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In Search of Nepal’s Missing Tigers

Nepal’s estimated 120 adult wild tigers do not take into account the young mountain landscape in the Churia region, so the country could be home to more big cats than believed. Using a grant from the National Geographic Society/Waitt Institute Program, biologist Kanchan Thapa is currently in the field, setting camera traps and looking for...

Nepal’s estimated 120 adult wild tigers do not take into account the young mountain landscape in the Churia region, so the country could be home to more big cats than believed.

Using a grant from the National Geographic Society/Waitt Institute Program, biologist Kanchan Thapa is currently in the field, setting camera traps and looking for cat scat. He hopes to show that tigers do indeed use the Churia landscape, which would provide valuable information about seasonal migrations and habitat-use that may help shape a more effective protection and conservation strategy for the region’s top predator.

Breeding Tigress in Chitwan National Park _Photo credit_DNPWC 2009.jpg

Caption: Tigers roaming in Chitwan National Park.

Cameta trap photo by DNPWC

By Fabio Esteban Amador

Protecting wild tiger populations is a high priority for conservationists and researchers throughout Asia. The recent increase in habitat loss and growing trade in tiger pelts have spurred new efforts to protect these magnificent and unique animals from extinction.

Tiger habitats are located across 13 Asian countries and are mostly fragmented and slowly diminishing. Currently, the total wild tiger population is estimated at just a bit over 3,500, and decreasing.

But in an encouraging turn of events, a new study is hoping to document tigers in a particular habitat in Nepal, an area previously thought to contain no tigers.

Biologist Kanchan Thapa thinks that “Nepal may have more tigers than previously thought.” If he is correct, it is great news for Nepal as well as big cat initiatives in conservation and ecology.

Tiger Posing INfront of Camera in Chitwan Natioal Park _Credit_DNPWC 2009.JPG

Caption: Tiger photographed in a camera trap in Chitwan National Park, Nepal.

Photo by DNPWC

“Nepal’s conservation history started in the late 50s with the establishment of a sanctuary and enactment of the National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act. Since then, conservation initiatives have been successful in establishing secure habitat for the tigers in lowland areas of Nepal,” said Kanchan in an email from the field.

Where are the new tigers?

The 2009 Nepal tiger survey estimated a total of 121 adult tigers in 4 protected areas. However, this could be grossly underestimated due to Churia habitat being excluded from the survey, in spite of much of it falling within known tiger range.

Lowland areas such as alluvial floodplain grasslands, riverine forests and churia forests are prime habitat for tigers. The Churia range is one of the youngest of the five mountain ranges in Nepal. Extending from the Indus River in Pakistan to the Brahmaputra River in India, Churia habitat occupies the highest density of forest cover in Nepal.

The rich faunal diversity of the range includes a wide variety of primates, carnivores, ungulates, elephants, birds, and reptiles. Parsa, Chitwan, Bardiya, and Suklapanta national parks, in the Nepali lowlands, cover prime tiger habitats and are connected to each other through 60 percent of Churia habitat. It is here that Kanchan hopes to document new tiger and prey densities.

My Study Site at the Background.jpg

Caption: Churia habitat in the Chitwan National Park in Nepal.

Photo by K. Thapa

Kanchan Thapa is a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech in the U.S., and has been working as a field biologist tracking tigers and other megafauna across the Churia habitat in the Chitwan National Park in Nepal. He is presently conducting a landscape-wide survey of tigers and their prey, which he hopes will address a gap in our understanding of tiger and prey densities. He is using non-invasive camera traps to determine tiger population.

Rescuing leopard cubs in the feild.jpg

Rescuing leopard cubs in the feild.jpg

Caption: Kanchan Thapa, with a leopard cub he rescued in the field.

Photo courtesy of K. Thapa

Kanchan’s project is funded in part by a National Geographic Society/Waitt Foundation grant. His study focuses on population and habitat monitoring using the latest technologies, techniques and analytical methods.

Kanchan has been an important researcher and activist in tiger conservation, and with colleagues has drafted action plans for tigers and rhinos, initiatives that have recently been endorsed by government of Nepal.

What Makes Nepal an exemplary region for tiger conservation?

We should first consider that it is the local population that interacts with tigers that can change their future, he said.

“Community based participatory approaches towards biodiversity conservation have proven to be successful, especially in buffer zones surrounding protected areas,” Kanchan said.

“The Chitwan National Park is one of the successful community-based models which benefit the livelihood of the people along with biodiversity conservation. The leadership role and commitment of the Government of Nepal, including the collaborative efforts of the conservation partners like WWF Nepal, and the National Trust for Nature Conservation, were catalysts towards the formation of National Tiger Authority chaired by the Prime Minister of Nepal.

Imparting GPS Use.jpg

Caption: Kanchan Thapa teaches GPS and other tracking technology to locals, whose efforts may determine the future of Nepal’s tiger population.

Photo courtesy of K. Thapa

Protection is the ultimate strategy for securing habitat and tiger populations. Kanchan’s effort is just one of the many that are needed to secure the habitat for tiger in core areas.

The Government of Nepal has made huge efforts in battling the illegal traffic of wildlife and has confiscated tiger bones and pelts from various part of the country.

Nepal’s tiger population is critically threatened in the western part of the country, especially in Bardia National Park and Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve, where the big cat’s numbers have declined in recent years. “These regions were once the most dense in tiger population. Poachers are targeting tiger population in all areas, and the Government of Nepal along with conservation partners are focusing with various measures to secure and restore the population of tigers in these areas,” explained Kanchan.

Nepal and India share tiger habitat with contiguous forest habitat acting as a corridor between core areas. Transboundary protection measures are essential for maintaining and securing habitat for tigers between bordering nations. Therefore, the solution to future tiger conservation depends on coordinated efforts by nations, communities and individuals. “This is an effort where we can all participate,” Kanchan added.

NGS In the Field.jpg

Kanchan is presently in the field conducting surveys to estimate what areas are occupied by tigers across seasons, to determine seasonal habitat-use patterns. He collects tiger scat to identify diet items (including wild and domestic animals) and determine prey preference in the Churia habitat.

His National Geographic Society/Waitt Foundation funded project will complement the effort mentioned in the Tiger Conservation Action Plan for Nepal. The Government of Nepal’s goal of doubling the tiger population by 2020 can only be possible with successful conservation strategies implemented in Churia, in addition to ongoing efforts in other areas.

Kanchan’s study addresses a gap in our understanding of tiger and their prey densities, habitat selection, and prey selection across the important, yet little known Churia habitat. We hope his efforts will contribute to the increase of known tiger population densities, and help Nepal become an example of successful wildlife conservation, especially for tigers.


Fabio Esteban Amador is the program officer for the NGS/Waitt Grants Program at National Geographic and an associate research professor of anthropology at George Washington University. He is an archaeologist specializing in Mesoamerican cultures and Pre-Columbian and historic earthen architectural conservation. Amador studied archaeology at Rutgers University and advance degrees at the State University of New York in Buffalo. He has worked in prehistoric sites in North, Central and South America and is presently conducting research in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Before joining National Geographic, he was a professor of archaeology  and a researcher for the Council for Scientific Investigation at the National University of El Salvador.

Fabio Esteban Amador’s blog posts

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