A roaring comeback

Features Issue 147 Mar, 2014

 Text by:  Kashish D. Shrestha

Following an intensely turbulent and dark period, the tiger population in Nepal is finally on the rise. But despite surfacing as a front runner in conservation efforts, the country still remains a major international transit hub for illegal wildlife trade. Now, as one of 13 tiger range countries, will Nepal be able to fulfill its commitment of doubling its tiger population within the next decade?


It is just past 7AM and a group of local villagers emerge from the deep Chitwan forest with their dokos full of fodder, completing a part of their morning chore. Not too far away, in a water pool surrounded by tall elephant grass, a herd of rhinos lounge calmly, the water line neatly running across their muddy body and their expressionless faces staring out into nothing in particular. Their horns slice the air as they occasionally move their heads. As we make our way around the forest and cross a section of the Rapti, a herd of Sambar deer frolic across the river in the distance. Birds, both common and exotic, fly overhead or rest on trees and temporary sandy and stony islands that may disappear by day’s end, or at least when the monsoon comes. As we emerge out of the water and step onto land, our mahut stops the elephant and guides our gaze to the ground. On the wet mud, a large fresh tiger paw print. We trace its brief path before it fades into the grassland. “It hasn’t been long since it was here,” the mahut notes nonchalantly.


Indeed, that may have been true for the morning. But tigers have been leaving paw prints on these lands from long before humans settled in. And for much of the 20th century, humans have steadily erased the tiger habitat, and the tigers themselves. After decades of conservation efforts, however, the 2013 tiger census finally had some good news: based on a 4-month long survey, using camera traps in 1039 grids of 2km x 2km, covering 4841km sq in Chitwan, Bardia, Suklaphanta, Parsa, and Banke, it was reported that the wild tiger population in the country was growing at a rate of 12.7% annually, and had gone by 63% since 2009.

The survey was jointly conducted by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, Department of Forests, National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), and WWF Nepal, with financial and technical support by WWF, NTNC, and the USAID funded Hariyo Ban program.

At press time, Nepal and India were scheduled to meet in late January to compare and crosscheck their respective census findings before producing the final estimated tiger population count. It is considered to be the most advanced and comprehensive census of tigers in the subcontinent yet.

The Rise of the Tiger
A century ago, almost 100,000 tigers roamed the earth. By 2010 that global number had been reduced to an estimated 3,200. Today, tigers are found in only 13 countries, of which Nepal is one.

15 years ago Nepal had an estimated wild tiger population of only 98. That number could almost be considered a ghost of the cats’ reign in the region in a by-gone era. For most of the early and mid 1900s, their numbers were driven down violently by the country’s most powerful, and their friends, who hunted the cats. Then, late 1900s onward, what remained of the tiger population was under threat of being poached by the country’s poorest with the help of their more powerful friends. All the while, tiger habitats, and crucial tiger prey such as the swamp deer, steadily lost out to a growing human settlement.


Nepal has undertaken many conservation efforts since the 1970s, most notably since 1973 when the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act was enacted and Chitwan became home to Nepal’s first national park. But those efforts, and many of its gains, too suffered f


or much of the first decade of the 2000s as security forces were pulled back from National Park protection duties and redeployed to address the Maoist conflict that was raging across the country.

It wasn’t just the tigers that suffered at the time; wildlife and environment crime became rampant. 2002 saw 37 rhinos killed by poachers. In 2006, it was 19. In 2008, conservationists and forest officials noted the rise of poaching with the arrival of Indian hunting tribes. “After years of being chased by Indian authorities, members of the Bawariyas and Beheliyas communities have now come across into Nepali territory in search of safe haven,” BBC’s Navin Singh Khadka had reported at the time.

But in 2011, Nepal celebrated a zero rhino-poaching year, and the Rhino Census recorded 534 rhinos in the country, an increase of 99 in three years, compared to 435 recorded in 2008. In 2012, poachers killed one rhino.

