Thursday, July 03, 2008

Big cats in deep trouble

Razen Manandhar
Kathmandu, July 2
The gorgeous-looking big cats — Royal Bengal tigers — will soon turn into fancy tale characters if the government fails to curb rampant poaching.
Though many international conservation agencies are focused on preventing the extinction of the big cats from Nepal, scenes in Nepal’s protected are getting more and more alarming, with reports showing that the number of tigers is declining due to rampant poaching.

Considering its endangered status, tiger is in Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Flora and Fauna) and is protected by Nepal ‘s National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act (1973). But the poaching of this endangered species has been going unabated in Nepal.

According to estimates, there are 350 to 375 tigers in Nepal. International reports state that 5,000-7,000 tigers are presently living in the wild in some selected Asian countries. There are five tiger sub-species — Siberian tiger, South China tiger, Indo-Chinese tiger, Sumatran tiger and Royal Bengal tiger — in the world.

A recent census on tiger, conducted at the Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve by the Department of the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, with support from the WWF Nepal, shows that the bid to conserve the wild cat has not been that successful.

In 82 days, or 939 trap nights — from January 7 to April 7, 2008 — five tigers were found in 15 photographs. As per the census, 2.91 tigers were found per 100 sq km area.

According to the data, only five tigers are left in the Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve, where as many as 23 tigers were found in the period 1999-2001.

“Overall analysis shows a declining tiger population in the Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve. The situation may be just the same in other protected zones as well,” said Jhama Karki, an assistant ecologist at the DPNWC, adding that the decline in tiger population had been spiralling for the last four years.

He stressed, “An independent probe commission should be formed to find out the reason behind the decline in the number of wild cats.” This statement, coming from a government official, shows how worried conservationists are over the issue. Are the policy makers equally committed to arresting the decline in the number of wild cats?

At least four tigers were killed and five tiger pelts were confiscated from or near national parks in six weeks. In this context, the case of writer-turnedcollector of contraband animal parts Ian Baker could be an eye-opener on Nepal’s share in multi-billion dollar international wildlife trade.

Diwakar Chapagain, a wildlife trade officer at the WWF Nepal, said the plight of tigers in the Bardiya National Park and Chitwan National Park might be no different.

“In six weeks, at least five cases of confiscation of tiger pelt or tiger bones have surfaced in Bardiya, Kailali and Kanchanpur districts. This points to a booming trade in tiger parts,” he said, adding four tigers were killed by poisoning in Chitwan National Park in three months.

Unlike rhinos, of which only horns and hoofs are sold, every part of a tiger fetches a hefty price. Because of this, it is almost impossible to find how many tigers have been poached. A pelt of tiger is sold for Rs 50,000 in Nepal. In the international market, it can fetch $30,000 to 50,000.

The effect of much-hyped $1 million Tiger Conservation Action Plan (20072001) is yet to be reflected in the jungles. The goal of TCAP, announced in March 2007, is to preserve, recognise, restore and increase the effective land base that supports tigers in Nepal and maintain a viable tiger population.

It may be noted that a group of Chinese people tried to lobby for lifting the ban on the illegal trade of tiger body parts during the International Tiger Symposium held in Kathmandu in April 2007. Twelve countries had taken part in the symposium.

As a signatory, Nepal has an obligation to implement CITES properly but the government has not bothered to formulate laws in line with CITES to conserve wildlife. Moreover, laws alone cannot protect wildlife in the absence of mechanisms.

The conservationists naturally get demoralised when cabinet makes decisions to release notorious poachers in the name of showing ‘good behaviour’. Once out of the cell, they take to poaching again. The conservationists suspect that international racket of tiger poachers is in operation in Nepal. Poachers with political patronage go scot-free; only low-level porters are arrested here.

When there is no provision of holding one person or institution accountable for the irreplaceable loss of endangered species of wild animals, laws alone cannot function well. The army, government staffers and local community should take joint responsibility to conserve wildlife and take individual responsibility when they fail in their respective missions.