The sun was getting low over Bardia National Park, Nepal. As wildlife photographer Emmanuel Rondeau and his guide made their way back to camp, they spotted a group of chital deer not far from the park’s border. Huddling tightly and casting furtive glances towards the undergrowth, the deer’s behaviour suggested they were not alone. But it was impossible to identify any potential threat in the metre-high grass.
The guide pulled up next to a tree and began to climb. Emmanuel followed. Suddenly, the guide stopped in his tracks, and uttered the one word Emmanuel had hoped to hear since he’d started his quest five years previously: “Tiger!”
It took a moment for Emmanuel to spot his quarry, perfectly camouflaged among grasses burnt yellow by the sun. It was his first wild encounter with a tiger after documenting the big cat, first in Russia, then Bhutan and now Nepal. As if that wasn’t enough, the guide then spotted a second tiger, lying quietly in a closer patch of vegetation. Emmanuel was incredibly lucky. After decades of uncontrolled persecution and relentless habitat destruction, wild tiger populations have declined by more than 95 per cent – from an estimated 100,000 to as few as 3,200 12 years ago.
With the species this far gone, it has become clear that saving tigers from extinction will only be achieved through global co-operation. And so, in 2010, leaders from 13 tiger range countries came together in St Petersburg for the first International Tiger Conservation Forum. There, they endorsed a Global Tiger Recovery Programme (GTRP) and made an unprecedented pledge: to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger.
This ambition became known as TX2, and with the help of a coalition of partners, the goal was set. TX2 was deemed the most ambitious global recovery effort ever undertaken for a single species, with its ultimate success measured by the total number of wild tigers. So, with just months to go, who’s on track?
“Some countries have done some phenomenal conservation work, either demonstrating recovery or increases of numbers, and in some cases range expansion. Those countries include Bhutan, Nepal, India, Russia and China,” says Stuart Chapman, WWF lead on the Tigers Alive initiative. Conversely, other countries have lost ground. “Tigers are in decline in Malaysia, probably stable in Thailand, but have disappeared altogether from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.” In terms of monitoring the progress towards TX2, Stuart anticipates an increase in the number of tigers against the baseline but predicts a patchwork of success and failure across individual country counts.
On the up
Nepal was the first country that looked set to achieve its pledge, when its 2018 nationwide survey reported 235 tigers – up from 121 documented in 2008. For a landlocked country, sandwiched between the high ranges of the Himalayas and the lowlands of the Terai, it continues to have great success. Support for the movement was established at the very top, with Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli chairing the National Tiger Conservation Committee himself. “The tiger is a priceless gift of nature,” he said in a speech. “Its conservation would reflect the pride of Nepalis.”
Nepal established a dedicated task force within the government, which spearheaded a range of measures focusing on conserving tigers and their habitat. The country increased the number of national parks, extended the ranges of existing national parks and restored corridors to connect them all, involving local communities at every step of the way. The results have been impressive. Bardia, for instance, has since seen a four-fold increase in tiger numbers against the baseline.
“Tigers have never disappeared from this landscape, so people feel that the big cats are part of their lives,” says Emmanuel. “Some find them beautiful and exciting; others, such as farmers, find them dangerous, but everybody agrees that this is tiger territory too.”
Emmanuel witnessed first-hand the measures on the ground in Bardia that ensure as peaceful a coexistence as possible between people and predator. “No livestock is left unguarded; paddocks are protected with electric fencing and watchtowers,” he recalls. “A rapid response team deals with immediate conflict, and I witnessed regular anti-poaching patrols on foot, on bicycle – even on elephant.”
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