This rise in the health of the rhino population was, arguably, an early indication, if not evidence, of an increase in the positive results of Nepal’s conservation efforts, and a decrease in local wildlife poaching, in the national parks. And so, the results of last year’s tiger census may have been better than expected to some quarters, but perhaps not entirely unexpected.

So how did Nepal manage to make a comeback in its conservation efforts?
One clear reason is the role of security forces. Last year, BBC’s Anbarasan Ethirajan noted in a report what many conservationists have observed, and worked towards, for a long time: “It is a rare successful conservation story in South Asia, where park officials and the Nepalese army have managed to turn the tide against poaching in the last few years. The successful conservation effort is attributed to a variety of initiatives, including tough action against poachers, enhanced intelligence and involving villagers living around the park in conservation efforts. It has crucially involved the re-deployment of soldiers inside the park.”

As 2013 came to an end, in late December last year, the Central Division of Nepal Army announced its deployment of 200 personnel, along with land and air support, to help curb poaching in Chitwan National Park in an operation that will continue till June this year. Special operations of this nature aside, soldiers are on regular daily patrols throughout the national parks too.

Like the inter-connected ecology that Nepal is a part of and committed to protecting, the protection mechanism itself is a complex local, regional, and global web of efforts and actions. The security operations are crucial, and are undertaken as a part of a broader plan.

A Global Commitment
Today, there are 13 tiger range countries left in the world. And in 2010, at the Global Tiger Summit, these countries committed to doubling the tiger population by 2022. The summit was a landmark event undertaken by the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), whose vision is described as aspiring to “a world where, by 2022, wild tigers across Asia will no longer face the risk of extinction—and will live in healthy populations within high conservation value landscapes that are managed sustainably for present and future generations.”

As one of the 13 tiger range countries, Nepal too is working towards doubling its tiger population within the decade. It was for this effort that actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s Foundation awarded $3million to the World Wildlife Fund last year.

“Time is running out for the world’s remaining 3,200 tigers, largely the result of habitat destruction and escalating illegal poaching,” DiCaprio had said at the time of announcing the grant. “WWF, the government of Nepal and local communities are on the front lines of this battle and I am hopeful this grant will help them exceed the goal of doubling the number of these noble creatures in the wild.”

Taking the Lead
Over the years, Nepal has emerged as a country that is both a leader in conservation efforts, but also a major international transit hub for illegal wildlife trade and environment crimes. And apart from other endangered species, tigers in India and Nepal, which make up for more than half of the world’s tiger population, have suffered greatly at the hands of poachers supplying to the Chinese market for much of the last decade.

As Navin Singh Khadka noted on the BBC, “in 2005, in Langtang National Park, north of Kathmandu, an army patrol had found more than 240 tiger and leopard skins in a truck heading towards Tibet. Security officials and conservationists said most of the tiger products either originated in Nepal or were smuggled in from other countries like India, Bangladesh and Bhutan, and were often destined for China.”

Recent global events, and Nepal’s position in it, however, is already looking good for the world’s conservation efforts.
“Nepal practiced and preached greater international collaboration through international organizations such as INTERPOL and its Project Predator, but also through regional platforms such as the South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN) on which Nepal has taken a leading role,” Ioana Botazetu, leader of the Project PREDATOR for INTEROL’s Environmental Crime Programme, said. The project was established to “target illegal poaching and trade in Asian ‘big cats,’” and launched in Vietnam in 2011.

“A body like SAWEN is key to fighting the trend in which Nepal itself has become a transit hub for international smuggling rings,” recently elected Member of Parliament Gagan Thapa, who was a member of the former Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources and Means, explained.

As an MP in the last Parliament, Gagan Thapa had called for many several hearings through the Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources and Means on matters pertaining to conservation, forest and natural resources exploitation.
“I want to make sure we strengthen Secretariats like SAWEN so that both Kathmandu and Nepal are able to effectively fight back environment crimes and other illegal trades as much as possible. Our work and role in these Secretariats give us the unique opportunity to work on, as well as for, both local and global issues with leadership. We must take that lead and build on it,” he added.

