In 2018, Nepal announced that the country’s tiger population estimate had increased to 235, nearly doubling the baseline of 121 individuals in 2009. In the northwest of the Terai, the population in Bardia National Park alone increased almost five-fold, from 18 tigers in 2008 to 87 In 2018.
Naresh Tharu has worked as a citizen scientist with WWF for the past five years. He has played an invaluable role in monitoring wildlife from east to west Nepal via camera trap surveys. He calls the peripheries of Bardia National Park his home and has witnessed firsthand the forests around his home transform into a richer, more viable tiger habitat.
In 2018, he helped quantify the growing tiger population in Bardia, announcing the historic increase. These numbers contributed to Nepal’s national tally, leading to an encouraging announcement for tiger conservation worldwide; a near doubling of tigers throughout Nepal.
Earlier this year, Naresh found himself contributing to another landmark in tiger conservation when he was part of the team of researchers that captured a never-before-seen image of a tiger at an altitude of 2500m, the highest tiger documented in the country. It was an historic moment, proving an expanding tiger range in Nepal, and presenting new opportunities for tiger conservation in the Himalayan foothills.
“We had 14 or 15 memory cards of images to check, but the very first card we checked and the very first image we clicked on was that of the tiger. It’s something I’ll never forget. Without tigers, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work in this area or experience these things. My identity would be completely different.”
As well as the direct impact on his own life, Naresh explains how efforts to protect tigers in Bardia have benefited communities in his area.
“Now that the forests are prospering, so are the animals. The natural beauty of the area has led to many tourists from all over the world visiting this area to see tigers and other species. Bardia has become a tourist hub, and consequently provided many new economic opportunities for locals, especially seen through the proliferation of homestays and resorts - as such there have been many opportunities for income generation.”
The successes enjoyed by Nepal’s commitment to tiger conservation are testament to the efforts of the government, communities and conservation organisations in the country. Testament to this commitment is the fact that all of Nepal’s tiger sites are registered under the Conservation Assured Tiger Standards (CA|TS) scheme that encourages tiger conservation areas to meet a set of standards and criteria necessary to assure effective, long term conservation that benefits nature and communities together.
Without the support of citizen scientists like Naresh and of the communities living in and around tiger habitats, Nepal would not have had such resounding success in recovering its once fragile tiger population. As Naresh points out, the future of tiger conservation here lies heavily on an approach that ensures people benefit from efforts to protect tigers and their habitats.
“In my village I’ve seen that when people are unemployed, they may resort to poaching, illegal logging and other such activities due to their [economic] situation. This is why I believe it is so important that there are opportunities for employment.”
Recently however, the global COVID-19 pandemic that has devastated lives and economies around the world, has also had rippling consequences for Nepal’s people and nature. A nationwide lockdown imposed in mid-March has led to a 100-fold increase in illegal entries to Nepal’s national parks and communities are struggling to support themselves. The uptick in forest-related crimes is putting extra strain on tigers and their habitats, whilst government and community rangers try to double their efforts to conserve nature. At the same time, homestays around protected areas are crumbling from economic losses as the tourism industry grinds to a halt. Economic revival is urgently needed to support communities in Nepal, and the country and their collective efforts toward tiger recovery.
Despite the challenges, Naresh remains hopeful for the future and for more milestones in Nepal’s tiger conservation efforts, especially from his home.
“After ten years, I hope there is greater awareness and education on tigers in communities. I envision a future where Bardia is known globally as a beautiful place, in a beautiful country.”
TX2 is the global goal to double wild tiger numbers by 2022, the next lunar year of the tiger. While some tiger range countries have made significant progress, this big cat still faces threats from poaching and habitat loss and fragmentation. In Southeast Asia, a snaring crisis is decimating wildlife, impacting tigers and their prey. 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.