Can a country have so many tigers? Nepal is about to find out

  • Nepal is expected to announce the doubling of its long-awaited tiger population to 250 big cats in 12 years, on International Tiger Day (29 July).
  • But critics say the country’s sole focus on increasing tiger numbers has overlooked the effects on communities living near national parks and wildlife reserves, which have suffered from an increase in human tiger encounters.
  • They say the country has exceeded the number of tigers it can comfortably accommodate, even as the government says it has room for up to 400 big cats.
  • Officials say there are various options to address the tiger’s surplus, including harboring “problem tigers” in zoos, giving the animals to foreign governments as a form of diplomacy and, as a last resort, culling the cats.

KATHMANDU – As the world prepares to celebrate International Tiger Day on July 29, officials in Nepal are finalizing a report that is expected to show an expected doubling of the number of big cats in the Himalayan nation since 2010.

Nepal is one of the 13 countries with tiger range, and the only country that is realistically expected to meet the target set 12 years ago at the inaugural Tiger Summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia, to double the number of tigers in the world by 2022. The country was home to 121 from Bengal. tigers (tiger tigris) in 2010, and by 2018, 235 cats were already counted as endangered—and they are on track to surpass their target of 250 by this year.

“We are preparing to announce the number on July 29 on the occasion of World Tiger Day,” Ganesh Pant, an ecologist with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation in Nepal, told Mongbai.

Tigers captured by a camera trap in Nepal. Image credit: DNPWC / NTNC / Panthera / WWF / ZSL

Officials say that when the final result is announced, they are confident of hitting the target, referred to as TX2 (“Tiger Hit Twice”). Even if it was less than an exotic tiger or two, officials involved in the last census said to Mongbai, it wouldn’t be far off target.

But Nepal’s success in preserving tigers has sparked debate about the number of major predators that are too many for the country, and possible measures to control its population when it inevitably exceeds the capacity of Nepal’s national parks and wildlife sanctuaries to shelter them. While officials say this is something that needs to be addressed in the distant future, community leaders say they believe Nepal may already have reached its climax at the moment of the tiger.

“Our studies indicate that Nepal can house up to 400 tigers,” Pant said, citing a 2020 study by the Department of Wildlife Conservation at the Chitwan Parsa complex, a major habitat for the animal. “We are still far from that number.”

As part of the study, researchers estimated that a tiger needs an average of 2,000 kilograms (4,400 lb) of meat per year. Using that number, they concluded that Chitwan National Park, which now has 93 tigers, can house 136 tigers. Further extrapolating the study to the habitats in Bardia National Park and Choclavanta Wildlife Sanctuary, officials came up with a figure of 400 tigers as a rough estimate of the carrying capacity of the entire country.

A fresh tiger footprint on a muddy river bank in Chitwan National Park. Photo by Jonas Gratzer for Mongabay.

But critics point out that the study only looked at Chitwan’s prey numbers and the size of its grasslands to arrive at the number. They say the study ignored the key issue of increasing interactions between humans and tigers in recent years.

Indigenous peoples and communities living near tiger habitats pay the price for conservation [success] Birendra Mahato, director of the Tharu Cultural Museum and Research Center at Suraha near Chitwan National Park, told Mongabai.

He added that “government studies on absorptive capacity do not take this into account.” “Personally, given the social and environmental situation in Chitwan, I think we have already hit the carrying capacity in 2018.”

An average of three people were killed each month in encounters with tigers during the past fiscal year, which ended in July, according to government figures. At the same time, government facilities for holding “formed tigers” are running out of space as an increasing number of tigers are brought in after being involved in a conflict with humans.

Mahato said he is concerned that given the limited habitats the species have on the plains of Nepal and the looming threat of climate change, tigers could begin to move north to higher altitudes, as decades of outward migration have left vast tracts of wasteland.

“Many studies are already showing that tigers are moving upwards due to climate change, and this may lead to increased conflicts in new habitats,” Mahato said.

But the authorities say that this scenario is highly unlikely because there are natural factors limiting population growth. Pant said the rate of population growth will decrease in the future in line with restrictions on the availability of food and land.

Rather than worrying too much about carrying capacity, officials should focus on improving tiger habitats and enabling local communities to benefit from conservation, Maheshwar Dhakal, Chitwan National Park’s chief observer.

“The first thing to address is the quality of the habitat,” he told Mongbai. “Next, we need to address issues of human-wildlife conflict, poaching and trafficking, threat to invasive alien plant species, climate-induced disasters, prey base management, infrastructure development, employment of local people in tourism, and mobilization of security forces “.

Dakal said carrying capacity can be a tricky number to calculate as tigers have been known to thrive even in small areas. He cited the example of Jim Corbett National Park in neighboring India, where 231 tigers live in a primary habitat of 521 square kilometers (201 square miles). By contrast, the 93 Chitwan tigers have a more extensive primary habitat with an area of ​​952 square kilometers (368 sq mi).

Pant said achieving the TX2 goal (or even just getting close to it) would be an important moment to reflect on the successes and shortcomings of Nepal’s tiger conservation program. He added that officials have identified key areas that must be addressed under the new Tiger Action Plan.

“The focus is now on reducing tiger-human conflict and helping local communities reap the direct economic benefits of conservation,” he said.

However, in the event of the need to control the population of tigers, officials do not yet have a clear plan of action, since the focus has always been on increasing the population.

The Rapti River is an essential lifeline for the Chitwan National Park ecosystem, which is a major habitat for the Bengal tiger. Abaya Raj Joshi’s photo for Mongabay.

“There are some actions we can explore,” Pant said. “For example, elderly tigers that live on the fringes of protected areas are often involved in conflict with humans. They can be taken to various zoos across the country.”

The tigers could also be given to foreign governments and zoos, in exchange for other species or fund conservation efforts in Nepal, Dhakal said, calling this “tiger diplomacy.”

If officials run out of options, Pant said, it may be necessary to weed out “the tigers that are a problem.”

Animal rights activists rejected the proposal. They say increasing tiger numbers to fit the agenda of some wildlife NGOs without considering the impacts on local communities has always been a problem.

“How can a group of leaders meeting in a large country decide how many tigers people will have to live with in Chitwan or Bardia?” Christi Singh Shrestha, an activist at the Jane Goodall Institute in Nepal, told Mongabay. “The idea of ​​relocating tigers is not in keeping with the spirit of conservation.

“Officials who have blindly advocated the tiger increase without considering its effects on local communities must be held accountable for their actions,” she added.

Banner picture: Bengal tigers at the Central Zoo in Lalitpur, Nepal. Photo by S Pakhrin / CC BY 2.0

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