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. Yet their fight is not against another army, it is to save the tiger from extinction and the enemy is the poacher.
The Observer accompanied a group of soldiers and rangers on a search mission along the Karnali River in Nepal’s Bardia National Park. Crocodiles lolled in the shallows, while the screeches of monkeys and birds punctuated the heavy, still air. The pugmarks — pawprints — of an adult tiger were visible in the mud on the bank. A poacher staking out this spot for a couple of days would have a chance of catching one of the cats, as they often return to familiar watering holes.
It is estimated there are 3,200 tigers left worldwide — 95 percent less than a century ago — and the booming wildlife trade is the biggest threat to their survival. Increasing affluence in Asia has caused prices for skins and the body parts used in traditional Chinese medicines to soar.
International gangs pay Nepalese handsomely to kill tigers and rhinoceroses. The skin and bones are handed to middlemen who pass easily through the porous border to India, where the major dealers are based. For many in a country where the average income is 150 Nepalese rupees (US$1.60) a day, rewards of about US$7,600 per skin and US$2,600 per kilogram of bones outweigh the risks of being caught and jailed for up to 15 years.
Poachers kill tigers either with homemade guns fashioned from wood and piping, which fire bullets of crushed glass and gunpowder, or by laying down poisoned bait.
“It is hard to know if a tiger has been poached, because nothing is left behind. Each part of the animal has a sale value — eyeballs for drinks, the penis for soup to boost virility, its teeth for jewelry and its bones for good luck charms. Stuffed tiger cubs and rugs made from skins are also seen as status symbols,” said Diwakar Chapagain, the WWF Nepal’s coordinator for wildlife trade monitoring.
Anti-poaching work has its dangers. Ramesh Thapa, assistant warden at Bardia, has been targeted.
“I got phone calls with death threats and then a middleman came to warn me that a hitman had been hired to kill me — the man knew me so he told me. I moved my wife and daughter from a village to Kathmandu because I was so worried. I live in the park and go everywhere in a group now,” he said.
The Nepalese 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 August last year. He believes that 15 percent to 20 percent of Nepalese wildlife crime is detected.
“We have informants who tell us someone is dealing tiger skin or rhino horn. We go undercover as buyers and get evidence using spy recorders and video and we go through phone records. One year ago a dealer tried to sell an undercover officer a jute bag of bones from a whole tiger,” he said.
“During my time we arrested 100 people, mostly small-time dealers. The big dealers are based in India. They use local tribespeople to kill to order,” he said, adding that most of the plunder goes to China.
“The price is increasing all the time. Two days ago, two people with one rhino horn were asking 6 million Nepalese rupees in Chitwan. That would fetch 8 million rupees in Kathmandu and that would be multiplied in China,” he added.
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.
“I didn’t have much to do with tiger conservation for two years after, but now if I don’t see a tiger’s paw mark every day I feel something is missing,” he said.
The Observer joined Bhadai and about 20 villagers armed with sticks, mainly women in their teens and 20s, on an anti-poaching patrol in the forest near Gauri. Bhadai spotted some disturbed leaves and scattered them with a stick to reveal two iron traps; a large net was found nearby.
“Without a forest there’s no life for us. That’s why we conserve the forest and patrol. We must save the tiger, because the tiger is head of everything in the food chain. When we have lots of tigers, it means the habitat is strong enough to support all of us. Tourists will come and our village will improve,” said Harirani Chaudhary, 19, a student on the patrol.
A few months ago, seven tigers were caught on camera traps in the 3km-long Khata Corridor and nine rhinos.
“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,” Chapagain said.
That progress has been made is clear, but the battle to save the tigers is still far from won.