Rise in tiger numbers make leopards raid livestock

A leopard inside Chitwan National Park. All photos: SAGAR GIRI

As Nepal’s tiger population doubles in ten years, leopards are coming out of the country’s protected areas more frequently to raid livestock in the buffer zones.

Surya Raj Acharya of Satkhalwa village of Bardia says it used to be rare for leopards to venture out of the park, but just in the past month there have been four attacks in which households have lost cattle and goats. Other farmers have had their milch cows, water buffalo calves and pigs killed inside their pens by leopards.

Locals believe that the increase in the number of tigers in Bardia and competition for prey is driving leopards to seek food in homesteads outside the park. “Leopards always avoid tigers, and that is why they are roaming around outside the national park and creating problems for villagers,” says Sudip Chaudhari of Madhuban village.

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Conservationists agree that leopards avoid areas frequented by tigers, and the competition between the big cats is driving the leopards into the buffer zone.

“The leopard is lower than the tiger in the jungle pecking order, and it does not like to share its patch with another predator bigger than itself, and since prey density is decreasing in Bardia it probably finds it easier to hunt in the surrounding farms,” explains tiger expert Jhamak Karki.

A tiger roams inside Chitwan National Park.

A tiger usually roams its home range, which can be an entire national park. But more importantly it marks out its territory, and each adult male commands a domain as large as 60sq km. It will not allow a rival male to enter its territory, and there are frequent fights when there are overlapping males.

“The territorial instinct is essentially for mating, and the male tiger usually tries to keep a harem of four to five females, and if there is enough prey, the tiger does not move about much,” says tiger ecologist Chiranjibi Pokhrel. “If it is already crowded within its territory, there is usually no place for a leopard, and it might prefer to keep out.”

Read also: Is wildlife a victim of its own success in Nepal?, Mukesh Pokhrel

A tiger census in 2018 showed that Bardia National Park in the western plains of Nepal had 87 tigers, up from 50 in 2013, and only 18 in 2009. Bardia is regarded as the best success story in the revival of the tiger population in Nepal.

However, like Chitwan National Park, Bardia may also be reaching the saturation point for tigers because of prey limitation. One of the factors affecting the number of deer, wild boar and other ungulates has been a severe water shortage inside the park in the dry season. This has prompted Bardia and Chitwan to create watering holes fed by tubewells.

A tiger in Bardia national park which is near saturation point for the mammal.

In 2010, the government of 13 tiger range countries met in St Petersburg to fix the ‘TX2’ target to double tiger populations by 2022. Nepal is the first tiger range country to have doubled its tiger population, ahead of the target of 2022. The number of tigers in 2018 had reached 236, after having rebounded from only 98 in 1995 and 126 in 2009. In two year’s time Nepal’s tiger population is expected to reach at least 250.

All this proliferation of tigers has meant that tigers themselves are also often prowling the buffer zones, too, looking for an easy meal, especially if they are older or wounded animals who cannot give chase to regular prey.

“We started locking up our goats because of the leopards, now they get into the pens and eat them, so now at night we actually bring the goats into our bedroom where we sleep,” says Sudeip Chaudhary.

According to the Bardia National Park’s records, the number of leopard attacks on livestock in the buffer zone has gone up from 239 in 2017-18 to 562 last year.