Nepal has become the world leader in tiger conservation.
The country announced today that it has 355 endangered cats within its borders, nearly tripling its known population since its estimate of 121 tigers in 2009.
At the World Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2010, the 13 countries that have tigers in the wild pledged to double their tiger numbers. Only Nepal has achieved 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, deputy director of the tiger program at the within the wildcat conservation group Panthera, which supported the recent campaign in Nepal. efforts to survey its Bengal tiger population.
At the start of the 20th century, more than 100,000 tigers roamed the planet, but habitat loss 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 such as tiger bone ‘wine’, a traditional brew that some say will grant the drinker strength of the animal, has also drastically reduced tiger populations. Today, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and southern China have no tigers in the wild. (Read how Siberian tigers are poached for their body parts.)
In Nepal, the penalty for poaching a tiger includes 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, Harihar said.
Since the 1970s, Nepal has created five national parks where most of its tigers live. They are heavily patrolled by park staff and army personnel. Tiger protections have also helped other endangered animals – rhinos, elephants and pangolins, among others.
Better sampling methods, such as camera traps, explain some of the improvements in tiger numbers in Nepal. But there has also been a real population increase, with more tigers being born, Harihar says. “Certainly, Nepal has come very close to [its tiger goals] than other countries,” he says, although India, Bhutan and Thailand have also made progress in recent years.
The tiger announcement in Nepal comes after the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s authority on the status of endangered animals, announced earlier this month that the number of tigers in the world was “stable or increasing”. Its latest count says there are between 3,726 and 5,578 wild tigers, a 40% increase from the 2015 estimate. Much of the improvement comes from better monitoring, not an increasing number of endangered animals, noted the IUCN.
Yet the progress of the tiger in Nepal comes at a price: Some critics say the focus on raising tigers is at odds with community safety. In recent years, tiger attacks on local people living around tiger habitat have increased, as has livestock predation, threatening livelihoods. Government agencies and conservationists “have not thought enough about how to keep people safe in these communities”, says Kumar Paudel, director of Greenhood Nepal, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Kathmandu.
“I am delighted to see the number of tigers,” he says, “but the cost of this conservation is 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 have been 10 attacks (and resulting deaths) at the park.
Last month, a tiger attacked and injured a 41-year-old woman in Bardiya district, near one of the tiger’s largest habitat areas, while she was collecting firewood. The incident, according to Kathmandu post office, infuriated the community and people blocked the main road, demanding better wildlife protection. To disperse the demonstrators, the security forces deployed tear gas canisters and opened fire, injuring several people and killing one.
Lamichhane’s group found that tigers that injure or kill people are usually physically handicapped or without territory – they are stressed animals looking for easy prey. The increased density of tigers, he says, forces some cats to seek territory in outlying areas, where they are more likely to encounter people.
Better surveillance of these animals and rapid control, such as euthanizing the tiger, can help reduce attacks, he says, adding that moving big cats that have already attacked people is not a good solution because they can harm people elsewhere.
Most people who live around the parks still depend on the forest for their daily needs, such as wood for fuel, says Kanchan Thapa, wildlife programs manager for the World Wildlife Fund-Nepal. The government and other conservation partners should therefore focus on providing alternative livelihoods for these people, he says.
With the release of new global population figures, IUCN urged countries to continue expanding and connecting protected areas and called for increased collaboration with communities living in and around tiger habitats.
“The major issue is the human-tiger interaction,” says Paudel, adding that governments need to “think about the social cost of conservation and how we can really all share it.”