- Issue: Summer 2020
- Author: Sandy Ong
- Photographer: Emmanuel Rondeau
We hop off the jeep and walk single file along the dusty road; Chhabi Magar leads the way. He turns sharply onto a dirt trail and, all of a sudden, the sounds of rumbling trucks and tooting horns fall away. We’re transported to a different, much quieter world, one with knee-high fern fronds, skinny sal trees, and overhanging vines. It seems hard to believe now, but this patch of green, the Gauri Mahila Community Forest in western Nepal, was close to barren just a decade ago.
“There wasn’t any forest but a lot of open grazing,” recalls 25-year-old Magar, a citizen scientist with WWF. “I never saw any wild animals. I used to look at elephants and tigers on our rupee notes and wish I could see them for real.”
Now, in the forest planted by his parents and other villagers, Magar’s dream has come true. Over the years, he’s glimpsed various types of deer, wild elephants, and even a tiger. It’s the elusive big cat that he seeks as he strides through the forest on this bright February afternoon, heading toward a camera trap he helped set up a few days ago. We arrive at the spot, and he checks the memory card. The image that flashes up on screen isn’t the best—all we see is the tiger’s rear end—but still, a wide smile breaks across Magar’s round, youthful face.
Tigers invoke an immense sense of pride in Magar and many who live here in Khata Corridor, where the forest—one of nearly 76 in the area—is located. The region is part of the Terai Arc Landscape, a stretch of lowlands in southwestern Nepal and northern India that teems with biodiversity. Spanning 2.5 miles at its broadest point and about a third of a mile at its narrowest, Khata Corridor connects Nepal’s Bardia National Park with Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in India across nearly 2 miles of forest, farmland, roads, and trails.
Twelve years ago, only 18 tigers were counted in Bardia National Park. Today, thanks to increased conservation efforts, the official count is 87. The figures are reflective of a promising trend in Nepal. A nationwide survey completed in 2018 that included citizen scientist monitoring efforts like Magar’s revealed that Nepal now has 235 tigers, up from 121 in 2008. This makes it—along with India—a leader in attaining the 2022 goal for tiger conservation set by the governments of the 13 Asian countries where tigers are found and a coalition of partners including WWF.
Established in 2010, that goal—known as Tx2—is to double the global number of wild tigers to more than 6,000 by 2022, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger. The largest living felines, tigers are currently classified as endangered. Just a century ago, more than 100,000 likely roamed Asia; today, approximately 4,000 are estimated to remain. The culprits: habitat loss and fragmentation, coupled with rampant poaching.
“Tx2 is without parallel—one of the most ambitious species targets ever set,” says Stuart Chapman, who heads WWF’s Tigers Alive Initiative, a species recovery program.
When Nepal and the 12 other Asian countries that were home to the big cats came together to make the Tx2 pledge, they agreed to collaborate to protect tigers and their habitats and to forge further trans-boundary cooperation for tiger conservation.
The goal was a pivotal one, says Chapman, because tigers are a “conservation-dependent species.”
“There is just nowhere in the world where tigers can persist without conservation management—from market-level interventions to stop illegal trade, to on-the-ground protection efforts and management of protected areas,” he explains.
Tigers require large spaces to roam (in Nepal, an adult male’s home range can vary from roughly 7 to 58 square miles), a good amount of prey to feed on (typically one large deer-sized animal a week), and protection from poachers, busy highways, and other dangers. “There’s never going to be a time when tigers will exist without conservation interventions—there is no exit strategy or get-out-of-jail-free card for them,” Chapman says.
“One thing we have going for us is the tiger’s reproductive biology,” says Ginette Hemley, WWF’s senior vice president for wildlife conservation. “Like cats in general, they reproduce relatively quickly when they have a safe space, sufficient habitat, and enough to eat.”
And helping tigers thrive has a significant impact beyond saving the cats themselves. “Tigers are a keystone species,” says Chapman. Sitting atop the food chain, they influence the composition and number of prey species, which in turn affects the vegetation. “The presence of tigers in a landscape indicates that you have a healthy and functioning ecosystem,” he says.
Protecting the big cats means meeting their needs alongside those of the people who share their habitat, so the two can peacefully coexist. It’s a delicate task, but one at which Nepal has managed to excel.
Experts agree the government’s commitment to conservation has played a key role in the country’s success at it. “So much of it comes down to political will ... because everything follows from that,” says Hemley.
“The prime minister himself chairs the National Tiger Conservation Committee,” says WWF-Nepal senior manager and wildlife biologist Sabita Malla. In addition to establishing a dedicated task force, the government has introduced a slew of measures aimed at conserving tigers and their habitat: increasing the number of national parks, extending the range of existing ones, and restoring more corridors to connect them all, thus ensuring a contiguous habitat through which tigers can freely roam.
