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The tiger count in Nepal has tripled in recent years


There was good news out of the forests of Nepal last month. On World Tiger Day, the country announced the results of the latest national survey. Three hundred and fifty-five tigers now roam Nepal - nearly triple the number in recent years. But at the same time, there is an increase in conflict with humans. Danielle Preiss has the story.

DANIELLE PREISS, BYLINE: A dozen years ago, the fate of the world's tigers seemed bleak. The wild tiger population had dwindled from a hundred thousand to just over 3,000. Leaders from the countries where tigers still lived met in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and vowed to double their populations. World Wildlife Fund's Nepal director, Ghana Gurung, is overjoyed that Nepal has overshot that goal.

GHANA GURUNG: I never thought this number was possible.

PREISS: Globally, the tiger population has increased 40%, though some of this is likely due to better counting. In Nepal, Gurung says the numbers have gone up through good forest management and strong anti-poaching measures. He says what's good for tigers is good for the environment all around.

GURUNG: When you are conserving tigers, you are conserving forests and you are conserving water.

PREISS: But some are starting to question how many tigers the country can safely support.

BIRENDRA MAHATO: Yeah, it is too many tigers in Chitwan.

PREISS: Birendra Mahato is the director of the Tharu Cultural Museum and Research Center in Chitwan. The National Park used to be a royal hunting reserve where international diplomacy happened over big game hunts. A hundred and twenty-eight tigers now live in these lowlands of south central Nepal.

MAHATO: Many people are - oh, my God, this is a high number. So it could be more human-wildlife conflict increase.

PREISS: Deadly interactions between humans and tigers are on the rise. In the last three years, 62 people have died in tiger attacks in Nepal. One of them was Dalli Rawat. I reached her daughter-in-law Samjhana Rawat at home near Bardiya National Park, where she had been feeding the family's goats.

SAMJHANA RAWAT: (Through interpreter) We actually had a really good relationship. It hurts my heart to talk about her. To me, she was like my own mother.

PREISS: Earlier this year, Dalli Rawat had been in the forest with a group of friends collecting animal fodder. She was attacked by a tiger when she left the group to drink water from a nearby stream.

RAWAT: (Through interpreter) I agree they have the responsibility to protect the tigers and the growth of the tiger population. But what about us, the people who live in the buffer zone? Do they have any responsibility towards us? I don't understand how many tigers they want.

PREISS: Samjhana Rawat says the family received 50,000 rupees in compensation - about $400. She wants the government to protect the local population, maybe through fences. The Chief Warden of Chitwan National Park, Haribhadra Acharya, says other support could help people avoid having to go to the forest for their daily needs.

HARIBHADRA ACHARYA: If they can get cooking gas easily, then they don't need to enter the forest for firewood collection.

PREISS: While the tigers' comeback poses a risk to the local population, the wildlife here is a big draw for tourists, which creates jobs. Ghana Gurung from the World Wildlife Fund worries about human wildlife conflict, too, but even more about extinction.

GURUNG: But then I think that possibility is - to me, is less riskier than not protecting them. Not protecting them, you can lose tigers any time.

PREISS: There are still less than 4,000 wild tigers in the world. Protecting them long-term will require figuring out how people can safely live with them.

For NPR News, I'm Danielle Preiss.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEIRUT'S "ZAGORA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Preiss