Their open habitat having vanished, the best hope for Nepal’s tigers is within reserves. There, they have to be protected from inbreeding, the poacher’s rifle, and the demands of the surrounding villages.
At one time the Tarai lowlands of Nepal were a paradise for tigers, and for tiger hunters. During the Rana period, the vast tracts of forest and grassland were the stage for grand shoots, or shikars. These hunting expeditions were carried out not only because it benefitted the rulers themselves, but also because it formed an important part of state hospitality.
Although archival photographs give the impression of reckless hunting by the Ranas, tigers were harvested on a sustained yield basis, and the shikars in any one locality were spaced out at intervals of several years. Thus, tigers were still plentiful as late as in 1950, and a continuous belt of habitat stretched the length of the kingdom along the Tarai and Inner-Tarai valleys.
I made a dozen trips to different parts of the western and far western Tarai between 1967 and 1972. Travelling by foot and bicycle and staying mainly in Tharu villages, I had opportunity to see things at first hand.
In the far west, resettlement from the hills was only beginning to make an impact. Huge unbroken stretches of the Tarai forest remained. During the late 1960s, it might still have been possible for an energetic tiger to walk all the way westward from Chitwan, in central Nepal, to India’s Corbett Park, without ever leaving decent habitat.
But the picture changed rapidly. By the beginning of the 1980s half of the Tarai forests had been cleared for settlement and cultivation. By then two gaps had occurred in the hitherto continuous forest belt. During and after the completion of the Sunauli Pokhara Highway, forest were cleared and settlements increased on either side of Butwal, creating a migration barrier for tigers. At the same time, there was rapid deforestation in Kanchanpur District, again in the wake of road building activities. The result was a gap isolating the tigers at Sukla Phanta in the southwestern corner of the country from those further east.
Fortunately, during the 1960s, tigers had been provided special protection in three places: a rhinoceros sanctuary at Chitwan (1962), and royal shikar reserves at Karnali (1969) and Sukla Phanta (1965).
By the 1980s, there was no longer any habitat between the Chitwan Valley and the extreme western end of the Deukhuri Valley. In eastern Nepal, there was no viable tiger population all the way from the Bagmati to the Mechi river on the eastern border. The building of the East West Highway had destroyed the forests between Janakpur and Hetauda, while the Janakpur-to-Biratnagar stretch was settled much earlier.
In 1987, wildlife biologist David Smith and I conducted a survey of tigers in the far western Tarai and found the situation heartening. We found a continuous habitat all the way across Banke, Bardia, and Kailali districts. But the link with Sukla Phanta had already been broken. And by 1991, a new gap had developed on the west bank of the Karnali; a thin migration corridor that had existed till 1987 has since been destroyed by human activity.
What had been a continuous stretch of habitat the length of Nepal is thus today dismembered into four isolated chunks. While three of these are centered on parks and reserves, that in Kailali is relatively unprotected and can be written off as having only a short-term future. Eventually, all that will be left i s the habitat inside the protected areas of Nepal. Most of Nepal’s tigers are to be found in these parks and reserves.
The largest protected area is that which includes the Royal Chitwan National Park, gazetted in 1973, and the Parsa Wildlife Reserve, a de facto eastern extension of the national park created in 1984. Adjacent to the national park, in Bihar, is the Valmiki Tiger Reserve, established in 1989. These protected areas provide a total of 1875 sq km of continuous tiger habitat. Then there are 968 sq km of the Royal Bardia National Park, established in 1988. Finally we have the 155 sq km Royal Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve; an eastern extension, which will double its size, is in the process of being added.
Chitwan’s tigers are the best and longest-studied anywhere. Two decades of research conducted in the national park has helped in understanding how many tigers a protected area can support.
The density of the tiger’s population depends on the quality of the habitat. Chitwan’s alluvial flood plain/a mosaic of grassland and riverine forest, together with the Sal forest edge, contains a great variety and abundance of prey. It is here that the tiger density is highest and where most of the reproduction takes place.
In Chitwan, we have individually identified all the resident animals in a given study area and monitored them over time. This was done both using radio telemetry and by developing a reliable technique for identifying tigers by their tracks or pug marks, which involves recording the impressions of all four of a tiger’s feet. Photographs obtained from camera traps set up along the tiger trails serve as a cross check for identification.
Chitwan’s tigers have a polygynous mating system. Resident females compete for resources, establishing mutually exclusive territories to support themselves and raise their offspring. Males, on the other hand, compete for females of reproductive age, successful ones carving out territories from those of two to seven tigresses. Other males are denied access to this territory. At any given time the breeding segment of the population will contain more females than males, at a ratio of 3:1 or more. The mean breeding life for males is 2.8 years, that for females 6.1 years.
Monitoring over the years has shown that a study area of 100 sq km consisting of 70 percent riverine habitat and 30 percent Sal fares t will support a maximum of six reproductive tigresses. In less suitable habitat, where prey is less varied and abundant, one tigress alone may require 50 sq km. The point to make is that in a given habitat there is an upper limit to the number of reproductive animals that can be supported. This is an important consideration for wildlife managers. Depleted populations when given protection can be expected to rise, but only until saturation is reached, after which they will level off.
