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Tiger conservation dilemma in Nepal

Tiger conservation dilemma in Nepal

Multifaceted efforts have been made toward tiger conservation, and Nepal today boasts over 355 tigers in the wild. In 2010, this number was only a third of it—at 121. However, conservation of this umbrella species seems to have created new challenges in human-animal conflict management across the country’s national parks.

Tiger attacks on humans have more than tripled in the last 10-15 years and Nepal seems to be at a crossroads when it comes to managing human-animal balance. Efforts to control this conflict seem to have even challenged the country’s capacity to define development with nature in the balance. On May 14, I visited the Devnagar Tiger Rescue Center in Chitwan and came out with mixed feelings of the direction conservation was headed in Nepal.

The rescue center is primarily meant to keep and conserve ‘troublemaker tigers.’ At the gate, I was told that some 150-200 people have been visiting the center daily since its opening earlier around the Nepali new year. The plan is to reinvest the money raised from ticketing this conservation-tourism effort back into the operations of the rescue center.

All of this was good news, but when I actually went inside, my heart sank. The center seemed too small and cage-like. According to a report published in a daily on May 14, the center covers an area of around 4000 square feet. Separated into two rooms, with indoor and outdoor spaces, two male tigers are kept in this mini-enclosure. I spoke to some of the guides, who had brought in guests, mostly Indians and Nepalis, and one of them mentioned that those running the center ought to accommodate spaces for the tigers to hunt naturally so that when and if the tigers are considered rehabilitate-able into the wild, they can adapt. According to the Wild Tiger Health Project, tigers in rehabilitation should have an enclosure, which is ideally a large (> 0.5 hectare), natural area with good shade trees, plenty of vegetation providing cover, a varying terrain, a pool for bathing and a natural stream system to ensure a clean water supply.

However, I’m really not sure what a rescue center envisions for the rescued  tigers' future, if not rehabilitation into its natural habitat. There is plenty of space around the rescue center to build a larger enclosed nature-like habitat for tigers. I’m assuming it may lack budget, which is the main reason behind the establishment of a small enclosure.

I was also feeling hopeful that ‘conservation tourism’ could actually be quite a larger than life segment for Nepal's tourism industry. But it must be done correctly rather than conveniently. Imagine a tiger in a much larger ‘natural-looking’ space, not immediately visible, guests on binoculars searching, brochures in their pockets that introduce the tigers story and its journey, etc. 

 I must also acknowledge that the government has tried to manage human-animal conflict quite well because rescue centers are only a part of the larger puzzle to conserve and manage flora and fauna in Nepal. Fifty-nine people have died in tiger attacks across various national parks in Nepal since 2018, according to government sources. In 2021-22, tigers killed 21 people, whereas some 10 years ago (2012-13), five human casualties had occurred in the course of conflicts with tigers.

For comparative analysis, more people die because of mosquito bites than tiger attacks in Nepal. According to the Journal of Travel Medicine, mosquito-borne diseases killed more than 55 people in Nepal in 2022. But tigers, not surprisingly, seem to draw more attention, the feline has magnetic charisma, which we must understand and consider in our analysis of human-animal conflict management.

Most tiger attacks have been happening on the outer edges of jungles where weaker tigers roam. Human habitats, which not surprisingly are closing into jungle spaces, mostly witness these encounters. In Meghauli last year, a young mother not even in her 20s died in a tiger attack while foraging the buffer area early in the morning to pluck wild spinach (‘niuro saag’).

Soon after the news of the attack/death spread, locals rioted and demanded park authorities to take the tiger into captivity and relocate the ‘human-eater’. Locals refused to take the body of the young woman out of the jungle until authorities took the tiger away. Local politicians even gain popularity for getting tigers caught and relocated, making tiger attacks a political affair.

Therefore, let’s understand that it is still not too late to envision better rescue and rehabilitation centers. We should  look at the Devnagar rescue center as an example of what is in progress to not only manage human-animal conflict but also an effort to attract quality tourism into a new sphere of “conservation-wildlife tourism” in Nepal. Hopefully, visitors who come to the center will not only be first and last time visitors but wish to be a part of the animals rescue and rehabilitation journey. Hopefully more visitors come for educational purposes and to be a part of quality conservation efforts in Nepal.

It should even be possible to turn the rescue of tigers into a movement. Well-documented visuals and stories through dedicated national broadcasts for conservation tourism could enrich Nepal’s ongoing engagement with tigers. People from across the world could play a part in raising awareness and money to support our government in its efforts to manage human-animal conflict. As Nepal tries to navigate into quality and modern conservation efforts, possibilities are endless, if the right course is taken.

Better shelters and management will surely contribute to a positive conservation tourism sector and attract not only visitors for wildlife tourism (165,000 visitors were recorded at the Chitwan National Park last year), but also for quality wildlife conservation tourism across Nepal's several national parks and conservation areas. However, for the time being, I am left wondering as to what the future holds for the two tigers I saw.