Nepal’s tiger population has nearly tripled in 12 years, the country’s prime minister has announced. But concerns about the human cost of the big cat’s recovery are growing following a spike in deadly attacks.
From a low of 121 in 2010, Nepal’s population of Bengal tigers has risen to 355, according to the latest survey released by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to mark International Tiger Day on Friday.
Conservationists have credited Nepal’s success in helping the big cat recover through a crackdown on poaching, an expansion of national parks and the creation of wildlife corridors with neighboring India.
Nepal is the first of 13 tiger-range countries to update its numbers ahead of a summit due in September in eastern Russia’s Vladivostok to assess global conservation efforts to protect the big cat.
In 2010, governments pledged to double the world population of wild tigers by the next Chinese Year of the Tiger, which is this year. The number hit an all-time low of 3,200 in 2010, down from about 100,000 a century earlier.
But in Nepal, dozens of recent tiger attacks on people have led some to say communities living near protected areas are paying a heavy price for the animal’s recovery.
In the last three years, there have been 104 tiger attacks inside protected areas and 62 people have been killed, according to the Kathmandu Post. Victims were often attacked while gathering firewood, grazing, or foraging in the forest.
Shiv Raj Bhatta, a conservation program director at WWF Nepal, said the surge in tiger numbers is good news but warned the country is entering a new phase in the big cat’s recovery, which will require people to learn to live alongside tigers.
“People are now seeing and encountering tigers everywhere, so instances of conflict between tigers and humans are increasing. This indicates that the tiger population in Nepal has almost reached a maximum. We are a small country. This increase is a new challenge for the government. Now we have to show that tigers and humans can coexist,” he said.
The number of 355 tigers announced on Friday is close to Nepal’s estimated capacity of up to 400 along the Chitwan Parsa Complex, a landscape in the Himalayan foothills of India and Nepal that is rich in wildlife, including elephants and rhinos. Due to the climate crisis, the Nepalese tiger population is also expanding further north to higher elevations.
Mayukh Chatterjee, a member of the IUCN Specialist Group on Conflict and Human-Wildlife Coexistence, said the problems related to the increase in tiger populations are not unique to Nepal and tiger-zone governments need to manage the situation carefully.
“We are seeing the negative impact of the increasing number of tigers in India and the increase in conflicts with humans. I think the tigers will be doomed if governments don’t roll up their sleeves and start working with the communities that live nearby. In the last three to five years we have seen a very large increase in tiger electrocution, tiger trapping and human lynching. You wouldn’t have seen it ten years ago,” he said.
Chatterjee examines the reasons behind tiger attacks on people in national parks in India, which are linked to those in Nepal. He has noted that instances of predation are rare and most incidents are caused by chance encounters.
“Humans are much more likely to encounter tigers, resulting in chance encounters where tigers startle when they are resting and respond by attacking. Our data shows that around 80% of attacks are chance encounters where tigers have been disturbed or younger animals have mistaken humans for prey. Man-eating cases are about 1%,” he said.