This March, Nepal will get a chance to show some of that leadership in an international forum.

“Nepal’s strategic role in bringing specialists from the region together will be echoed in Bangladesh at the network’s regional meeting this year at the beginning of March,” Ioana added. “By continuing to promote and enhance international exchange of information, this would enable the global community and organizations such as INTERPOL to identify a range of threats and to develop prevention strategies alongside regional partners.”

The importance of SAWEN, and the help as well as moral obligation it brings to Nepali law enforcement agencies, indeed cannot be undermined. For one thing, it has helped Nepal establish the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau.
“With the concentrated effort of the police, the crime investigation bureau [CIB] and the local communities, in two years-time, we have broken that nexus of illegal trade. We have taken out the supply side - the supply chain has been completely broken down,” Santosh Nepal, WWF Nepal’s Policy Director, said last year.

Technology and the Tiger
“Poachers and smugglers have become increasingly sophisticated,” Megh Bahadur Ale, Director General of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation had explained. “Sometimes even more than us.”

In that regard, 2013 was a good year for technology and conservation work in Nepal. As the country completed its most advanced and comprehensive tiger census yet, Nepal also wrapped up the first Nepal Tiger Genome Project. The two-year USAID funded project was initiated in collaboration with the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, and the non-profit Center for Molecular Dynamics-Nepal (CMDN). It has helped identify tigers and their habitat based on the DNA information retrieved from tiger feces. After 216 days of collecting 1200 samples of scat (the term used for feces of carnivores) from four national parks by multiple teams, CMDN was able to create at least 700 unique IDs for individual species with 10 DNA markers on each sample.

“One of the exciting potentials of genetics work is in the field of law enforcement. With the dreadful rise in poaching world wide, law enforcement officers need every tool possible to capture and convict wildlife trade criminals. Already we have seen cases of ivory seizures made in Thailand tracked back to the elephant’s home in Africa due to an elephant genetics project,” Bronwyn Llewellyn, Environment Officer, USAID Nepal, explained. “The NTGP has the potential to do the same for Nepal’s tigers as well. The government of Nepal is testing out this theory now, working with CMDN to use genetics in the case of recent seizures. We’re a ways from being able to use this data in court, but this is an important first step.”
The work that has begun with NTGP also offers another potential, and one that will need to be realized sooner rather than later.

One of the first questions people ask when they hear that Nepal is planning to double its tiger population is what that means for the local human population. It is an obvious question for a country where wildlife-human conflict is common, and tiger-human conflicts common enough. It is also a challenge that the Government of Nepal and the conservation community working here will have to navigate carefully.

Using elements of GIS and Landsat images, the CMDN has started working on getting a broader scope of not just the tigers they studied genetically, but the way in which their population and the human population have interacted over a certain period of time, and how they might in the future. These types of studies will be critical in understanding and shaping planning and development policies.

Some of the realignment of the dynamics of sharing the same space, however, may already be happening naturally. According to a study that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal in 2012, Chitwan’s tigers have shown a distinct shift using the forest and its paths at nighttime.

In their report, Coexistence Between Wildlife and Humans at Fine Spatial Scales, the authors write: “Information obtained from field cameras in 2010 and 2011 indicated that human presence (i.e., people on foot and vehicles) was ubiquitous and abundant throughout the study site; however, tiger density was also high. Surprisingly, even at a fine spatial scale (i.e., camera locations), tigers spatially overlapped with people on foot and vehicles in both years. However, in both years, tigers offset their temporal activity patterns to be much less active during the day when human activity peaked. In addition to temporal displacement, tiger–human coexistence was likely enhanced by abundant tiger prey and low levels of tiger poaching.”

However, occasional tiger attacks do continue in the national park, sometimes sparking retaliatory tones against the animals. But by-and-large, be it human-wildlife conflict incidents involving elephant herds, the lonely leopard, or a tiger, there is also a clear sense from speaking to locals that they understand they are living in and around a forest with their wild counterparts who were there long before them. And they too understand that wildlife and nature tourism in the area is important for their community’s livelihood.

