Villagers step up to protect Nepal’s tigers

Murti Devi Chaudhary, chair of a community forestry group in Saptari says, “Wildlife are like the forest’s jewels” Photos: Teri D. Allendorf

The camera trap photos of a large tiger on a nighttime walk in Nepal's eastern mountains were thrilling. It was only a matter of time before we would find them exploring eastern Nepal, since forests there have been improving. And tigers are dispersers.

The endangered cats have been documented in many parts of the western and eastern Himalaya. The number of tigers in Nepal grew from 121 in 2009 to 235 in 2018, according to a tiger census, and Nepal was the first tiger range country to meet the international target of doubling  its population of wild tigers.

It is possible tigers have been present in eastern Nepal for a while, and that only now the wider use of camera trapping is allowing us to prove their presence. People often say they see tigers, but without photographic evidence, it is often assumed they have seen चितुवा (leopards) and not बाघ (tigers).

Other factors also probably contribute to tigers coming out in eastern Nepal. As villagers abandon farmland and migrate for economic opportunities, wildlife find more habitat and space. In Europe, there have been reports of bear and wolf numbers climbing as villages and farmland are abandoned in a process called ‘rewilding’.

As wildlife populations increase, their sightings in unexpected places also go up. Wolves are known to pass through European cities and leopardsmove from one forest patch to another in  Kathmandu Valley.

Tiger sightings

Blue dots are places tiger have been camera trapped in Nepal and Sikkim recently.

Black dots are from Status of Tiger Habitats in High Altitude Ecosystems of Bhutan, India and Nepal (Situation Analysis) 2019.

The red dot shows confirmed tiger presence in the 1990s in Udayapur.

Human-wildlife conflict is bound to increase as forests and wildlife thrive. But there is no better way to address these problems than with the full participation of communities to help create and implement mitigation measures that make sense to them.

Spotting tigers in Ilam is a reminder that excellent opportunities exist in East Nepal for conserving tiger and other wildlife populations like the wild elephant, sloth bear, and pangolin. Recovering forests in the Chure and Mahabharat Ranges could become good habitat for these endangered species.

There is no better way to protect wildlife in eastern Nepal than by giving local communities the tools to manage their community forests for wildlife. Although community forestry has traditionally focused on managing trees and plants, there is no reason management cannot include wildlife.

Community forestry user group members being trained in wildlife conservation.

Nepal’s communities have been champions in protecting and conserving their forests, leading the world by their example. With the right training, policies, and incentives, they can achieve similar success with wildlife, including tigers.

With the support of Nepali partners, NGOs like Community Conservation Inc has begun to bring together a network of communities and community forests in southeastern Nepal for the conservation of endangered tigers, bears, and elephants.

Since 2014, the organisation has been partnering with the Small Mammal Conservation and Research Foundation, Resources Himalaya, and Community Conservation Nepal, to build a network of community forests in the Chure from the Bagmati River to the eastern border.

Communities in Nepal are already protecting endangered species like the Red Panda Network project, the group that found the tiger in Ilam, and Nawalparasi's Ghoral Conservation Area. Both demonstrate how communities can safeguard endangered species.

While we should not romanticise people’s desire to protect wildlife, we also should not underestimate it. As Murti Devi Chaudhary, Chairperson of the Jharkhanda Community Forestry User Group OF Saptari District, told us during a meeting last year, “Wildlife are like the forest’s jewels.”

Community forestry in Nepal has shown that people can be the solution, not the problem, for protecting forests. The same is true for wildlife. Communities need to be recognised as the backbone of wildlife conservation. Investments in community capacity and policies to support them should be a priority.

Nepal has the opportunity to become a world leader, not only in community forestry, but also in community wildlife management. And this would mean more fantastic photos and sightings of endangered wildlife in eastern Nepal.

Community commitment

Nepal can integrate wildlife conservation into community forestry by building:

* Community capacity for wildlife conservation, including trainings in wildlife conservation for women, marginalised, and youth. Ideally, individuals could gain special training in areas that particularly interest them, like birds, mammals, plants, etc.

* Capacity of forest guards and user groups to gather data on wildlife as part of regular activities, including camera trapping, with community forestry users’ groups buying their own cameras if they have enough income or through subsidies.

* Networks of community forests linked across corridors, with community forestry user groups that communicate and share information about the wildlife in their forests.

Teri D. Allendorf, PhD is a conservation biologist affiliated with the Dept of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in the US, and is the Board President of Community Conservation, Inc.