Text by Chaitanya Krishna and photograph by Kalyan Varma

Nepal’s Chitwan National Park was the site of a study, published in September 2012 by Carter and others, which concluded that, tigers coexist with humans at fine spatial scales. This paper has ignited a scientific debate regarding its implications for large carnivore conservation worldwide, with scientists at institutions worldwide questioning the validity of claims of coexistence. At the foundation of this debate, perhaps, is the unresolved question, “what is coexistence”? For some, ‘coexistence’ is a situation of mutual well-being, devoid of conflict. Carter and colleagues equate coexistence to humans and tigers using the same spatial locations, albeit at different times of the day. Whether such a definition, bereft of other influences, including dispersal, human-wildlife conflict and human perceptions of tigers is appropriate for the purposes of a conservation paradigm needs to be re-examined.

Tigers have been studied at Chitwan National Park since the 1970s and there is a rich body of knowledge on various aspects of their biology. Eminent carnivore biologist, Professor Melvin E Sunquist, noted that while tigers in Chitwan were mostly active at night, some daytime activity also occurred. The tigers, he concluded were matching their activity patterns with that of their prey. Tigers do not take the ‘night shift’ at Chitwan National Park just to ‘coexist’ with people, they have, in fact, evolved so. There is evidence that tigers are avoiding people in other ways. During the day, Carter and his colleagues found that tigers were four times more active inside the Park, which has fewer people as compared to outside the Park where there are more people. Moreover, the chances of detecting a tiger increased in areas further away from human settlements, perhaps indicating lower tiger activity with an increment in human presence. Moreover, tiger densities in these areas are 65-75% less than the density of 18 tigers per 100 km2 reported by Adam Barlow and colleagues in a different part of Chitwan! Thus avoidance was clearly occurring in space.

A clue to the low tiger densities in these areas lies in the mechanism of tiger dispersal. Sub-adult tigers or transients, leave their natal area and stake their claim to a piece of forest they can call home. Dispersal is a period of high risk in the lives of these territorial animals. Long-term tiger biologist Professor James L. David Smith studied tiger dispersal at Chitwan and found that while almost all female sub-adults established territories next to their mothers, male sub-adults moved away to poorer quality habitats, often coming into conflict with humans. Eventually, out of the ten young male tigers Professor Smith closely studied, only four survived. Such areas where a considerable number of tiger deaths occur are ‘sinks’ for tiger populations. A landscape comprising such ‘sinks’ in addition to regions of high survival for the species, or ‘sources’, forms the basis of the current conservation strategy for the species. Senior scientist at Wildlife Conservation Society, Dr. Ullas Karanth, warns that confusing human-dominated ‘sinks’ with ‘sources’ could sound the death knell for this endangered species.

A crucial obstacle to the consideration of coexistence as a conservation strategy in the Chitwan landscape is the high incidence of human-tiger conflict around the park. A study undertaken by Bhim Bahadur Gurung and colleagues suggests that as many as ninety people have been killed by tigers in the Chitwan landscape in the last three decades, while up to 20 tigers have been killed or captured as a management intervention by park authorities in the same period. The trend indicates that the incidence of conflict is increasing and human casualties attributed to tigers within the last decade at Chitwan were 9 times higher than casualties occurring in Bardia National Park. Bardia, also located in Nepal, is similar in size to Chitwan and has a comparable tiger density of 20 animals per 100 km2, as reported by Per Wegge and others. However, Bardia differs from Chitwan in one aspect; there is minimal overlap between tigers and humans, even in the buffer, reports biologist Babu Ram Bhattarai. The negative consequences of conflict in Chitwan is expressed in the perspectives of humans towards tigers and their conservation; in another study, Carter and colleagues report that 40% of the interviewees living adjacent to Chitwan National Park believe that, “tigers are a nuisance and that there is not enough room for both tigers and people in the nearby forests”.

According to the BBC, increasing human-wildlife conflict in Nepal has resulted in government officials wanting to cap growth of wild animal populations in protected areas, including that of the already endangered tiger. In the face of these developments, mere spatial overlaps between humans and tigers cannot be touted as ‘coexistence’ in Chitwan. Research in multiple-use areas having implications for wildlife conservation and human well-being should reflect the on ground realities of both actors living in close proximity to each other.

This article was published on mongabay.com and can be accessed here. The author is currently at InSeason Fish, focusing on sustainable seafood in India.