A Roaring Future?
By all counts, Nepal is clearly on a positive path towards its conservation goals. What remains crucial is a sustained engagement of local communities, policy makers, and enforcement agencies, and a shared sense of responsibility not for the sake of saving tigers, but rather the implications of what that means. A healthy tiger population is an indicator of a healthy ecosystem in our forests and the subcontinent. That fragile ecosystem is key to Nepal’s future in countless ways. That fragile ecosystem is also not one that humans control, but merely share. As the country hurtles towards development, there are bound to be bumps along the way but Nepal and Nepalis must make sustainable choices. A healthy tiger population also has social implications: a decline in international smuggling rings in the region means a steady dismantling of organized traffickers who victimize humans and animals alike. As the Secretariat of SAWEN, Nepal has a heightened obligation to show no lenience towards political patronage of environment criminals.  

The mid-2000s were one of the darkest days in Nepal’s conservation efforts. Will we really double our tiger populations by 2022? Time will tell.What we can be certain of is that Nepal’s conservation efforts have made a roaring comeback, and that’s good news for everyone.

Don’t believe the truth


On December 13, 2013, there was a seize of tiger skins and bones in Nigjad, Bara. The sting operation was a joint venture led by Nepal Police and Wildlife Conservation Nepal (WCN). Below is an account of the seize and the work WCN has done over the years to stop the trafficking of animal skins and bones.

Traveling with a group of poachers, R.B. Gurung knows he should be wary of saying the wrong thing. He can’t afford to raise suspicion. Meanwhile, following his path from afar is a team consisting of Wildlife Conservation Nepal (WCN) officials and local police authorities. Is it a sting operation? Not entirely. These men are working to get those under suspicion to reveal the animals they have butchered for their skin and bones. Reaching them is a hard task; apprehending them is another story.

“We have worked towards curbing illegal animal trafficking for close to a decade now,” says Sanjeevani Y. Shrestha, Program Manager at WCN. “WCN has a lot of facets and dimensions but, in reality, workshops won’t stop animals from dying. We have worked hand in hand with local district forest authorities to monitor and stop the killing and selling of animals.” The organization has worked in tandem with said forest officers and the local community to successfully achieve this ideal, a process that has yielded a lot of friction along the way. “Initially, the local population would ask us why we were getting involved. They detested what we were doing. However, over time these very same people started informing our local office about illegal trafficking activities.” WCN has certainly done things right to win the hearts of those who reside and live with the situation there. They have worked hard to stop the smuggling of endangered animals and bring justice to those responsible. And events like those on 13 December 2013 prove just that.

On that fateful day, the news emanating from Nijgad, Bara reported that Nepal Police had arrested two poachers carrying a tiger skin and bones. WCN had worked on the operation by installing its members into the poaching network incognito. Program Officer Nabin Baidhya, who was involved integrally, speaks of how difficult it was working undercover. According to him, at one point they even had to stay in the same hotel as the poachers since other places weren’t available. R.B Gurung, an ex-policeman who operated for WCN as an undercover agent, posed as a potential buyer. “We finally saw the skin after crossing rivers and being transferred from one village to another. Even then, I had to wait in one house while the skins were kept in another,” he recalls. Smugglers, naturally, go to great lengths to cover their tracks. After Gurung saw the goods, he bid them adieu to procure the money for the purchase. It was only after a considerable distance was created between Gurung and the poachers that the police moved in to apprehend the criminals. The Nijgad bust took many weeks of preparation and intelligence, and then had to be put into motion at the drop of a hat. “One phone call and our people had to be there the next day. We had to work fast since even a slight delay could result in missing out on meeting these sellers altogether,” explains WCN CEO, Prasanna Yonzon. Indeed, these swift actions have resulted in some 24 arrests from nine cases of animal trafficking in 2013 alone. Since its inception, WCN has been responsible for a total of 214 arrests through 83 cases. But this is not there where it all ends.

