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Nepal’s tiger population boom spurs initiatives for better coexistence

After nearly tripling its population of tigers in just 12 years, Nepal’s conservation authorities have decided to now focus on improving human-tiger coexistence and shoring up the big cat’s connectivity between different habitats across the country.

The National Tiger Conservation Action Plan (NTCAP) for 2023-2032 sets four strategic objectives: ensuring effective management of tiger habitats, reducing human-tiger conflicts, enhancing connectivity and genetic viability of tiger populations, and strengthening institutional capacity and coordination.

“The new action plan builds on the successes and lessons learned from the previous plan [2016-2020] and addresses the emerging threats and opportunities for tiger conservation,” said Ajay Karki, deputy director-general at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.

Nepal was home to an estimated 121 tigers in 2010, the same year that it and 12 other tiger range countries agreed to double the population of Panthera tigris by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger in the Chinese zodiac. In that time, Nepal nearly tripled its tiger population, even as other countries saw their tigers decline or even go locally extinct.

Today, Nepal is home to 355 tigers, well in excess of the 250 target that the country was expected to achieve as part of global efforts to double the wild tiger population.

Living together in harmony

A tiger in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Image by AceVisionNepal77 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

One of the key differences between the new plan and the previous one is the shift from focusing on increasing the tiger population to ensuring coexistence between the predators and people, especially in areas where human activity and tiger movements overlap.

“This doesn’t mean that we will stop working on improving the quality of habitat and prey base for tigers,” Karki said. “That will continue. But the focus is now on coexistence and connectivity.”

The action plan also complements WWF’s Tiger Alive Initiative, which runs from 2023-2034, said WWF Nepal country representative Ghana Shyam Gurung. In the context of Nepal, the initiative also emphasises connectivity between habitats and coexistence with humans, he said.

“Our vision is to work on the long-term presence of viable and ecologically functional populations of wild tigers in secure landscapes with representation and links across their historic range, in coexistence with Indigenous peoples and local communities,” Gurung said.

The national plan notes an increase in human-tiger conflict in recent years, due to habitat fragmentation, prey depletion, livestock grazing, poaching, and infrastructure development. During the previous fiscal year, 2022-2023, 12 people were reported killed in encounters with tigers around the country, and authorities held 16 “problem” tigers in captivity.

These conflicts pose a serious threat to both tigers and people because of the potential for loss of lives, livestock, crops, and property. They also give rise to retaliation and negative attitudes toward tigers, according to the action plan.

To reduce human-tiger conflicts, it proposes a range of measures, such as improving livestock management practices, providing compensation and insurance schemes for victims, enhancing community awareness and participation, establishing rapid response teams and conflict mitigation units, and developing site-specific action plans based on scientific data and local knowledge. It also calls for the establishment of holding centres for “problem” tigers across the country but does not discuss a controversial proposal made recently by the environment minister to allow “sport hunting” of tigers.

Connectivity and coexistence

To address the issue of habitat fragmentation, the new plan emphasises enhancing connectivity and genetic viability of populations across the Terai Arc Landscape (TAL).

The populations distributed in different areas of the landscape are connected by biological corridors that facilitate tiger dispersal and gene flow, but they are also threatened by habitat loss and degradation, human disturbance, infrastructure development, and climate change.

“For me, this is the best part of the action plan,” said conservationist Tek Raj Bhatt, who was on the committee to review the plan.

People living near Nepal’s forests constantly live in fear of being attacked by wildlife. Photo: Shankar Giri

Bhatt’s own research suggests that tigers in Nepal are increasingly isolated in protected areas and facing difficulty moving around within the country due to human activity and habitat fragmentation.

Corridors in the Siwalik hills could connect the tiger populations and increase their genetic diversity and viability, he said.

To address this issue, the plan envisages programs to restore and secure corridor habitats, monitor tiger movements and genetic status, implement landscape-level management plans, engage with transboundary partners, and minimize the impacts of infrastructure development on tiger habitats.

The NTCAP also emphasises the need to strengthen institutional capacity and coordination among various stakeholders involved in tiger conservation, such as government agencies, conservation organizations, research institutions, local communities, the media, the private sector, and donors.

Conservationists have welcomed the shift of focus away from numbers to connectivity and coexistence. But they caution that the population gains of the past decade could be reversed if officials let down their guard.

“While we talk about connectivity and coexistence, we shouldn’t forget that the achievements in increasing the tiger population are fragile and continuous effort is needed to sustain the population,” Gurung said.

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