During the civil war that raged between Nepalese government forces and Maoist rebels from 1996 to 2006, 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 only a handful of rhinos and tigers.
Now, thanks largely to a series of conservation and anti-poaching programs run by the WWF, tiger numbers are inching up. Last year, it was estimated that there were 37 tigers in Bardia, up from 18 in 2009. In 2010, the WWF launched a multimillion global Tigers Alive appeal with the aim of doubling the number by 2022. One of the areas where it is concentrating its efforts is the Terai Arc, 5 million hectares of land that includes Bardia on the border with India, where about 120 Royal Bengal tigers live near 8 million people.
This year, the appeal is being boosted by a ￡500,000 (US$761,000) injection from Whiskas, raised by the sale of special packs of cat food between now and next month. In the 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.
One of the keys to boosting tiger numbers is to restore their habitat in the “corridors” between the parks. Tigers need to be able to move freely between the parks so they can mate and catch prey. Much of the WWF’s work in Nepal is about harnessing the skills and enthusiasm of villagers so they can run anti-poaching patrols and conservation projects themselves.
In 2006, tigers had 40 percent less habitat than 10 years earlier. Increasing demand by villagers for wood for fuel and building, illegal logging, agricultural expansion and intensive grazing are all behind the erosion.
Twelve years ago, the WWF started plantation and seedling protection programs, as well as micro-financing and insurance schemes to protect against livestock being killed. There are now thousands of community forests which are run by local people. Villagers have also been helped to install biogas facilities to reduce the need for firewood and grazing is now limited.
Bhadai Tharu, vice-chair of the Community Forest Coordination Committee in the Khata corridor, lost an eye when he was attacked by a tiger while patrolling grasslands nine years ago. When asked what happened, he lunged forward, clawed the air and let out a bellicose roar.
“A tiger jumped on me from a bush at about 1pm. My friends ran off,” said Bhadai, 48, a father of three.
Removing his sunglasses — given to him by the actor and wildlife campaigner Leonardo DiCaprio when he visited the area — he reveals the scar where his eye had been.
Fearing for his life, he put all his strength into elbowing the animal.
“If I do nothing I would die. I made a loud roaring noise and the tiger ran off. Blood was pouring out of my eye. I was taken to hospital and my eye was only attached by one tiny nerve so it had to be removed. One of my ribs was taken out to reconstruct my face,” he said.