WWF’s Sabita Malla on Helping Tigers in Nepal

Sabita Malla, WWF-Nepal’s Senior Research Officer, has led a series of challenging and successful wildlife monitoring and research operations since joining WWF just a few years ago. Her conservation work includes an ID-based rhino monitoring program, a population survey of gharial crocodiles and Nepal’s first satellite telemetry system to monitor tigers in the wild.

Malla is currently leading a large all-male team to set up more than 100 camera traps to monitor tigers and their prey at Bardia National Park in Nepal’s Terai Arc Landscape. Nepal is among the 13 tiger range countries that adopted the ambitious Global Tiger Recovery Program during the 2010 Year of the Tiger, which aims to double the number of wild tigers in the next 12 years.

We asked Malla about the inspiration for her work and the most memorable encounters from her time in the field.

What motivated you to work for tigers and wildlife conservation?
Growing up in a small village in western Nepal, the outdoors was my playroom. I would go looking for butterflies and birds in the forest, wading through streams, climbing up and down the hills while naming every tree I crossed along the way.

It gave me a deep love for nature that motivated me to study about species ecology, habitats and conservation at India’s prestigious Wildlife Institute of India.

But it was only during my field research in 2009 that the wildlife conservation crisis in Nepal became real to me. I can still hear the echo of gunshots as poachers killed wildlife inside Bardia. It made me realize that I had to be part of the efforts to save my country’s iconic species.

And here I am today, right back in the same protected area, working with the government and local communities to assess the important progress we’ve made in the past few years.

How does it feel to be leading an all-male team for this tiger monitoring project?
People tell me that being the only woman in field operations is probably a big challenge. I don’t think so. And I do not think that I should be treated differently from my male colleagues. The most important thing is to be very adaptive and able to work with others. You need to create a bond of trust and respect with each and every team member. When I am in the field, I am the same as my other team members. We are connected by one cause—to help understand and protect wildlife.

How does a camera trap work? 
Camera traps are a stealthy way to monitor tigers in the wild. Through images of individual tigers retrieved from the camera traps, we develop a history for each tiger over time and this helps us estimate the population of tigers within the survey area. The tiger studies are complemented by a simultaneous monitoring of prey species and habitat. Finally, we compare data with past studies and analyze the best solutions to help tigers thrive.

Your work is obviously risky and exposes you to some danger. How do you feel about that?
Some of my most memorable encounters include being chased by wild elephants and finding myself eyeballing a six-foot long python hanging from a tree. Sadly, I have yet to encounter tigers or rhinos. I’m not sure about how my family would react if they heard about some of my close calls. My parents wanted me to become a doctor, serve my community and make them proud. It took me a while to convince them that I was born to be a conservationist. Today, they are proud of me and what I do.

Wildlife research is not for everyone. You need to have an undying passion for it. From chasing butterflies to tracing a tiger’s stripes, I have come a long way. I cannot imagine any other life because this is what I love doing.

You can help save tigers too – learn more at Save Tigers Now!