Q&A with Sabita Malla, Wildlife Biologist and Senior Manager for WWF-Nepal.
Sabita Malla is a Wildlife Biologist and Senior Manager for WWF-Nepal. She is passionate about tiger conservation, and has played an integral role to support the country’s monumental efforts to double its tiger population by 2022. In this interview, she shares her in-depth knowledge and behind the scenes insights.
But first... Sabita, what do tigers mean to you?
When I think of a tiger, I get carried away by their magnificence. I feel privileged to have them in my country, Nepal.
Many people think that I’m a little biased towards tigers, and perhaps I am. If we lose this species, we’ll lose the uniqueness of our Terai forests and grasslands, and more than that we’ll lose the political will to save their habitats that are also home to thousands of lesser known species. This means we’d also lose ecosystems that provide clean air, supply drinking water, food and medicines.
Can you give us an overview of how Bardia National Park’s tiger population has recovered so dramatically?
Following Nepal’s commitment to the global goal of doubling tiger numbers by 2022, efforts were doubled to increase the country’s tiger population. The success stories of Bardia are results of a long-term visionary approach, holistic planning and successful implementation of strategies and actions on the ground implemented together with communities.
These included a combination of policy measures to include additional areas as buffer-zones, restoring corridors, strengthening protection measures, strengthening government law enforcement, science-based monitoring of tigers and prey, improving habitats and garnering community support for tiger conservation.
During this time, the government’s Bardia National Park’s (BNP) leadership was open to addressing both criticisms as well as attempting innovative approaches, and engaged all stakeholders from grassroots to the policy level in bringing major milestones for the park. The northern boundaries of the park which were initially deprived of park benefits were brought under buffer zone management which helped garner support from the communities. Government patrolling measures were upgraded to real time SMART, revolutionising traditional patrol systems and enabling proactive actions on the ground.
Conservation technologies such as CCTV cameras, drones and PoacherCams were also introduced, aiding in countering sophisticated poaching syndicates. Other strategic interventions included fulfilling human resource gaps, increasing staff morale, monitoring tigers and prey populations, creating and conserving water sources or wetlands, and managing invasive plant species. On the community front as well, many households have received direct benefits from conservation initiatives, in addition to the share of 50% royalties of the park.
These initiatives led to BNP being registered as a Conservation Assured Tiger Standards (CA|TS) site in 2016, and since then it has been striving to improve its management effectiveness.
The adjacent Khata corridor connecting Bardia National Park to India’s Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, once barren and heavily degraded, has also been restored with the support of communities. Today, this corridor is highly functional allowing safe dispersal and genetic exchange between populations of the transboundary protected areas. Additionally, Bardia National Park has also benefited from the declaration of Banke National Park (BaNP); contiguous with Bardia, as the 10th national park in Nepal providing additional protected habitat for the growing population of tigers in Bardia. Tigers from Bardia have now repopulated the empty Banke National Park with the current population at 21 individuals from a baseline of zero in 2010.
What role have communities played in this success?
Communities are major stakeholders in tiger conservation. Their buy-in for conservation and their degree of acceptance to live alongside iconic yet dangerous wildlife like tigers determine conservation outcomes. So they do play an integral role, and should be well recognised and acknowledged.
In all tiger-bearing protected areas of Nepal including Bardia National Park, thousands of communities share their habitats with tigers and other wildlife. These communities depend on these forests for fuelwood, fodder, timber, medicine, water and more, and therefore are best at utilising and managing these resources. They are critical to monitor any illegal activities and support tiger conservation by raising awareness, patrolling their respective community forests and providing credible information to prevent and take actions against unlawful acts.
Every community forest deploys a community forest watcher to safeguard their local forests and species, and community based anti-poaching units (CBAPUs) are actively engaged as conservation ambassadors as well. Additionally, as it is impossible for biologists alone to cover every inch of forests, local communities trained as citizen scientists also help support tiger and prey monitoring programs and data collection.
As such, the level of ownership, buy-in and the acceptance to tiger conservation among communities is largely governed by their involvement in conservation programs, activity planning, implementation, decision making and equitable benefit sharing. Bardia National Park has maintained this status quo through community centred initiatives that secure the livelihoods and well-being of people sharing their homes with tigers and consequently enjoy extraordinary support from the communities.
In your time as a conservationist, have you seen community attitudes in Bardia change towards tigers?
I started my career in tiger conservation the same year that the global commitment was made to double tigers. Prior to that, I was a student doing my master’s research in the same area, trying to understand the impacts of hunting on tiger prey species. When I look back - the changes I have observed are unbelievable. Back then, the communities living along Karnali floodplain were aware of conservation issues, but were also inclined to perhaps circumvent gaps in security and poach wildlife to address their needs - understandable in the fragile contexts they were living in. The people living in Bardia’s northern boundaries in particular (not a part of the buffer zone during this time) were especially hostile toward the park, and Babai valley (eastern section of the park) was a hunting ground for people from these areas.