Having discovered the capacity of different habitats for tigers, we can interpolate for other areas with a good deal of accuracy even without carrying out a census. Monitoring the resident tigers in the Karnali floodplains of Bardia was begun last year, and the findings so far corroborate those from Chitwan.
In 1989, at a time when saturation can be said to have been achieved, we estimated there were 65 breeding adults (40 females and 25 males) in the ‘greater Chitwan’ population. In an ideal world of negligible poaching and encroachment, Chitwan/Parsa, that portion of the protected area inside Nepal, can support 45-50 breeding tigers. The Banke/Bardia population presently holds 30-35 breeders; the capacity of the Royal Bardia National Park itself is probably 20-25. At Sukla Phanta the capacity is 10-15. Excluding the isolated tigers in Kailali and elsewhere in the kingdom, there are probably not more than 100 tigers of breeding age in all of Nepal, and a maximum of 250 tigers of all ages, including dependent young ones.
Migration barriers between island populations preclude the exchange of genes. In the long run, when there are small, isolated populations of tigers, there is a loss of genetic variability which lessens the population’s ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions. To avoid such an eventual decrease in diversity, the effective population size in one reserve or area should not decrease below 500. Since all existing tiger populations are already below the critical level, this issue is, for course, academic.
Of more practical concern is the danger of reduced fitness caused by inbreeding, as well as reduced litter size, lower birth rate, and a higher cub mortality. To avoid this, inbreeding should not exceed one percent per generation; as a general rule, the effective population size of breeders should not drop below 50.
A number of factors may combine to make the effective population size less than the actual number of individuals of breeding age present. A major one is the variance in lifetime reproduction, as measured by the number of young that survive. A study in Chitwan determined that the variance there was very high. Thus, although the number of breeders in the greater Chitwan population was taken to be 65, the effective population size was determined to be only 26, and the annual rate of inbreeding calculated at two percent.
Although the inbreeding rate in Chitwan is thus twice that recommended, so far there is no evidence of inbreeding-related problems. But this should be no cause for complacency, especially when we consider the smaller sizes of the Bardia and Sukla Phanta populations. And bear in mind that the Chitwan population is the second largest in South Asia (the largest is in Sunderban of Bangladesh and West Bengal).
What are the options for injecting new genes into a population? Artificial Insemination would seem to hold out some hope, but there has been only one successful case, and that too in captivity. The technology needs to be refined and it will probably be some years before it can be used as a viable tool for improving the gene pool of a wild population. An alternative might be the translocation of individual wild tigers between reserves. Such an operation would not be a light-hearted undertaking, and would involve certain risks.
Another difficulty with ‘island populations’ is that they create problem tigers. Good reproduction in the protected areas leads to intense competition for limited space. The more vigorous animals win, and the young, the old, and the disabled are pushed out into marginal habitat. Where natural prey is scarce, tigers supplement their diet by preying on village livestock. Occasionally people are killed and eaten. Considering the frequency of interactions with humans, the incidence of attacks is amazingly low.
Human beings do not form part of the natural prey of the big cats, During the course of its evolution, the tiger learned that avoiding the bipedal human was the best strategy for survival.
Since 1978, 21 villagers have been killed in or at the edge of the Royal Chitwan National Park. In all cases where the kill was undisturbed, the cat fed on the human body. Most of the victims were grass-cutters who penetrated thick cover where tigers were resting. The victims were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in some cases probably mistaken for a quadruped while squatting on the grass.
The human kills were made by seven different known tigers; only two were believed to have been injured while fighting with other tigers. An uninjured male was pushed out of his area by a larger tiger; during this six month period, he was involved in five man-eating cases. Subsequently, he established a territory containing two tigresses; during a ten month period he made no further attacks on humans, despite the presence of thousands of grass-cutters allowed to enter the park in January 1982 to collect thatch. He subsequently disappeared, and his territory was occupied by a new male.
It is possible that the increased aggression that takes place during intra-specific (within the species) competition is directed at humans. In all cases recorded, man-eating was ‘opportunistic’ in nature; the tigers did not go out to hunt for people, but did attack them when encountered unexpectedly at close quarters.
In March and April of this year, a male tiger killed and partly consumed three persons at the edge of Royal Bardia National Park, where very few such cases have been recorded. The tiger had a deformed rear leg that had healed itself after a possible bullet wound. After killing his last victim the tiger was captured and translocated to the Jawalakhel Zoo in Lalitpur. There, in a desperate attempt to regain his freedom, he broke all four of his canine teeth besides destroying his front claws.
In the interests of the local people, it is imperative that tigers that kill people be dealt with without delay by the authorities. It is also important, however, that the right tiger be killed or captured.
As the decade of the 1980s was drawing to a close, conservationists were optimistic about the future of the tiger, especially in South Asia. For over nearly two decades, tigers had prospered in the special reserves that had been set up for them. Then suddenly, a horrendous threat emerged from an entirely unexpected quarter. Once poached for their skins, tigers were now being poisoned for their more valuable bones. The tiger reserves in northern India began to experience crippling losses. Almost overnight, the tiger population in Ranthambore, a tiger reserve in Rajasthan where many tigers have been filmed and photographed, was down from an estimated 44 to only 15. Around Dudhwa National Park (adjacent to Bardiya in Nepal), 23 tigers were poisoned in just two years. Serious poaching losses were also reported from Corbett Park.
Nor were the protected areas in Nepal spared. In western Chitwan where I have been monitoring tigers since 1980, a large number of known tigers suddenly disappeared. In several cases, whole litters of cubs vanished along with their mothers, pointing almost certainly to poisoning. Between 1989 and 1991 one-third of the resident females of breeding age were lost. Although there was no direct evidence of poaching in Bardia and Sukla Phanta, this did not mean they were free from poachers.
The upsurge in poaching coincided with a sharp rise in the demand for tiger bones, hitherto supplied from local stockpiles, in the traditional Chinese medicine market. Prosperity in East Asia put tiger bone products (and rhino horn, the other valuable ‘product’ of the Chitwan and Bardiya national parks) within the reach of more consumers, increasing the demand and driving up the price. The threat from poaching was serious enough for Peter Jackson, Chairman of the IUCN’s Cat Specialist Group, to state in 1992 that the tiger possibly faced extinction in the wild within a decade.
Tiger bones, both from Nepal and India, are being smuggled northward through Nepal to Tibet, and from there on to China, Taiwan and South Korea. In 1988, 250 kg of tiger bone, representing at least 20 tigers, were seized by the authorities in Simikot, close to Nepal’s north-western border with Tibet.
The Royal Nepalese Army is responsible for the protection of the parks and reserves. Despite the large number of troops deployed, a full battalion in the case of the Royal Chitwan National Park, they have been unable to prevent poaching. Approximately 80 percent of the budget of the parks and reserves goes to pay for the upkeep of the military protectors, but they are not subject to the orders of the wardens and only obey those of their own commanders.
There is often little coordination between the Army and the wildlife authorities. Since the Army does very limited patrolling, the wardens of the Royal Chitwan National Park and the Royal Bardia National Park have found it necessary to set up and equip their own anti-poaching teams, composed of game scouts and hired villagers, to patrol vulnerable areas, such as the Bandarjhula Island in Chitwan, with its pristine habitat.
In 1991, the warden of Royal Chitwan National Park, with financial support from IUCN, established an intelligence network; rewards were offered to local people who came forward with information leading to the arrest of poachers and traffickers. Almost immediately, six men who had just poached a tiger were arrested; they confessed to having killed two others earlier. Unfortunately, at that time, the penalties were light. The men served 18 months and were released; one of them is believed again to have joined the game. In 1993 the Government legislated stiffer penalties for poachers of tigers and rhinos, as well as traffickers of their products, with a minimum five-year jail term (and up to 15 years), and fines of NRs 50,000 to NRs 100,000.
Without arrests and confessions, evidence of tiger poaching is difficult to obtain. If a tiger is poisoned and the bones and skin removed, the little meat that remains can be easily disposed of. As of May 1994, there were 47 poachers and dealers in Bharatpur Jail. Unfortunately, none of the kingpins in the smuggling network has been arrested, although in some cases their identity is known.
While Indian tigers continue to be killed right up to the present, in Nepal there seems to have been less tiger poaching in 1992 and 1993 than during the previous three years. In fact, some of the earlier losses have been replaced (by newborns). However, rhino poaching increased during the same period, which may have temporarily taken pressure off the tiger. Certainly, there is no room for complacency so long as the demand for tiger bones continues. What happened to Ranthambore could easily happen here.
A Buffer for the Tiger
Many, if not most, of the local people living around parks, far from holding the tiger in esteem, consider it a threat to life and property. Cats that kill village livestock on the park’s edge are often poisoned, not for commercial gain, but simply to eliminate a problem animal. Man-eating tigers, in particular, give the species a bad press. If tigers are to be conserved, ultimately, the locals must have a vested interest in the future of the parks and reserves, in general, and of the tiger, at the apex of the ecosystem, in particular.
The local inhabitants must be convinced that the tiger is an asset rather than a menace, and that its conservation is in their long term interests. This is the only way to halt poaching. Failure means not only the end of the tiger but of its entire ecosystem.
Employment of local people by tourist lodges is important, especially in Chitwan, where there are seven tourist concessions within the national park, as well as numerous hotels and lodges just outside. Nevertheless, the majority of the 42,950 households belonging to the 23 villages surrounding the park are dependent on agriculture, and it is their basic needs that must be addressed. While these villagers are allowed to harvest grass from the parks for thatch and construction, their requirements for fuel and fodder have not been met.
In 1993, there was an important amendment to the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act, whereby provision is made for the creation of buffer zones at the edge of parks and reserves, with the express purpose of fulfilling the local needs for natural produce. An amount of 30 to 50 percent of the income generated by the protected area would be used for community development. The big question that remains is, can buffer zones be implemented in such way that local people feel the benefit?
Above all, buffer zones must be planned in such a way that they do not escalate tiger-man conflict. We know from bitter experience that tigers and people, in particular grass-cutters, do not mix.