KATHMANDU: In the foothills of the Himalayas, a war is being waged. Soldiers armed with M16 assault rifles patrol the grasslands and forests while surveillance drones buzz overhead. But their fight is not against another army, it is to save the tiger from extinction – and the enemy is the poacher.
The booming wildlife trade is the biggest threat to tigers’ survival. Increasing affluence in Asia has caused prices for skins and the body parts used in traditional Chinese medicines to soar. International gangs pay local Nepalis handsomely to kill tigers and rhinos. For many in a country where the average income is 150 rupees a day, rewards of around £5,000 per skin and £1,700 per kg of bones outweigh the risks of being caught and jailed for up to 15 years.
The Nepal police’s criminal investigation bureau established a wildlife unit only two years ago. Superintendent Pravin Pokharel, 38, led the 11-strong unit responsible for activity outside the nine vast national parks until last August. He believes that 15-20 per cent of Nepali wildlife crime is detected.
During the insurgency from 1996 to 2006, the army checkpoints in the parks that had helped curb the wildlife trade were deserted after they became a prime target for the guerrillas. This led to a
poaching bonanza, leaving Bardia with a handful of rhinos and tigers.
Now, thanks largely to a series of conservation and anti-poaching programmes run by the WWF, tiger numbers are inching up. Last year it was estimated that there were 37 in Bardia national park, up from 18 in 2009. In 2010 the WWF launched a multi-million pound global Tigers Alive appeal with the aim of doubling the number by 2022. This year the appeal is being boosted by a £500,000 injection from Whiskas, raised by the sale of special packs of cat food between now and September. In the Bardia National Park, there are now 31 anti-poaching bases, and some of the money will be spent on providing more of them with solar power so they can be manned around the clock.
The WWF has also started a gun amnesty which has taken in hundreds of homemade guns – the village receives £3.50 for each weapon handed in. Volunteers have been trained how to set up camera-traps so that animals can be monitored.
A few months ago, seven tigers and nine rhino were caught on camera traps in the 3 km-long Khata corridor. Chapagain said: “Their appearance shows what is being done is working. Fifteen years ago the Khata corridor was barren land and bad forest and there were no tiger or rhino and only a few elephant.”
That progress has been made is clear, but the battle to save the tigers is still far from won.
Battle against hunters
• In the Bardia National Park, there are now 31 anti-poaching bases
• The WWF has also started a gun amnesty which has taken in hundreds of homemade guns – the village receives £3.50 for each weapon handed in
• Volunteers are trained to set up camera-traps so that animals can be monitored