Metal wires used as snares were quite common in the forested habitats placed for killing wildlife, and I personally remember removing such snares on several occasions. I also came across several poacher’s camps and a waiting site constructed in the trees to shoot wildlife. For me what was more frightening was the sight of an entire family (the men, women and children) camping in the jungle carrying out extended hunting for weeks. This really pushed me to think from a different perspective and reconsider the arrests of poachers as a short-term solution simply addressing symptoms, rather than the root cause.
After deep diving into the reasons and personally talking to men and women living in the northern boundaries, I came to understand that bush-meat hunting was a part of their living as they had no options for livelihood, lacking even basic amenities such as drinking water, electricity, education and road access to markets. Many of these communities were unaware that the forest they relied on for subsistence hunting was now upgraded to a national park. The reasons for them to be so unreceptive towards the park were obvious.
During my professional career, I witnessed these areas being brought under buffer zone management helping ensure rights to these deprived communities with access to the park’s royalties. WWF also supported several initiatives gradually bringing a difference in their livelihoods and well-being. Similarly, with employment opportunities through eco-tourism, and consequent proliferation of small scale businesses and enterprises, communities in the southern and western buffer zones are now conservation stewards. The continuous and extended support provided to guard and protect community livelihoods through human wildlife conflict prevention and mitigation measures have also helped garner community support and ensure positive attitude towards tiger conservation.
What are the new challenges in tiger conservation in Bardia National Park?
Well, the challenge now is in sustaining achievements and tiger populations in the face of new emerging threats such as human-tiger conflicts, development pressures and habitat deterioration. With tiger populations reaching close to threshold levels, density dependent fights are common leading to increasing human tiger conflict in Bardia.
In the last one year, Bardia witnessed 13 cases of human casualties. If the situation escalates, it can gradually lead to loss of tolerance among local people, and even active removal of tigers through retaliation. Similarly, the linear infrastructure passing through and adjacent to the Bardia National Park and Khata corridor such as roads and irrigation canals not only disrupt connectivity, but are death traps for tigers and other wildlife. In Bardia, 2-3 animals are killed or injured in road accidents on a monthly basis, meanwhile many animals have been found trapped in the Babai and Rani Jamara irrigation canals. Furthermore, the diversion of water from the river flowing through the park for irrigation purposes is also likely to have long term impacts in the Karnali flood plain. The changes are already visible with changes in flow regime, reduction in the extent and quality of grasslands and loss of oxbow lakes. In the recent past, spread of invasive species have also become rampant, degrading prime tiger and prey habitats in BNP.
How does it feel for you personally to be part of the global effort to double wild tigers?
When I started my career in tiger conservation 10 years ago, not many people in Nepal believed that TX2 was possible for Nepal.
Deep down in my heart, I feel really proud to be a part of this journey. More than doubling the tiger population, this mission has revived the lost ecological integrity of several ecosystems in Terai and has directly benefited thousands of communities.
Having said this, there is no reason for us to be complacent. With new challenges coming up, we need to intensify our efforts to sustain these achievements.
How would you like to imagine the future for tigers and people in Nepal in 10 years’ time?
The tiger is a highly adaptive and resilient species that will thrive in many different types of habitat and breed extremely well. Nepal has a lot of scope for tiger conservation as large chunks of forests exist outside protected areas in Nepal and are still un-occupied by tigers. These forests have great potential to support viable tiger populations.
Similarly, with recent findings, Nepal also has scope for high altitude tiger conservation in the Mahabharat range of Nepal that has north-south linkages with the existing Terai Arc Landscape. But this is also a landscape inhabited by millions of people increasingly dependent on forest resources and development needs. Therefore, planning the recovery of tigers in these areas is not just about ensuring safe habitats for tigers, but about ensuring sustainable livelihoods for millions of people.
The future of tigers and people are in the hands of the present generation, and will depend on how our society is driven. If we continue to consider the ecology of both tigers and people; and continue addressing new threats and challenges, tigers will continue to thrive and recover in the currently un-occupied forests.
What would you say to other countries that are working to double their tiger numbers?
Firstly, I wish them the very best with this mission, and would like to repeat that tiger conservation is not a hard-core science. If Nepal, one of the poorest and developing nations of the world can get this far, it is doable for every other tiger range country.. Over the last decade, every country has learned from their experiences and generated huge insights on how each of the issues/threats specific to their countries needs to be tackled and are therefore also the best at it.
Any final thoughts?
The global pandemic impacting the entire world, with devastating consequences for people worldwide, has shown us how critical it is to restore our relationship with nature. Protecting tigers is a vital necessity in maintaining the functional relationship between humans, wildlife and nature. If the links between any of these systems are disrupted, it can result in serious implications for us. My humble request to every citizen around the globe is to remind themselves of their responsibility towards saving these priceless gifts of nature and help rebuild a resilient mother earth for our own survival and our future generations.
TX2 is the global goal to double wild tiger numbers by 2022, the next lunar year of the tiger. Whilst some tiger range countries have made significant progress, this big cat still faces threats from poaching and habitat loss. In Southeast Asia, a snaring crisis could wipe out entire populations unless urgent action is taken. WWF is working with partners, governments and communities to secure the future for tigers in all tiger range countries, and to reintroduce the tiger to its historic range in Kazakhstan and Cambodia.