Indigenous knowledge vital in conservation of Nepal’s tigers

Incidents of human-tiger conflict have increased in line with the growing populations of both the big cats and people, as more people venture into national parks and their buffer zones in search of firewood and food.

A tiger wades through water in an enclosure in Nepal. Image: USAID Biodiversity & Forestry, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

On June 6, a 41-year-old woman was attacked by a tiger while she was collecting firewood in a forest in Nepal’s Bardiya district, a key habitat for endangered Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris).

Following the incident, villagers from Bardiya took to the streets demanding that the government act immediately to address the problem tiger attacks. They, and some wildlife biologists, argue that the current model of trying to keep humans and tigers in different zones to prevent attacks isn’t working.

The protest soon took a violent turn as police opened fire at protesters, who according to police resorted to vandalism. An 18-year-old woman was shot and died soon after at a local hospital.

As Nepal prepares to announce that it’s close to doubling the population of tigers in habitats such as Bardiya and Chitwan national parks, communities living close to the protected areas say they are paying the price of the country’s successful conservation program.

Nepal and other 12 range countries with wild tiger populations came up in 2010 with a plan to double the population by 2022. Nepal is the only country close to hitting that target. The country which had 121 tigers in 2010, now has around 240. This Global Tiger Day, July 29, the government is expected to announce that it has achieved its goal.
But that success has come at a cost.

According to government figures, human casualties in conflicts with tigers are growing each year. This fiscal year, which ends in July, three people have reportedly been killed every month, on average, in tiger attacks.

On the surface, human-tiger conflict may appear to be the result of human encroachment into protected tiger habitats. But the problem is more complex, say local activists, as impoverished community members without access to cooking gas or food venture into public forests to gather firewood or wild vegetables. That puts them at risk of running into a tiger.

“Our conservation model is focused on the habits and habitats of key species such as tigers, and doesn’t account for human interaction with nature and conserved species,” says conservation biologist Kumar Paudel from the NGO Greenhood Nepal.

Our Indigenous knowledge is rich with practices that support the coexistence of humans with tigers.

Birendra Mahato, director, Tharu Cultural Museum

Like Paudel, other researchers say attacks can also be attributed to a knowledge gap between local communities and wildlife biologists, both about Indigenous knowledge and scientific research. Changing land dynamics following evictions from forests, now converted into protected areas, and a ballooning human and tiger population in national park buffer zones are also increasing the frequency of attacks.

“It seems pretty simple. People are going to the forests where tigers live and are falling prey to them,” says Birendra Mahato, director of the Tharu Cultural Museum and Research Center in Sauraha, near Chitwan National Park. “But deep down, it is a reflection of how knowledge of Indigenous groups, such as the Tharu, on living with tigers has been neglected.”

Humans and tigers meet

Human-tiger interactions in Nepal are at a critical juncture; never before have so many people tigers lived so close to so many tigers.

Thousands of tigers are believed to have roamed the famous Charkose Jhadi, the dense forests running east to west in Nepal’s southern plains, until the early 20th century. Malaria, which was endemic to the region, kept the larger human population living in the hills away from these fertile flood plains. However, some Indigenous groups, such as the Tharu, lived with the disease and the tigers, and still thrived.

By the second half of the 20th century, all that changed when the government, with support from the World Health Organisation and the U.S. Agency for International Development, introduced a malaria eradication program that relied on spraying DDT, a toxic insecticide, across the southern plains. This included areas where national parks would later be established.

This opened the floodgates for the people in the hilly north to move down to the plains, the key tiger habitat of tigers. Many villagers, and outsiders, proceeded to kill the big cats for their hide and other body parts used in traditional medicine. The result: the population of tigers declined as their habitat shrank.

But with the establishment of the Chitwan National Park in 1973 and Bardiya National Park in 1988, tiger numbers continue to grow each year — and with them, the number of reported cases of human-tiger conflict.
However, for communities already living in the lower plains, such as the Tharu, there wasn’t always conflict between humans and tigers. That they survived with so many tigers around points to some form of Indigenous knowledge on human-wildlife cooperation, according to anthropologist Charles Norris-Brown.

“Our Indigenous knowledge is rich with practices that support the coexistence of humans with tigers,” Mahato says.

According to Mahato, when Nepal’s rulers came to the plains to hunt tigers, they couldn’t find them without seeking help from the Tharu. The Tharu practised shifting agriculture, which played an important role in tracking tigers and managing their grassland habitat.

“They slashed and burned a patch of tall grassland and grew crops for a few months, before moving on to the next patch,” Norris-Brown tells Mongabay.

Old grasslands were cut while allowing for the growth of fresh grasslands, he adds. This helped maintain the grassland ecosystem the tigers need. It’s in these grasslands where animals such as deer, the tiger’s primary prey, thrive.

This practice would periodically clear stray brush and scrub in the forest and allow both animals and humans to have a clear view of the forest. But with the advent of the national parks banning human activity in the forests, this vegetation was allowed to grow extensively, restricting visibility for both humans and tigers. This is why the sight of a tiger catches both humans and tigers by surprise, turning encounters into attacks.

The Tharu also used to closely monitor the movement of tigers in the forest and avoid places frequented by the animal.

“Our ancestors who visited the jungle regularly would come home to narrate their experience to their children, who would, in turn, learn about dealing with tigers and surviving close encounters,” Mahato says.

Keeping humans and tigers apart

With the national parks now firmly in place, local communities are no longer allowed to freely roam the forests, let alone practice slash-and-burn agriculture as the Tharu did. Community-managed forests outside the national parks are also governed by rules on who gets to collect fodder and firewood.

“This meant that some local Indigenous groups lost access to the forest, where they had been living for centuries,” Mahato says. “The flow of Indigenous knowledge [on tigers] that had been transferred from one generation to another stopped.”

This could be one of the reasons why incidents of human-tiger conflict have increased in Nepal, Paudel and Mahato say. The forest management practices in the national parks don’t mimic the Indigenous practices that helped humans live with tigers for centuries, they say.

Another problem is that researchers who work on conservation produce academic work whose results don’t reach the locals, Paudel tells Mongabay.

“For example, a lot of work has been done on why and when tigers attack people, but the findings are rarely communicated to the local communities,” he says.

However, officials maintain that communities must keep out of the national parks, even public forests. If they must go into dense forests, they should go in groups.

“I haven’t heard of a tiger that came to a settlement and attacked people,” says conservationist Bed Bahadur Khadka, who until recently worked for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.

“Tigers attack people when they feel that someone has encroached upon their territory when they are mating, or taking care of their young ones,” Khadka tells Mongabay. “Old tigers that can no longer hunt for food do find humans as easy prey and attack them, but that too only in the jungle.”

Avoiding tiger attacks isn’t quite so simple for impoverished locals, Mahato says. Many of these community members have no other options but to go into the forest for firewood and wild vegetables. Even in community-managed buffer zones, they run the risk of an attack. More needs to be done to prevent violent human-tiger encounters, Mahato says.

What remains of Indigenous knowledge should be used to this end, he says. For example, Indigenous knowledge on the movement of tigers and the management of grassland could be incorporated into conservation efforts. Currently, parks use heavy machinery to clear grassland ahead of the monsoon season, which disrupts the growth of fresh grass that the deer thrive on.

National parks should also use tiger monitoring technology to provide real-time information to villagers, Mahato adds, or communicate that information, especially to women who otherwise have limited access to safety information and mobile phones.

“They have camera traps, CCTV cameras and even drones and UAVs at their disposal,” Mahato says of conservation and park officials. “Although human-tiger conflict can’t be brought down to zero,” he adds, “it can be minimised to a large extent.”

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