Nepal’s wild tigers have clawed their way back from the brink of extinction. There are nearly three times as many wild tigers in the country as there were in 2009, according to the Nepalese government.
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba announced the conservation success on Friday morning, according to a news release from the World Wildlife Fund.
Nepal’s 2022 National Tiger and Predator Survey found that there are now 355 wild tigers in the country, a 190% increase since 2009.
The detailed survey covered 18,928 square kilometers (more than 12% of the country) and required 16,811 days of staff time.
Ginette Hemley, senior vice president for wildlife conservation at the US-based World Wildlife Fund, told CNN the announcement is a big win for conservationists and tigers.
“Tiger populations in Nepal and elsewhere in Asia, about 10 countries, were in steady decline for two main reasons,” Hemley said. “The most immediate reason was hunting for the illegal animal trade. The second reason was the loss of habitat.’
“In 2010, it was clear that we were going to lose the tigers unless we tried to turn things around.” Then, the governments of the countries where tigers live set a goal of doubling the number of wild tigers by 2022 at the international summit on tiger conservation in St. Petersburg. Nepal is the first country to release updated tiger numbers in 2022.
According to Hemley, Nepal “really stands out as a leader in conservation, especially for tigers.”
“There is support for tiger conservation at the highest level of government,” he said. “This has made it an effective habitat conservationist, strengthening tiger protection in national parks, wildlife reserves.”
According to Hemley, one of Nepal’s main conservation strengths is its reliance on wildlife corridors, which are forest roads that help connect otherwise fragmented parts of tiger habitat.
“Nepal has been a pioneer in reforesting areas to ensure that these connections are restored and maintained,” he explained. As they mature and move away from their parents, “the tigers have to disperse. This dispersion is only possible if the tigers move safely.’
Another key factor in Nepal’s tiger comeback is community involvement in conservation projects, Hemley said.
“Communities are the driving force behind it,” he said. “They are directly involved in reforestation, maintaining this habit and conservation.”
The World Wildlife Fund has been involved in ecotourism projects in Nepal, Hemley added. As the tiger population has recovered, protected national parks for tigers have become popular tourist attractions, as park revenue helps meet community needs. This fosters a sense of community investment in conservation projects, Hemley explained.
Another key component to recovering tiger populations is finding ways for humans and tigers to coexist safely, Hemley said.
“What’s really needed is a holistic approach,” he said. “Controlling tigers, knowing where they live, can help make communities safer.”
Nepal has also found success with practical tools such as anti-predator fences for livestock and lighting village perimeters at night to deter tigers.
Expanding compensation programs for farmers whose livestock is killed by tigers allows for a better coexistence between humans and tigers, Hemley said.
Conservationists refer to a concept known as “social carrying capacity” to describe the ability of a given community to tolerate a given number of animals such as tigers. “Understanding that dynamic and that social ability is a new focus for us,” Hemley said.
“If the people who live with the tigers don’t want them there, we won’t have them there,” he said.
Protecting tigers helps protect other endangered or threatened species. “Effectively, if we’re going to protect one tiger, we’re going to protect 10,000 hectares of forest,” Hemley said. Tigers also live in “some carbon-enriched forests.” “It will also help us mitigate climate change if we protect these very rich forests.”
But while Nepal is a tiger success story, Hemley points out that there are still many countries where tigers are “in crisis”. Tigers have been extinct in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos since 2000, he said. “We have to look at the elements that have been successful in Nepal and India and try to replicate them. The most important part of that is political will and political leadership.”
The United States also plays a role in tiger conservation. Hemley pointed to the Big Cat Public Safety Act, legislation that would put limits on private ownership of tigers in the US and hopefully help prevent big cats from entering the illegal pet trade.
There are about 3,900 tigers in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and the species is in danger of extinction.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Ginette Hemley, WWF’s senior vice president for wildlife conservation.