Crouching tigers, hidden cameras: Nepal counts its big cats

In 2010, Nepal and 12 other countries with tiger populations signed an agreement to double their big cat numbers by 2022. (AFP Videos)
Updated 30 October 2018

Crouching tigers, hidden cameras: Nepal counts its big cats

  • Thousands of camera traps have helped conservationists track Nepal’s wild tiger population
  • Nepal’s tiger numbers hit rock bottom following the decade-long civil war, which ended in 2006

BARDIA NATIONAL PARK, Nepal: Chayan Kumar Chaudhary flicked through photographs captured on a hidden camera in the jungle, hoping his favorite big cat — dubbed “selfie tiger” for its love of the limelight — had made another appearance.
Thousands of camera traps have helped conservationists track Nepal’s wild tiger population, which has nearly doubled in recent years as the big cats claw their way back from the verge of extinction.
After a nine-year push to protect tigers, an exhaustive census across 2,700 kilometers (1,700 miles) of Nepal’s lowlands completed earlier this year revealed the population has grown from 121 in 2009 to an estimated 235 adult cats today.
On the frontline of the painstaking survey were trained locals like Chaudhary in western Nepal’s Bardia National Park where tiger numbers have grown nearly fivefold.
The 25-year-old helped track and record wild tiger movements through the park by scanning images taken by cameras hidden in the jungle’s undergrowth.
“It was very exciting when we checked the (memory) cards and found photos of tigers,” Chaudhary said.
“It felt like we are part of something big.”
Nepal’s southern lowlands, home to five national parks, were mapped into grids, each fitted with a pair of camera traps to record any tiger activity.
More than 3,200 of these special camera traps were installed, some by field workers on elephants to navigate the dense jungle.
“It was not an easy process and risky as well,” said Man Bahadur Khadka, head of Nepal’s department of wildlife and national parks.
These cameras were equipped with sensors that triggered a click whenever any movement or a change in temperature was detected.
Soon the photos started to trickle in: lone tigers walking past, mothers with their playful cubs and the occasional tiger feasting on a fresh kill. And Chaudhary’s favorite: a big cat that seemed to enjoy preening in front of the lens.
The census began in November 2017 and by the following March, more than 4,000 images of tigers had been collected.
“We then began analyzing the photos,” Khadka said. “Just like our fingerprints, tigers have unique stripes. No two tigers are alike.”
Conservationists say that behind Nepal’s success was a strategy to turn tiger-fearing villagers — who could earn thousands of dollars for poaching a big cat — into the animal’s protectors.
A century ago, Nepal’s lush jungles were a playground for the country’s rulers and visiting British dignitaries who came to hunt the Royal Bengal tiger.
In 1900, more than 100,000 tigers were estimated to roam the planet. But that fell to a record low of 3,200 globally in 2010.
Nepal’s tiger numbers hit rock bottom following the decade-long civil war, which ended in 2006, when poachers ran amok across the southern plains.
In 2009, the government changed tack, enlisting community groups to protect the animals. Hundreds of young volunteers were recruited to guard Nepal’s national parks, patrolling against poachers, raising awareness and protecting the natural habitat.
“Tigers are our wealth, we have to protect them,” said Sanju Pariyar, 22, who was just a teen when she joined an anti-poaching group.
“People understand that if our tiger and rhino numbers grow, tourists will come and bring opportunities. It is good for us.”
Armed with a stick, Pariyar regularly goes out on patrol to search for traps laid by poachers.
The locals have also become informants, alerting park officials if they see anything, or anyone, suspicious.
Nepal has tough punishments for poachers — up to 15 years in jail and a heavy fine — and it has recently started a genetic database of its tigers to aid investigations.
In March, police arrested a poacher who had been on the run for five years after being caught with five tiger pelts and 114 kilos of bones.
The contraband was believed to have been destined for China, a top market for wildlife smugglers, where rare animal parts are used in traditional medicine.
In 2010, Nepal and 12 other countries with tiger populations signed an agreement to double their big cat numbers by 2022. The Himalayan nation is set to be the first to achieve this target.
“If a country like Nepal — small, least developed, with lots of challenges — can do it, the others can do it,” said Nepal’s WWF representative, Ghana Gurung.
But conservationists are aware that rising tiger numbers are also good news for poachers and the lucrative black market they supply with endangered animal parts.
Tiger poaching is difficult to track because unlike with rhinos, nothing of the cat is left behind after it is killed.
“It is now more important than ever to stay vigilant,” said national park warden Ashok Bhandari.


Keepers, animals keep each other company at Cairo’s shuttered zoo

Updated 03 April 2020

Keepers, animals keep each other company at Cairo’s shuttered zoo

  • The zoo in Giza, across the Nile from central Cairo, is one of the few green spaces in the usually bustling city of 23 million and is often crammed with families
  • Egypt, like other countries, is trying to curb the spread of coronavirus cases by restricting people’s movements

CAIRO: The chimpanzees, lions and hippos of Cairo’s zoo are getting a rare spell of peace and quiet alone with their keepers as a closure caused by the coronavirus outbreak keeps the public away.
The zoo in Giza, across the Nile from central Cairo, is one of the few green spaces in the usually bustling city of 23 million and is often crammed with families seeking diversion from the grind of daily life.
Now keepers do their rounds at the zoo along deserted pathways, feeding animals apples and bananas through the railings of their cages and bringing fresh hay to their enclosures.
Veteran keeper Mohamed Aly holds hands with 12-year-old chimpanzee Jolia in a gesture of friendship, while noting that keepers are careful about cleaning hands between rounds.
“I’ve been here about 25 years,” he said. “(I’ve spent) my whole life with them, they may not speak but they feel everything, and of course all of them are looking for people to play with.”
Egypt, like other countries, is trying to curb the spread of coronavirus cases by restricting people’s movements. It has imposed a night curfew and shut schools, mosques and tourist sites including the pyramids. It has so far confirmed more than 850 cases of the virus, including more than 50 deaths.
The zoo, which has been closed along with others in Egypt since March 18, is sprayed with disinfectant twice a week.

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