Saving tigers to save the economy

Every $1 spent on nature conservation can yield up to $6 in economic development

Nepal’s Terai Arc Landscape (TAL) was recently recognised as one of the seven UN World Restoration Flagships for involving local communities to protect the 2.5 million hectare biodiversity hotspot on the border with India.

Despite the region’s 7.5 million human population growing rapidly, the transboundary conservation effort has tripled the number of tigers in Nepal from 121 to 355 in the past 14 years, and doubled it on the Indian side to 819.

“The success is all the more remarkable because of the rising human population and new infrastructure,” said Ghana Gurung of World Wildlife Fund (WWF Nepal) at the Saving Nepal’s Tiger and Livelihoods dialogue in Kathmandu on Tuesday.

The Terai Arc Landscape initiative was launched by the Nepal government even though the country was going through a conflict in 2001. It has mobilised local communities in forest protection and anti-poaching units, and promoted eco-tourism — benefiting 500,000 households.

“Conserving tigers was the key component of poverty reduction, this was not conservation for conservation’s sake only, but contributed to Nepal’s development,” said Valerie Hickey, Global Director for Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy at the World Bank which co-sponsored the Dialogue. “Nepal has grown faster because you have grown greener."

Tiger conservation and economy in Nepal
Photo: WWF

Studies around the world have shown that every dollar spent on nature conservation can yield up to $6 in economic development, creating jobs and raising living standards, and in the process communities on the fringes of national parks understand that protecting nature is good for the economy and ecology.

Chitwan is a prime example of this. After tigers were nearly driven to extinction because of hunting, poaching and logging up to the 1960s, Chitwan National Park’s success in reviving its tiger population has boosted the economy, with 3% of the adults depending on eco-tourism jobs.

Tiger range countries met in St Petersburg in 2010 and set a target to double their populations in 12 years. Nepal did not just double its tiger numbers but nearly tripled it. As a keystone species at the top of the food chain, saving tigers has also meant that its habitat was protected.

The World Restoration Flagship awards are part of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and  Agriculture Organization (FAO). It aims to prevent, halt, and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in the ocean.

Other ecosystems awarded were a mangrove project in Sri Lanka, an initiative to re-green African agriculture, community forestry in Peru, and restoring Mediterranean forests after devastating fires.

Speakers at this week’s Dialogue, however, pointed out that Nepal’s success in tiger conservation is presenting new challenges: increase in human-wildlife contact and ensuring that over-development of nature areas does not damage what has been saved.

“We should not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs,” warned WWF’s Ghana Gurung, highlighting the dangers of new roads, transmission lines and irrigation canals going through national parks, upstream watershed conservation, and climate breakdown.

Tiger conservation in Nepal

Wildlife-friendly infrastructure including underpasses for animal movement on the upgraded Narayanghat-Butwal Highway was cited as an example of the way forward. Camera trap images have shown new overpasses over irrigation canals in Bardia are being regularly used by tigers.

“Structures allowing wildlife movement may make projects costly now, but in the long-run they will save money,” said Gurung, adding that while Nepal could take soft loans from World Bank and other creditors for new highways and transmission lines, wildlife friendly infrastructure should be as grant components, since Nepal will be protecting endangered species for the planet, and not just for itself.

Nepal has doubled its forest cover to 45% of the country’s area in the past 30 years, and 23% are protected areas. It reflects a high priority given to nature conservation by successive governments since the 1980s.

However, poor governance and lack of accountability are still a problem. The Ministry of Forests, for instance, appears to regard forests as a resource to be exploited and not protected.  

Nepal’s previous Forest Minister Birendra Mahato of the JSP floated a proposal last year to allow trophy hunting of tigers, allowing tourist resorts inside national parks and dismantling other achievements like community forestry by allowing ‘forest management’. The Nijgad airport proposal would log the last native forest in the eastern Tarai.

The threats to Nepal’s internationally recognised successes in nature conservation therefore comes not from the people living on the fringes of protected areas, but from government officials pushing unsystematic infrastructure and backtracking on legislation.

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