease their movement like the underpasses constructed along the Narayanghat-Muglin road section.
“Back then, these infrastructures were built without considering their implications on the wild animals residing around the area. There was no such awareness,” said Thapa.
“Now, we have been prioritising such measures wherever they are required. For instance, we are installing crossings in the Nawalparasi section of the East-West Highway. We are coordinating with the national park and wildlife conservation department as well as the WWF-Nepal.”
Besides, Thapa, the director general, said ongoing extension and improvement projects of the East-West Highway will also be placed with mitigation measures after discussion with stakeholders.
Meanwhile, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and Department of Roads have also prepared a draft of guidelines for wildlife friendly infrastructures which will soon be tabled at the Cabinet for approval.
According to Shanta Raj Jnawali, a wildlife conservationist, different mitigation measures can be placed for different species as protected areas have small mammals to reptiles to large mammals like tigers.
“Such infrastructures can also differ as per the geographical region. Also, traditional routes of wild animals should be identified and such mitigation measures should be built as per their convenience,” said Jnawali.
“All the stakeholders should have a common consensus on designing wildlife-friendly infrastructures. Conservation partner organisations can play a crucial role in this regard. There are countries around the world which have done impressive work for building wildlife-friendly infrastructures and installing measures. We can learn from them.”