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‘South Asia needs its own tiger plan’: Q&A with Nepal’s Maheshwar Dhakal

Tigers on a forest path.

Tigers roam across borders between Nepal, Bhutan and India, but the policies and programs for conservation in the countries are not homogenous. Image by Rohit Varma via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

  • Maheshwar Dhakal, the newly appointed director-general of Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, says a regional plan is needed to sustain the Bengal tiger population.
  • Following the department’s success in nearly tripling Nepal’s tiger population since 2010, Dhakal says other government agencies can also contribute by promoting ecotourism ad boosting local livelihoods.
  • He also emphasizes the importance of transboundary conservation action, noting that the punishment for tiger poaching in India, where tigers from Nepal often stray into, is much more lenient than in Nepal.

KATHMANDU — Nepal’s tigers hogged the headlines around the world this past July as officials announced that their population had nearly tripled over the past 12 years. The figure of 355 surpassed the 250 mark the country was expected to achieve as part of global efforts to double the wild tiger population.

Despite the applause, various concerns have emerged, especially about the maximum number of tigers that can live in the country, and the escalation of human-tiger conflict. On Sept. 11, a man was killed in a tiger attack near Bardiya National Park in western Nepal. According to government figures, three people were killed on average every month in encounters with tigers during the last fiscal year, which ended in July.

No agency is more central to both the successes and shortcomings of Nepal’s tiger policy than the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, the country’s primary and frontline body when it comes to advising the government on conservation and implementing its policies and programs.

The department, whose officers such as wardens and game scouts work in various protected areas of the country alongside the army, has been credited for the success of Nepal’s tiger conservation program. However, it has also been criticized at times for its inability to address the concerns of Indigenous peoples and local communities living close to protected areas.

Maheshwar Dhakal, who holds a Ph.D. in valuation of forest products in community forests from the University of Tsukuba, Japan, was recently appointed the head of the department. He previously served as member-secretary of the President Chure-Terai Madhesh Conservation Development Board, the government agency overseeing conservation of the Himalayas’ Chure foothills and the Terai lowlands that stretch south from them and are home to much of Nepal’s population.

Maheshwar Dhakal, the newly appointed director-general of Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, says a regional plan is needed to sustain the Bengal tiger population. Image courtesy of DNPWC.

Mongabay’s Abhaya Raj Joshi recently met Dhakal at his office in Kathmandu to discuss Nepal’s tiger conservation program. The interview, conducted in Nepali, has been translated into English and lightly edited for clarity.

Mongabay: Nepal recently announced that it has nearly tripled the number of tigers in the country since 2010. This achievement has been widely applauded by the international community. What do you think Nepal’s future steps in tiger conservation should look like?

Maheshwar Dhakal: When representatives from the tiger range countries met in St. Petersburg in 2010, a target was set to double the population of tigers by 2022.

Another meeting was organized by Russia earlier this month to take stock of the progress made so far. However, the meeting has had limited success as it was organized under time constraints and couldn’t aptly define the way forward for the conservation of the species.

Back in 2010, the Global Tiger Recovery Plan incorporated various aspects of tiger conservation such as habitat management, participation of local communities, management of human-tiger conflict, steps to tackle problems such as poaching and hunting, creation of economic opportunities for local people through ecotourism, and the development of ownership among the international community. But these issues couldn’t be addressed effectively by this year’s global tiger meeting.

Personally, I agree that we should have a global plan to save the endangered tigers. But I also believe that South Asia needs its own plan to take the conservation agenda forward. The Royal Bengal tiger is different from other tigers found in other parts of Asia as it has the most surviving individuals. The tiger conservation program has been most successful in the region.

Also, tigers roam across borders between countries such as Nepal, Bhutan and India. But our policies and programs for conservation are not homogenous. For example, if you kill a tiger in Nepal, and someone else does the same across the border in India, the punishment is drastically different [being more severe in Nepal]. A harmonized policy would help tigers to move across borders easily and would control crimes such as hunting and poaching.

Then we could have separate national plans.

Various concerns have emerged regarding the increase in tiger population in Nepal, especially about the maximum number of tigers that can live in the country, and the escalation of human-tiger conflict. Image by Rohit Varma via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Mongabay: What would such plans incorporate?

Maheshwar Dhakal: Tiger conservation now needs to be aligned with various multilateral agreements such as the Ramsar Convention, the UNFCCC [U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change], UNCBD [U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity] and even Sustainable Development Goals. We can’t just focus on tigers as umbrella species and hope that everything else will fall in place once the tiger numbers increase.