Wildlife Conservation Nepal has had to face a lot of hurdles due to ineptitude and high handed interference on the part of the authorities. “There have been some astounding cases of non-cooperation like forest officers not doing enough to catch a suspect and refusing to aid us in doing so as well. Sometimes the local authorities are completely unaware about the illegal activities going on in their area, and at times they just pretend they are.” However, Shrestha doesn’t blame the entire system. “It’s only a certain group of individuals who are that way. There have been many who have helped and supported us tremendously,” she adds. WCN has worked with the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) from the start and their constant work together has even resulted in the CIB including illegal animal and animal parts smuggling as one of their branches of operations.

“But what is really amazing is how we sweep the truth under the rug, how we fail to understand why all this starts,” says Yonzon. “These are people who have lost cattle, which is their livelihood, to tigers and leopards. They are now enticed by the money they can make by killing their cattle’s killers. There is no system of compensation for this poor lot by the government, so what are they to do?” Some, however, are in it purely for the profit. According to WCN reports, some of the chief operators of these illegal activities are several groups of Tibetans. But rather than distancing themselves from the community or putting a label on them, they went to various Tibetan monasteries to educate the people about the wrong doings.

WCN isn’t working to harpoon in grants or donations. They have worked diligently to ensure that these poaching cases are brought down year by year. “But what do we do when the government declares that no rhinos have died in so and so year and yet we have confirmed reported cases?” questions Yonzon. Perhaps it is not mere words from the public offices and the news of generous donations from A-List Hollywood actors that should placate us. There is much more to what the reality is, and we should never stop questioning. The message here is loud and clear: Don’t always believe the truth, go look for it instead.

Collaring the cat


In 2011, battling scorching heat and humidity, over 30 trained field specialists covered more than 24,000 sq. kms of the Terai to carry out the monumental task of scooping Bengal Tiger feces for DNA analysis.  For the first time, a very systematic effort was made to find biological signs of  wild tigers in Nepal, thereby uncovering the vital information needed for designing an effective conservation plan. Now, not only could the presence of tigers be established, but their numbers, population structure, genetic diversity and population interactions could be analyzed as well. This was all part of a two-year undertaking (2011-2013) called Nepal Tiger Genome Project (NTGP). Supported by USAID/Nepal and carried out by the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal (CMDN), NTGP collaborated with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), the University of Idaho (USA) and Virginia Tech University (USA). In essence, the project was able to elevate Nepal in the field of conservation genetics by increasing the country’s laboratory capacity, resulting in the building of the only comprehensive genetic database of Bengal Tigers in the region.

The implication and utility of information obtained by NTGP has great potential to address many outstanding tiger related conservation questions - How many tigers are there in each of our national parks? How healthy are they from a genetic perspective? Is the current population sustainable? Are there interactions between pockets of tiger populations? These are all important questions that can only be answered through genetics and the use of DNA technology.  Additionally, by building a genetic database and creating geo-spatial maps of all the wild tigers in Nepal, one can potentially track each of these felines over time and eye their status.  

Take in mind a suspected tiger skin seized at the Nepal-India border. Thanks to the project, Nepal now has the technology to specify its gender and determine whether the hide actually belongs to a tiger. More importantly, by checking its DNA fingerprint against the reference database, one will be able to tell if it is a tiger from Nepal, and, if so, where exactly it may have come from. This greatly enhances our ability in devising preventive strategies to curtail the problem of poaching. So far, no other tiger ranging country has this kind of genetic database and search capability.

The concept, initiated by Nepali scientists in 2010, successfully came into fruition thanks to international support and the will of experts with a deep interest in tiger conservation. The findings obtained through the NTGP are now being sought by other countries. The project has also paved the way for similar researches on other endangered species. CMDN is now conducting genetic studies on the snow leopard, musk deer and rhinoceros. As a result of NTGP’s catalytic role, Nepal is now well on its way to being at the forefront of conservation genetics and biodiversity research.