Tigers once roamed the whole of Asia, but with human expansion and unbridled development, these big cats have lost much of their habitat.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, the tiger habitat area around the globe has shrunk by 40%. Surviving in small, isolated pockets of forest, they are now susceptible to poaching, especially for medicinal purposes.
The future for these large felines looks bleak. Over a century ago, some 100,000 tigers prowled all over Asia’s diverse landscapes. Now, only 13,000 tigers remain around the world.
Among the most intriguing carnivorous mammals, tigers belong to the cat family (felidae). They comprise nine subspecies: Bengal, Siberian, Sumatran, Caspian, Malayan, Javan, Bali, South China and Indo-Chinese tigers.
Three species are now reportedly extinct: the Javan, Caspian and Bali. A fourth, the South China subspecies, is probably extinct as well, with no sightings over the last decade.
Now we only have fading photos of all these extinct species. We will never get the chance to see these beauties in the wild again. Unfortunately, the global community did not undertake sustained efforts to preserve these species and avert extinction.
But as we bid farewell to the Lunar Year of the Tiger, heart-warming news has emerged of a tiny nation that is bucking the trend: Nepal.
Nepal’s conservation efforts have increased its tiger population. It is one of the few countries that has more than doubled its tiger population from the 2010 baseline.
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Many people are still unaware of this small nation’s success, save perhaps for environmentalists.
Perhaps this is because Nepal is only known globally as the home of Mount Everest, which at almost 30,000 feet above sea level, is the highest mountain in the world – a magnet for mountaineers from around the world.
In 2010 Nepal was home to 121 tigers. Twelve other countries also agreed that year to double the big cats’ global population by 2022.
By the end of December 2022, Nepal’s tiger population had almost tripled to 355 – surely a notable accomplishment for a small impoverished nation.
Nepal’s success in its preservation efforts may be attributed to its effective enforcement against poaching. The country’s zero-poaching approach ensured that no tigers were shot in a decade. Endangered species are not allowed to be targeted in hunting reserves. Regulated hunting is allowed for other animals to help fund wildlife conservation efforts.
Nepalese law bans all hunting, apart from the trophy hunting of a few species. Even the poaching of common species such as wild boar and deer could result in long prison sentences. Slaying a tiger carries a life sentence.
Conservation efforts have involved the military, with heavily armed soldiers patrolling parks like Chitwan. Drones and surveillance cameras are used, along with sniffer dogs, elephants, jeeps, motorbikes, boats and bicycles.
Nepal’s tiger conservation success has come at a price: increased tiger attacks on humans and livestock. This has raised consternation among the people, many of whom often disregard personal safety by going into national parks in search of firewood and food.
The current approach to conservation management has made attacks more likely. Some have called on conservation officials to share information on tiger movements with local communities to minimise the likelihood of such encounters.
Another challenge to conservation has come from infrastructure development. Government plans to build roads and railways in important tiger habitats could affect these creatures’ existence.
Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation has a regional plan to sustain the Bengal tiger population. The department also highlights the potential of ecotourism to augment the livelihoods of the locals.
Still Nepal’s key habitat could lose 39% of its tigers in 20 years. Up to two-fifths of adult tigers in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park could be killed over the next two decades because of fatal accidents on the roads next to the park.
The projection is based on tiger movement data dating back to the 1970s, which shows that a proposed railway line may result in an additional 30 tiger deaths a year.
Hence, government authorities need to consider wildlife movements when planning infrastructure projects.
Local media are raising the awareness by weighing in on the tigers’ travels across the border into India. Obviously, tigers are unable to distinguish between the political boundaries of the two countries.
Tigers have always wandered across a wide range in this region. Today, key tiger corridors are now under threat because of infrastructure projects in Nepal and India.
Preservationists have voiced their concerns during the planning and implementation of conservation efforts. This is pivotal for the continued existence of this iconic species.
A world without tigers would be disastrous for the world’s fauna, making the planet much poorer. The onus is on the global community to continue with unswerving efforts to multiply the number of tigers.
If we fail in these conservation efforts, then the tiger will become another one of nature’s splendours to go extinct. No one would like to see this happening in Nepal or elsewhere.
Future generations will be aghast if we fail to preserve these exquisite mammals for them to see and experience – a privilege we have enjoyed in our own lifetimes.