The other aspect is that we need to develop key biological corridors for tigers to move north to the Chure foothills where they can get water and cool off during summer and then return south to the [Terai] grasslands. Also, the banks of rivers originating from the Chure need to be revitalized by planting appropriate trees so that tigers can move freely. We have observed some signs of tigers in almost all districts of the Terai in Nepal, including densely populated areas.

In the context of international corridors such as the Khata corridor, which connects Nepal with India, we also need to develop it as an economic corridor through sustainable practices such as agroforestry.

It’s not fair that the conservation department, which worked so hard to get the tiger numbers up, should be looked upon to promote tourism or other activities to lift up the economic standards of the people. Now that the tiger numbers are up, other agencies such as the Ministry of Tourism and the National Planning Commission need to come up with plans to encourage the private sector to come up with plans and projects to bring in tourists to see the tigers and spend money in the local economy.

Mongabay: Do you think we have hit the limit for the number of tigers that Nepal’s protected areas can accommodate?

Maheshwar Dhakal: Back in 2010, when the tiger numbers were low, our priority was to increase their population as much as possible. But now that we have nearly tripled their number, our focus should be on sustaining the tiger population as well as creating economic opportunities for local communities through the development of tourism infrastructure such as homestays and hotels.

The other area of focus should be providing quick relief and compensation to communities affected by human-animal conflict. We also need to upgrade the capacity of frontline government staffers deployed in the national parks around the clock to control wildlife-related crime.

A herder watches over his cattle grazing on the outskirts of Chitwan National Park. Livestock here make easy prey for the park’s tigers. Image by Jonas Gratzer for Mongabay.

Mongabay: How many tigers are enough?

Maheshwar Dhakal: We need to look at the quality of habitat available for tigers. If we look at the tiger population at Jim Corbett National Park in neighboring India, the tiger density is relatively high compared to what we have in Nepal. But we also need to account for the prey base available and the associated human-tiger conflict.

Economists set a yearly GDP growth rate target for the country, but in ecology, we can’t set a target for the population of tigers in such a fashion. As the market forces of demand and supply determine the price of a certain commodity, various ecological factors determine how many tigers are enough.

In the context of Nepal, with the development of linear infrastructure [roads, railways, power lines, etc.], and the limited habitat we have, we can’t go on increasing the number of tigers. Some say 400 is the number, others have different answers. It’s not important.

We need to understand that the number is just a symbol. It is a message to the international community that when Nepal commits to something, it takes it on wholeheartedly. It is also a message that if governments are committed, rescuing any species from the brink of extinction is not impossible.

Mongabay: Having said that, local communities say that applying for relief and compensation is a bureaucratic nightmare and they’d rather not apply for it at all.

Maheshwar Dhakal: In the event that someone is killed by a wild animal, the family immediately receives 500,000 rupees [$3,950] for the funeral, and an additional 1 million rupees ($7,900) is provided later after the completion of formalities. I think the main problem is with the assessment of damages to crops caused by wild animals. It’s not easy to assess claims made by farmers.

We are now thinking of changing the procedure so that municipal governments take responsibility for assessing the damages and deciding the compensation. I think this would resolve a lot of problems.

Dhakal emphasizes on the quality of habitat available for tigers. Image by Brian Scott via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Mongabay: The government of India recently endorsed a proposed agreement with Nepal on wildlife conservation. Could you tell us what that’s about?

Maheshwar Dhakal: Ironically, I drafted the proposed document when I was working as an official here at the conservation department, and now I am in the position to implement it. The agreement contains provisions related to exchange of good practices, cooperation in controlling wildlife crime, and regular consultation and visits.

Mongabay: Various studies have cautioned that the development of planned linear infrastructure in the Terai could have devastating impacts on tigers.

Maheshwar Dhakal: My opinion is that development and conservation need to go hand in hand. We need to start a culture in which building wildlife-friendly infrastructure is ingrained in the project design itself. We have always been saying that infrastructure needs to avoid core areas.

We recently came up with the new wildlife-friendly infrastructure guidelines and we have started implementing it. Yes, it might contain some flaws that need to be improved upon, but we can only learn about them when we implement the guidelines prepared by experts in their own fields.

Banner image: Tigers roam across borders between Nepal, Bhutan and India, but the policies and programs for conservation in the countries are not homogenous. Image by Rohit Varma via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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