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Satellite collar helps ecologists track endangered tiger

By Manesh Shrestha, for CNN
A Royal Bengal tiger stands in a pond at the Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad, India on April 23, 2010.
A Royal Bengal tiger stands in a pond at the Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad, India on April 23, 2010.
  • Transplanted tiger's location, altitude and temperature can be tracked
  • Nepal has goal of doubling its tiger population
  • Use of tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicine, habitat loss pose dangers for tigers
  • Nepal

Kathmandu, Nepal (CNN) -- Sitting at his office in Kathmandu, Maheswar Dhakal, a government ecologist, can tell exactly where in a jungle about 600 kilometres away, at what altitude and what temperature Namobuddha, a two and a half year old tiger, is at a given moment.

The tiger was released with a satellite collar five days ago for the first time in the country translocating it from one protected area to another in southern Nepal.

"This is part of our effort to double Nepal's tiger population by the next Chinese year of the tiger (which) comes along in 2022," said Dhakal who coordinated the translocation on behalf of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.

The information on the movement of Namobuddha that the GPS plus GLOBALSTAR-3 satellite collar transmits will tell conservation officials how much area one tiger needs to survive in the wild, according to Dhakal.

"We can ultimately say how many tigers can fit in Nepal's forests," Dhakal said.

According to government statistics, there are at present 155 tigers in Nepal's four protected areas suitable for tigers.

Namobuddha had wandered into a hotel in the tourist town of Sauraha outside the 932 square kilometre Chitwan National Park last September apparently after being hurt in a fight with a bigger tiger, according to Dhakal.

It was darted with tranquilizers and taken to and kept in a protected enclosure for treatment of its wounds. On January 21 it was transported in a trailer some 400 kilometres, a nine-hour-journey, and released in the wilds of Bardiya National Park in western Nepal the next day.

"Earlier such injured tigers used to be taken to the zoo but this is the first time it was released in the wild," said Anil Manandhar, country representative of World Wildlife Fund -- Nepal, which assisted in the translocation operation.

The satellite collar will provide information on the tiger's movements that will be useful for research. "We will, for example, know its powers to adapt and whether its instincts to kill its prey have lessened since it has spent some time in captivity," Manandhar said.

Nepal's plans to double the tiger population in 12 years is part of a worldwide effort to save one of the most endangered and beautiful of wild animals.

Worldwide, from an estimated population of 100,000 in the turn of the 20th century, there are at present an estimated 3,200 to 3,500 tigers in the wild in 14 countries in the world, all of them, except Russia, in Asia.

A century ago there were seven species of the tiger. Today there are just three species, according to Global Tiger Forum, and inter-governmental international body dedicated to the protection of the tiger. The Bali, Caspian and Javan tiger species became extinct in different times of the 20th century. "There also is no confirmed report of presence of South China tiger in the wild currently," says the GTF website.

The highest population of the three remaining species -- Sumatran, Siberian and Bengal -- is the Bengal tiger, the species found in Nepal.

At the end of last year, amid much fanfare, a tiger summit was held in Russia where leaders from the countries with tigers gathered and pledged to save the tiger.

But this task is challenging. Despite efforts, the tiger population in the wild continues to decline.

Tiger parts are used in traditional Chinese medicine and poaching is widespread, conservationists say.

"Poaching continues today despite efforts to save the tiger," said Pralad Yonzon, a wildlife biologist of the Resource Himalaya, a research body.

But the extent of the poaching cannot be ascertained because no carcass is left behind, says Yonzon, who has been involved in the protection of tigers for more than 30 years.

"While poachers take away only the horn of the rhino and leave the carcass behind, every single part of the tiger including its meat, tail and mustache is used in traditional Chinese medicine," he said.

Hardly a month passes by in Nepal without some report of arrests of people with tiger parts.

While government ecologist Dhakal says that poaching is declining in Nepal and the recent arrests revealed that tiger parts originated in India, Yonzon says there is enough in-country poaching in Nepal.

"Nepal is a hub for illicit market of tiger parts," said Yonzon.

India, with which Nepal shares an open border in the south, has the largest tiger population in the world, and China is the biggest destination of tiger parts.

"Law enforcement is an issue," Dhakal said.

Political patronage is also playing its part as those arrested are given light sentences or not even punished, according to Dhakal.

Besides, poaching the loss of habitat is the other threat for the tiger.

"Political instability, growing human population and migration is causing loss of forest cover in the country," said Dhakal. "This is the bigger threat for the tiger in Nepal."

Last year alone nearly 900 square kilometers of forest area was lost in Nepal because of deforestation, according to a parliamentary committee finding.

"Protected areas are not enough. Since the ecosystem is interrelated forest corridors are needed to for the movement of the tiger," Dhakal said.

Yonzon feels that there are also shortcomings in conservation management as responsibility of protecting wildlife is shared between too many government agencies, including the army, and they pass the buck to each other.

"Unless marginal tiger habitat is protected and conservation management changed Nepal's tiger population will decline," said Yonzon. "Under the present situation and trend, doubling the tiger population will be a wish unfulfilled, despite efforts like releasing tigers in the wild."