Parks grapple with limited cage space for captive tigersAs tiger numbers grow in Nepal’s forests, effectively managing human-tiger conflict and rehabilitation presents key challenges for conservation.
The striped tiger or Royal Bengal tiger is an endangered species. They are found in some national parks and forests in the Tarai region of Nepal. According to the latest tiger census held in 2021, the tiger population in Nepal has reached 355, with the country nearly tripling the number in 12 years. In 2010, there were 121 tigers in the country. The number had risen to 198 in 2013 and 235 in 2018.
While the increase in the tiger population has positive indications for wildlife conservation, it has come with its own set of challenges for the country, the major one being the reduction of human-tiger conflict and the rehabilitation of captive tigers.
Chitwan National Park (CNP), the country’s first protected area, is a major habitat for tigers. There are a total of 128 tigers in the CNP and the surrounding forests. Incidents of human-animal conflict are prevalent with the increase in the tiger population in Chitwan. Reports of tiger attacks and human casualties in the Chitwan area, among other national park areas, are circulated every year.
According to the CNP, a total of 16 people—14 in the CNP and the forests in its buffer zones and two in the national forests in Nawalparasi—were killed by tigers in the fiscal year of 2021-22.
The number decreased significantly in the fiscal year 2022-23 with only one casualty reported as the national park authorities started taking “trouble-making” tigers under control. The tigers were captured and rehabilitated in cages in the national park.
“Human deaths caused by tigers have decreased significantly after they started to identify the troublesome tigers, monitor them and capture them if needed,” said Ganesh Prasad Tiwari, information officer at the CNP. “But now we don’t have space to keep any more tigers in case they need to be controlled.”
On November 24, a tiger killed Hari Paudel of ward 1 of Rapti Municipality in Chitwan as he went to the forest in the Jogital area of Makawanpur to collect fodder. The technicians who went to the incident site to control the tiger recovered another human body apparently killed by the same tiger. The conservationists then decided to take the tiger under control.
The CNP team tranquilised the tiger and captured it on Sunday night. “But we don’t have a cage to keep the tiger captured from the Jogital area. We are sending inquiries to find a spacious cage to keep the tiger. Currently, the big cat has been kept in a narrow cage unfit for him,” said Tiwari.
The CNP has altogether six cages—four in Kasara and two in Sauraha—for captive tigers. “All six cages are occupied. We have already run out of space for the captive tigers. We don’t have new cages for more tigers here,” said Tiwari.
Bardiya National Park, which is home to 125 tigers, has cages that can accommodate up to five captive tigers. “We already have five tigers in the cages. One of them was brought from Chitwan. We have run out of space for captive tigers here,” said Ashok Ram, chief conservation officer at the Bardiya National Park.
The situation is similar at Parsa National Park. “We have two cages for captive tigers and both are currently occupied. We can maybe accommodate one more tiger, but it’s going to be difficult,” said Ramchandra Khatiwada, the chief conservation officer at Parsa National Park, which has 41 tigers.
Banke National Park in Banke has one tiger cage and it is currently occupied.
According to conservationists, all the captive tigers which are currently in the cages in various parks are troublesome and cannot be released into the wild. A few years ago, a tiger from Chitwan National Park started entering human settlements in the Shishuwar post area. It was soon captured, radio-collared and released into the forest. “The park administration closely monitored its movement. The eight-year-old male tiger travelled all around the park forests, but again made its way towards the settlement,” said Tiwari. “We had to recapture it. But as there was no space in Chitwan, we sent it to be caged in Bardiya.”
Baburam Lamichhane has been regularly conducting studies and investigations relating to problems concerning wildlife and the human community. Lamichhane studied incidents of tigers and the community from 2007 to 2016.
According to the wildlife expert, trouble-making tigers only constitute about five percent of the total population of tigers in the wild in Nepal.
“Tigers tend to stay away from humans, who are not their staple prey. The felines move close to human settlements only when they are unable to hunt, due to old age or injuries from fights with other animals, and prey on domesticated animals, livestock, and humans,” Lamichhane said.
Since the number of such tigers is small, Lamichhane emphasises the need for regular inspection to keep them in check and look for long-term solutions to the problem. “If a trouble-maker tiger comes in the radar, then he should be captured and rehabilitated to avoid human casualties,” he said. “This will ensure a decrease in tiger attacks.”
While the number of tiger attack cases is fluctuating, Lamichhane agrees that the decline in the number of deaths due to tiger attacks is also due to the capture and rehabilitation of troublesome tigers.
However, capturing tigers and rehoming them in cages in protected areas is proving to be insufficient since the national parks have run out of cages.
“We are running out of cages to keep the tigers in. Also, caging them is not enough. There are significant expenses involved in their upkeep,” Tiwari said.
According to Tiwari, approximately Rs500,000 to Rs700,000 is required to feed a single tiger every year. The increase in the number of tigers in captivity only adds to the budget constraints of the national parks.
The Chitwan National Park in collaboration with the Bharatpur Municipality
is planning to build a zoo-like animal rescue centre, with the capacity to hold two tigers. The project, which is to be completed next month, is expected to provide some respite to the national park.
“With the increase in the tiger population, the number of those that may pose a threat will also increase. Only capturing them is not the solution to the problem. It would have been easier had there been zoos in every province to rehabilitate captured tigers,” Tiwari shared.
The tiger, an endangered species, has seen a remarkable surge in its population in Nepal, fulfilling its commitment to double the tiger count by 2022 compared to 2010.