According to a new survey, Nepal now has 235 Bengal tigers, as opposed to a mere 121 in 2009.
The world’s tigers are increasingly beleaguered across their ranges, of what’s left of them, that span 13 countries from Siberia in Russia to Bengal in India. Yet now and again comes news that gladdens the heart. To wit: the number of wild tigers in Nepal has nearly doubled in less than a decade, conservationists say.
According to a survey conducted earlier this year, the mountainous nation has 235 Bengal tigers, as opposed to a mere 121 in 2009. The number is also a marked increase over the figure in 2014, when 198 tigers were counted in a nationwide study. “This is a result of concentrated unified efforts by the government along with the local communit[ies] and other stakeholders to protect the tiger’s habitat and fight against poaching,” Man Bahadur Khadka, director general of Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, told a news service.
To gauge the number of wild tigers, wildlife experts set up some 4,000 cameras along a 2,700km route in the country’s southern plains which most local tigers call home. They then used statistical modelling to arrive at an estimated figure of wild tigers. Although the process can’t pin down the exact number of wild tigers with absolute certainty, it can provide reliable estimates.
Just as elsewhere, the usual culprits of deforestation and poaching have taken their toll on wild tigers in Nepal. Yet stepped-up conservation efforts have been bearing fruit in allowing these majestic predators to bounce back from the brink. “The success in Nepal has been largely attributed to the country’s political commitment and the adoption of innovative tools and approaches towards tiger conservation,” the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says.
“Nepal was the first country to achieve global standards in managing tiger conservation areas, an accreditation scheme governed by the Conservation Assured Tiger Standards (CA|TS). With four more years to go, the TX2 goal of doubling tiger numbers globally can only be achieved if all the tiger range countries step up and commit to a similar level of excellence,” WWF adds.
The conservation group’s stated aim is to see the number of wild tigers double by 2022 (the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese calendar), and not only in Nepal. That would mean allowing thousands of tigers to join the ranks of the current 4,000 or so wild tigers within just the space of a few years.
Impossible? Maybe not. If the 13 countries in the world with tiger ranges pull their act together and follow Nepal’s example in stepping up conservation efforts, tigers will be able to bounce back. Encouragingly, countries like India and Thailand have enacted policies that have allowed tiger numbers to grow, if only slightly, in recent years.
Consider this: a century ago there were around 100,000 tigers from Bali to Siberia. Since then, Balinese tigers, Caspian tigers and Javan tigers have already gone extinct. The other six subspecies struggle on for survival with tooth and claw. Unless we act decisively to protect them, their days too are numbered. By contrast, at least 10,000 tigers languish in captivity worldwide. That is to say, captive tigers outnumber wild ones almost three to one. That alone should give us pause about how dire the situation of tigers is in the wild.
So should this: two tigers are killed on average every single week, according to a recent report by the nonprofit TRAFFIC and WWF. Based on data from the 801 seizures of tiger parts recorded in Asia between 2000 and 2015, the two NGOs estimate that a minimum of 1,755 tigers were killed for those parts, which are prized as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine. That translates into an average of more than two animals killed per week. Many of those tigers were likely captive animals kept at tiger farms. Yet animals in the wild remain at as much risk of being poached as ever, TRAFFIC and WWF say.
There is also growing evidence that wildlife traffickers are still exploiting a smugglers’ route in Southeast Asia that stretches from Thailand to Vietnam via Laos. In all three countries the number of tiger farms has risen in recent years. “This analysis provides clear evidence that illegal trade in tigers, their parts and products, persists as an important conservation concern,” said Steven Broad, executive director of TRAFFIC. “Despite repeated government commitments to close down tiger farms in Asia, such facilities are flourishing and playing an increasing role in fuelling illegal trade.”
Conservationists are bringing increasing pressure to bear on governments to close down tiger farms, which routinely market themselves as centers for tiger conservation while in fact exploiting captive tigers as tourist attractions. Many of these farms operate as little more than meat factories where the predators are cooped up in small cages where visitors can gawk at the majestic creatures before the animals are slaughtered, away from public view, and sold for dinner tables and shelves in apothecaries.
In an especially notorious case a Buddhist temple in central Thailand, where tourists could pose for pictures with tigers, was found to have sold the parts of several tigers on the black market. In Vietnam, too, several recent seizures of tiger parts have revealed a thriving black market. The government of Laos has pledged to shut down commercial tiger farms in the country.
“Criminal networks are increasingly trafficking captive bred tigers around Asia, undermining law enforcement efforts and helping to fuel demand,” said Ginette Hemley, a conservationist at WWF. “Tiger range countries must rapidly close their farms or wild tigers will face a future only as skin and bones.”
A stark warning. But we had better heed it.