Later, on a bumpy journey through Bardia, Malla tells us about another critical conservation measure: good habitat management. Using one hand to brace herself on a steel rail in our open-top jeep, and the other to point toward the horizon, she gestures to where the dense, shady forest we’re traveling through transforms into a sunny patch of grassland.
“We support the protected areas through regular pruning, uprooting unwanted trees that have taken over grasslands, and conducting controlled burns so the grassland remains grassland and doesn’t graduate into forest,” Malla says. “Forest without grassland is bad for prey because they don’t have anything to graze on,” she explains.
Further, with WWF support the government digs water holes where there are none and keeps existing ones free of invasive species such as water hyacinth, ensuring that tigers and other wildlife have a steady supply of water year-round.
To increase available habitat area, the government encourages reforestation, working with local communities to plant trees on once-barren lands, such as the place where citizen-scientist Magar grew up. Not only do such forests serve as areas where tigers and other wildlife can flourish, but they also supply nearby communities with resources such as grass, firewood, and foodstuffs like mushrooms and wild spinach—as well as a strong say in the use of local lands.
“We take a landscape-based approach to conservation,” says Nilanga Jayasinghe, WWF’s senior program officer for Asian species. “This means we engage in conservation actions well beyond protected areas—and even beyond country boundaries in this case—and communities are at the center of these efforts. Communities having a sense of ownership and stewardship benefits both wildlife and people. It’s a holistic approach to conservation that really helps to produce a more sustainable, long-lasting impact,” she says.
WWF-Nepal’s Maya Yogi knows all too well how critical community support is. Over the past 20 years, Yogi has worked with approximately 4,500 households in the Khata region to rally them around conservation—a task she admits has been an uphill battle.
Yogi is tiny and emanates motherly warmth from a kind face creased with laugh lines. Her soft appearance, however, belies a courage that has helped steel her through numerous threats faced in her time as a community mobilizer. “At the start, there was so much anger against our programs, because people thought the sole objective was to create national parks and conserve wild animals ... that all we cared about was the animals and not the people,” she recalls.
It’s midafternoon, and Yogi sits on a low rattan stool in the Gauri Mahila Community Forest headquarters, a two-story concrete building. As she picks absentmindedly at the hem of her kurti, she gazes at the green-shuttered windows, recalling the time when villagers—angry that for the 18th time a house had been destroyed by elephants—hurled sticks and stones at her. Another time she was shown a handful of bullets and asked, “Do you want these in your head?”
But she shrugs off suggestions that her work is too dangerous. People want to know that their needs won’t be superseded by those of the animals we’re trying to protect, she says. The two needs go hand in hand; one can’t be met at the expense of the other. “If people can build their livelihoods from conservation, then conservation will prosper.”
To that end, Yogi and the rest of the WWF-Nepal team have worked tirelessly with the people living in Khata Corridor and the other buffer zone areas around the park to help them reap the benefits of wildlife conservation. Bardia is one of five national parks where tigers can be found, and is the main reason why tourists come to this part of Nepal, a 45-minute flight away from the capital, Kathmandu.
Since 2011, the team has helped villagers set up homestays and offered free training in housekeeping, cooking, sanitation, basic English, and other skills. They’ve also encouraged people to try farming mentha (a kind of mint) and chamomile—plants that, unlike rice, wheat, and other traditionally grown crops, can be unpalatable to wild animals due to high concentrations of essential oils. Furthermore, these alternative crops command higher market prices. With better incomes, villagers can rely less on the forest for resources and can more easily weather losses from human-wildlife conflict.
Strength in Numbers
All of these efforts are about helping people and wildlife successfully share space. And that takes identifying community members who are passionate stalwarts of the environments they live in. People like Chhabi Magar.
Magar has been a citizen-scientist for two years now. In addition to setting up and maintaining camera traps to monitor tiger movement, he occasionally helps biologists like Sabita Malla carry out surveys on prey species and local vegetation.
“This helps us benefit from people’s pride in the kinds of natural resources and wildlife they have,” says Malla, who helps train Magar and other volunteers. “Citizen scientists act as ambassadors for us—they take the conservation message back to their communities.”
Before Magar was recruited to help Malla, he was a member of his local forest’s Community Based Anti-Poaching Unit (CBAPU). Seventy-four of the 76 community forests in the Khata Corridor have a CBAPU, comprising volunteers who gather once a month, sometimes more, to help patrol the forest on foot. If something suspicious catches their eye, they alert park authorities.
