Saving Bengal tiger: National effort alone will not suffice

Increasing international demand for tiger skin and bone has fuelled the illegal trade in its body parts, threatening its long-term survival. As a tiger range country, Nepal is considered both a source and a transit point

The very image of a tiger creates a feeling of fear and respect for the majestic animal. It has no known predator and is at the top of the food chain. Conservationists often refer to the tiger as a “keystone” or “flagship” species. A healthy tiger population indicates the good health of the related ecosystem along with a good prey base and habitat for the wild animals it preys on. It is said the big cat needs 200-250 kilos of flesh a week to sustain. The Royal Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) found in Nepal’s lowland forests, northern India, Bhutan and Bangladesh is one of the five remaining species of tiger found in the world today.

Following the eradication of malaria in the country in the late 1950s, there was large-scale migration of the hill people to the fertile lands of the southern plains. In the ensuing years and decades, there was unchecked deforestation for agricultural and infrastructure development. A rapidly growing human population coupled with subsistence agricultural practices not only degraded the prime tiger habitat there but also relegated the dwindled tiger population to the confines of wildlife sanctuaries.

Despite the subsequent conservation measures, this magnificent animal is highly endangered and is still faced with the threat of extinction. Elsewhere, Balinese and Caspian tigers are already extinct, whereas the Javan tiger is believed to have disappeared in the 1980s.

The major challenges of tiger conservation include habitat loss due to burgeoning human population, poaching and illegal trade in its body parts. Conflict between the local inhabitants and wildlife occurs when herbivores damage crops in the adjoining field or tigers kill their domestic animals.

Despite the legal provision of a hefty fine or a prison sentence (or both) for killing a tiger as well as a compensation scheme for crop or livestock damage, affected locals sometimes resort to retaliatory killings. Tigers are elusive and avoid humans.

Unfortunately, sometimes human life is lost in a tragic encounter between the two. There is a compensation scheme for the loss of life or injuries sustained in a tiger attack.

Increasing international demand for tiger skin and bone has fuelled the illegal trade in its body parts, thereby threatening the long-term survival of this endangered wildlife. Tiger bone is used in some oriental traditional medicine for its so-called aphrodisiac properties.

Being one of the tiger range countries, Nepal is considered both a source (country) and a transit point. Nepal’s legislation regards wildlife crime as an organised crime and prohibits trade in tiger parts in and out of the country.

Despite the minimisation of poaching and illegal trade in tiger parts, opportunistic poaching still remains a problem. In the past decade, 49 tiger skins and 204 kilos of tiger bones were seized, while 2,258 people were arrested for their involvement in wildlife-related crime.

As long as there is a demand for tiger parts in consumer countries, Nepal will face the threat of tiger poaching.

The first tiger conservation initiative can be traced back to 1972, when the government, WWF-US and the Smithsonian Institute jointly launched the Tiger Ecology Project in Chitwan. The early conservation emphasis was on species preservation and adherence to strict law enforcement practices.  Apart from the park-people conflict on the fringe of the forested areas, the lesson learned over the years was that a more conciliatory approach was needed to win the support of the local people for the long-term survival of this marvel of nature, now confined to the island-like national parks.

Nepal’s commitment to tiger conservation is eventually yielding results. The tiger count conducted in 2018 has recorded 235 tigers in the wild. The earlier census of 2009 had recorded 121 individuals. The result shows the country is close to doubling its tiger population and achieving the global commitment made at the 2010 St. Petersburg Summit in Russia.

WWF Nepal has joined hands and worked with the Government of Nepal (GoN) for over two decades in creating awareness and opportunities of sources of local livelihood, community forestry in the degraded patches of forests, and anti poaching. Community involvement in conservation is showing positive signs as Nepal has witnessed zero-poaching (of rhinoceros) year several times.

Jointly launched by GoN and WWF in 2001, the Tarai Arc Landscape (TAL) Programme aims to secure a larger area for tiger conservation by building connectivity between adjacent protected areas and forests within the country as well as between the forests of the trans-border areas of Nepal and India, with biological corridors to facilitate dispersal of this endangered species. Mega terrestrial wildlife such as the wild Asian elephant and the Greater one-horned rhinoceros have been sighted in the corridor forests. Moreover, tiger movement has been recorded in the Khata corridor, which provides connectivity between Nepal’s Bardia National Park and the Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary of India.

Experts say national effort alone will not be enough to deal with the nexus of illegal dealers in international trade in tiger parts and that tiger range countries need to meet regularly to address this thorny issue. Nepal has already initiated talks on the matter with neighbouring countries.