Wild tigers in Nepal have clawed their way back from the brink of extinction. There are now almost three times as many wild tigers in the country as there were in 2009, according to the Nepalese government.
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba announced the conservation success Friday morning, according to a news release from the World Wildlife Fund.
Nepal’s National Tiger and Prey Survey 2022 found there are now 355 wild tigers in the country, a 190% increase since 2009.
The exhaustive survey covered 18,928 square kilometers – more than 12% of the country – and required 16,811 days of field staff time.
Ginette Hemley, senior vice president for wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund-US, told CNN the announcement represents a major win for conservationists and tigers alike.
“Tigers in Nepal and everywhere else that they live in Asia, about 10 countries, were on a steady decline because of two key reasons,” said Hemley. “The most immediate reason was poaching for the illegal animal trade. The second reason was loss of habitat.”
“In 2010, it was clear we were going to lose tigers unless we made a concerted effort to turn things around.” Governments of countries home to tigers then set a goal to double the number of wild tigers by 2022 at the St. Petersburg International summit on tiger conservation. Nepal is the first country to release updated tiger numbers in 2022.
Hemley said Nepal “really does stand out as a leader in conservation, especially for tigers.”
“There is support for conservation of tigers at the highest level of government,” she said. “That has translated into really effective habitat conservation, bolstering the protection of tigers in national parks, the wildlife reserves.”
According to Hemley, one of Nepal’s major conservation strengths is its focus on wildlife corridors, which are forested pathways to help connect otherwise fragmented pieces of tiger habitat.
“Nepal has been a pioneer in reforesting areas to make sure those connections are restored and maintained,” she explained. As they mature and move away from their parents, “tigers need to disperse. That dispersal is only possible if tigers can move around safely.”
The other key factor in Nepal’s tiger comeback is community involvement in conservation projects, said Hemley.
“Communities are the driving force behind this,” she said. “They are employed to do reforestation, maintain that habit, and are directly involved in conservation.”
The World Wildlife Fund has become involved in ecotourism projects in Nepal, added Hemley. As the tiger population has recovered, protected national parks for tigers have become popular tourist attractions, with the revenue from parks helping to support community needs. This fosters a sense of community investment in conservation projects, Hemley explained.
Another key ingredient in recovering tiger populations is finding ways for humans and tigers to safely coexist, said Hemley.
“What’s really needed is a holistic approach,” she said. “Monitoring tigers, knowing where they’re living, can help communities stay safer.”
Nepal has also found success with practical tools, like predator-proof fencing for livestock and lighting the perimeters of villages at night to ward off tigers.
Deploying compensation programs for farmers whose livestock are killed by tigers also enables better human-tiger coexistence, said Hemley.
Conservationists refer to a concept known as “social carrying capacity” to describe the capacity for a certain community to tolerate a certain number of animals like tigers. “Understanding that dynamic and that social carrying capacity is a new area of focus for us,” said Hemley.
“Unless people living with tigers want them there, we’re not gonna have them there,” she said.
Protecting tigers also helps protect other endangered or threatened species. “Effectively, if we’re gonna protect one tiger, we’re gonna protect 10,000 hectares of forest,” said Hemley. Tigers also live in “some of the most carbon-rich forests.” It will “help us mitigate climate change as well if we protect these very rich forests.”
But while Nepal is a tiger success story, Hemley pointed out there are still many countries where tigers are in “crisis.” Tigers have gone extinct in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos since 2000, she said. “We have to look at the elements that have led to success in Nepal and India and try to get them replicated. The most important piece of it is political will and political leadership.”
The United States also plays a role in tiger conservation. Hemley pointed to the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a piece of legislation which would set limits on the private ownership of tigers in the US and hopefully help prevent the big cats from entering the illegal animal trade.
There are around 3,900 tigers in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and the species is considered endangered.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Ginette Hemley, the WWF senior vice president for wildlife conservation.