“In Bardia, the civilians are directly involved in protection and conservation,” says army Lieutenant Colonel Chandra Chapagain, who works with community members and park wardens to protect the park and its surroundings. Even those who aren’t CBAPU members reach out to him on a daily basis with tip-offs, says Chapagain, who maintains a Facebook page where people can contact him directly.
“I don’t think this kind of alertness and cooperation is seen in other places, so Bardia is a good place,” he says.
In groups of five, Chapagain’s team conducts up to four antipoaching patrols daily—on foot or by bicycle, jeep, elephant, or boat. Their patrols are aided by an array of technologies, including CCTV cameras and the real-time Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART), with infrared cameras to be added later this year. Their increased surveillance has paid off, with Nepal celebrating five periods of 365 consecutive rhino poaching-free days since 2011.
“I believe the biggest factor in why Nepal has been so successful is because everybody has come together on a common agenda to double tiger numbers,” says Ghana S. Gurung, WWF-Nepal country representative. “The next bar we have to set ourselves,” he adds, “is to control the trade and tackle the ongoing demand for illegal tiger parts.” Between 2008 and 2019, more than 570 pounds of tiger bones and 49 tiger skins were seized in Nepal. Buyers, mainly from China and Vietnam, seek tiger parts for use in traditional medicine or as status symbols.
We also need to carefully consider how to balance wildlife protection with the pressures of developing the region, Gurung tells me as we bounce along in a jeep on our way to visit an eco-club at a secondary school in Khata Corridor. That includes the challenge of balancing habitat fragmentation against a rapidly growing infrastructure.
We’re on the same road we traversed with Magar on our way into the forest a week ago, and although the school isn’t far, it’s taking a while to get there. Though the throughway—the major route that winds through the corridor—is wide enough to accommodate two large buses side by side, it’s dusty, uneven, and strewn with potholes.
In a bid to cut down on travel times and to make for smoother, more pleasant journeys, the Nepalese government has decided to replace the road with a paved highway in 2020. It also has plans to upgrade a highway cutting through the northern part of Bardia, the main route linking the national park to the closest domestic airport and to neighboring India, from two lanes to four.
These are worrying developments for wildlife. Already, an average of 1.5 animals are killed every week in motoring accidents, says Ananath Baral, Bardia’s chief warden. In January 2019, a juvenile tiger was badly injured when he was run over by a speeding motorist; in December 2016, a tiger was killed by a bus. While it’s hard to stop infrastructure from being built, there are steps that can be taken to mitigate the impact and maintain connectivity between wildlife habitats, says Baral. These include maintaining speed limits at less than 25 miles per hour and building underpasses and overpasses that animals can use to cross the busy highways.
Another aspect we need to keep an eye on is human-wildlife conflict, says Gurung. “As the number of tigers goes up, so will the number of incidents ... but I don’t think it will be unmanageable.”
Tigers are responsible for only 10% of attacks on humans, says Malla, with wild elephants causing the most damage. Still, it’s important to prevent antipathy and anger toward wildlife as a whole, she says.
WWF’s Hemley agrees: “Human-wildlife conflict is something you have to factor in at the onset of developing conservation strategies. You can’t just deal with it at the back end of planning these things.” That’s why WWF has taken a proactive approach: assessing the conditions leading to conflict and introducing preventive measures such as solar and electric fencing, as well as predator-proof livestock pens to help keep wildlife out.
WWF has also worked with local community forest management committees to create teams that can respond rapidly when an animal attacks a person or destroys crops, homes, or belongings. Team members assess the damage, help victims file a claim for government compensation, and seek to quell any anti-animal anger. They can also offer relief funds immediately following an attack, so impacted families are not dependent on the sometimes-slow process of receiving government compensation funds.
As 2022 draws closer, experts remain cautiously optimistic. “I believe we can get to Tx2, whether by 2022 or slightly later. The key issue is securing and maintaining long-term commitments to tiger conservation,” says Hemley. While countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, China, India, and Russia are seeing important progress, others still face enormous challenges. Nonetheless, says Hemley, “I think the overall trend is going in the right direction, and if we keep up the momentum, we will get there.”
She offers this parting thought on our last night in Nepal: “Overall, we think that the Tx2 formula can be a good model for other species ... looking at habitat needs, defining the threats from the ground to global markets and how we mitigate them, and securing long-term commitments. And thinking long-term, that’s one reason why WWF is so invested in tiger conservation—because we really believe it has the potential to influence and shape recovery strategies for other species.”
For Magar and others, the reasons are more personal. As he sits in the forest close to where he grew up, resting in the shade of a sal tree, he fiddles with the batteries he has just changed for a camera trap nearby. With a shy smile he says, “If we protect the tigers, then future generations like my children’s will also be able to have them as part of their lives.”