Nepal’s Suklaphanta (Sook-lah-fahn-tah) Wildlife Reserve was once considered prime tiger habitat because of abundant prey and the relative scarcity of competing predators. As recently as 2005, a population of 20-50 tigers had been confirmed to be living within the reserve. A sustainable population in this protected area is crucial for maintaining the genetic diversity of tigers in the region.
Because of concerns that Suklaphanta’s tiger population was shrinking due to illegal poaching, WWF and partners began conducting more frequent and comprehensive surveys of the tigers.
This year’s survey results showed a shocking decline in Suklaphanta’s tiger population – with 62 percent fewer than just three years ago. Officials identified poaching as the major cause of tigers disappearing from this protected area. Ironically, armed poachers have been photographed by the very equipment set up to capture tiger images.
“Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve had been infiltrated by armed international gangs. These criminals kill tigers and then smuggle them to China, where they tap into a lucrative black market for everything from the tiger’s bones, teeth – even their internal organs,” says Jon Miceler, managing director of WWF’s Eastern Himalayas program.
Building on the successes of Operation Unicornis that is controlling rhino poaching in Chitwan National Park, WWF swung into action to tackle Suklaphanta’s tiger crisis. From decades of experience, we knew that a coordinated operation at all levels is the key to stopping poaching.
First, WWF strengthened support of the reserve staff to conduct intensive patrols inside the reserve. This included funding for patrols, salaries and gear. We also repaired old anti-poaching posts and set up new ones at strategic locations.
Outside the reserve – and in close coordination with local agencies – WWF helped mobilize communities to halt wildlife crime. We supported the training and organization of nine local groups to conduct regular patrolling around the reserve. These community members were also instrumental in raising awareness about tiger poaching and broadening support for tiger conservation in nearby villages and towns. Through a campaign to gather signatures, WWF and the community also applied pressure to political parties and government officials, urging them to take immediate action.
Eyes in the forest
Another lesson from our work against poachers is that a strong and reliable network of informers is an effective tactic. So WWF recruited two agents to gather information on illegal activities in and around the reserve. They operated in the reserve’s most sensitive areas, and coordinated with three other agents who covered access routes used by poachers.
However, there was one major loophole remaining. In spite of these efforts, it was still virtually impossible to control poaching in Suklaphanta without sufficient coordination and support from India. Since the reserve shares its boundary with India, poachers often take advantage of the porous international border to slip unnoticed into the adjoining unprotected forest.
WWF and our partners brought together officials from both countries, helping to secure an agreement on joint patrolling and monitoring along the border between Nepal and India. Now, enforcement officials from both the sides are meeting on a regular basis to share intelligence, discuss strategies and monitor progress.
Signs of success
Operation Tigris has already yielded some encouraging results. Four poachers and traders have been arrested. Park officials seized tiger bones inside the reserve and youth patrols helped confiscate tiger parts and bones in nearby towns. Eight timber smugglers were also caught in the anti-poaching dragnet.
With conservationists, communities and the authorities working together, WWF remains committed to ensuring the roar of the tiger is never silenced in Nepal’s Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve.