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So, what is the tiger count?

Chandramani Aryal |

The number of tigers in the wild plunged 97 per cent to 3,000 in the last century due to poaching and habitat loss. In 2010, heads of state and government from tiger range countries agreed to make efforts to double the tiger population in the world by 2022.

Nepal conducted a tiger census in 2017, but the findings have not been published. Critics accuse the government of withholding the result because it is embarrassed to admit that the population has dropped. In 2013, there were 120 tigers in Chitwan National Park, and it is suspected that only 105 of the big cats reportedly remain today.

Publishing the census report will start a new chapter in tiger conservation and help Nepal to increase their numbers and achieve the target of 250 by 2022 set by the World Tiger Summit 2010. With less than four years remaining to reach the goal, we need to analyse what went wrong during the implementation period.

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The first mistake was made while setting the conservation dialogue. Basic ecological principles were ignored. To double the population of a top predator like the tiger, adequate improvements should be made in grasslands and ground vegetation which will help increase the prey population and eventually the tiger population.

According to a study, top predators are expected to harvest nearly 10 per cent of the prey population from an area. An adult tiger needs to hunt at least 50 individuals of medium-sized prey like the chital to survive. This means an area must have 500 chital-sized prey to hold a single tiger.

Therefore, 75,000 chital-sized prey are required within the protected areas in Nepal. The situation is applicable when the tiger is the only top predator in the forest, but this is not the case in Nepal. Other species such as the leopard and dhole (Asiatic wild dog) are also present in regions where tigers are present, and they rely on the same prey base.

Besides prey base, habitat is another crucial factor. Tigers are territorial and they defend a large area of land. A majority of the people working in the field support the idea that the protected areas in Nepal are large enough to hold the desired number of tigers. But if we analyse some basics, we realise that the area is insufficient.

One, most protected areas in Nepal are sal forests. They are called green deserts as they do not support ground vegetation which is necessary to support the prey population. Sal forests, as they are less productive, hold fewer tigers compared to productive grassland areas.

Two, the size of protected areas in Nepal are small, and they are virtually green islands with little connectivity. Due to these factors, a few tigers are expected to die in fights to defend their territory.

Two tigers are reported to have died in Chitwan National Park last year. It is assumed that they were killed defending their territory. Productive grasslands are being lost in an already congested area due to invasion by invasive species and ecological succession.

Besides prey base and habitat, interaction with humans is equally important. With an increase in the tiger population inside the park and the human population outside it, conflicts between animals and humans are increasing.

Tourism activities are a major source of income for the park, but local people are not getting benefits from increasing tourism-related activities. For effective conservation of biodiversity in the parks of Nepal, programmes should be devised so that they can directly contribute to the livelihoods of locals and ultimately help in tiger conservation.

Moreover, tourism-related activities are said to have affected the conservation of biodiversity in a negative manner even though proper research has not been carried out to support this assumption.

No proper monitoring and regulation of tourism activities within the parks is done. Poaching is one of the biggest threats to tigers. A majority of poaching activities go unnoticed as poachers take everything with them.

Even in the past, adequate information was not disclosed when the results of tiger surveys were published. Information about sub-adult and juveniles was never given. This hindered our ability to analyse the sustainability of the population.

Hiding the results of the survey is not a solution to the problem. If the report with information about the adult and juvenile populations is published, the concerned stakeholders can devise plans, otherwise the investment made in tiger conservation will go to waste.

The Kathmandu Post/ANN.