KATHMANDU, OCT 31 – The IUCN Red List of endangered species says it all. Of the 1,065 different animal species found in Nepal, nine are critically endangered, a conservation status that means the species has an extremely high risk of becoming extinct in the wild, or completely extinct in the near future. No, the tiger isn’t part of the nine, nor is the rhino. Instead, they are all lesser-known species, mostly birds, and the Gharial.
Why is Nepal focusing so much on the survival of the tiger? Or, for that matter, why are most conservation programmes in Asia directed towards the apex predator, when there are many more species that require immediate attention to their survival?
The answer, according to Prahlad Yonzon, a conservationist, lies in the fact that out of all the flagship species—species chosen to represent an environmental cause—the tiger is perhaps the “most iconic”, and international donors are “very interested” in investing in tiger conservation programmes as compared with “others”. Call it the big cat’s popular and romanticised appeal, even more glamourised by television programmes and safari serials.
But is that reasonable? Mangal Man Shakya of the Wildlife Watch Group puts it blatantly. “The tiger and rhino survival debates continue only because of external funding.” Hem Sagar Baral, ornithologist and pioneer of the vulture conservation programmes, agrees. “There are flaws in the traditional flagship species perception. We have been led to believe that a normal tiger population in an area means other fauna in the area are conserved properly. But that is not necessarily true.”
Despite objections, funding for tiger projects is much higher than any other conservation project in the region. According to a study done by the Zoological Society of London in 2007, at least $41 million (Rs. 3.07 billion) was spent by international donors for tiger conservation projects over the period 1998 to 2005. That is a lot of money by any standard. Especially in a poor country like Nepal, conservation programmes are exclusively driven by the donors. “There has been no word on the imminent extinction of the Gangetic Dolphin, when the species is equally, if not more, endangered than the tiger. Nepal’s conservation programme is exclusively donor-driven,” says Baral.
Shakya has another question for the tiger survival debate. “They say that at the beginning of the 20th century, there were a 100,000 tigers, a population which declined to 4,000 by the 1960’s. Is there any specific case-study that can identify how this depletion has affected the ecosystem?”
Tiger experts disagree over the idea that tiger programmes do not help other species. “Tigers need a vast area with good water sources to live in, which means that tiger conservation programmes help in the survival of other aquatic and avian species in the area,” says Mahendra Shrestha, programme director at Save The Tiger Fund, a non-governmental organisation based in the U.S. Yonzon supports Shrestha’s statement. “Protecting a tiger doesn’t only mean protecting its population, but also others that are prey species for this top predator.”
Baral questions this idea, and quotes the example of the Gharial, one of the nine critically endangered species in Nepal. “Despite it being a top predator in the river ecosystem, why aren’t conservation efforts for the Gharial being reviewed?” According to him, there are species whose requirements are specific and cannot be covered by a blanket tiger conservation programme. But again, “no other species brings in as much money.”
It is not that Baral and other conservationists are not arguing for the survival of the tiger. “The tiger must be protected,” he says, but all he is asking for is that other equally-threatened species also be paid equal, if not more, attention.
The example of the Baiji, or the Chinese river dolphin, could prove a point. A species categorised as critically endangered by the IUCN in 1996 , disappeared from the Yangtze River system in 2006, and finally declared extinct in 2007. This was an animal whose population in 1986 was estimated to be just 300.
The example of the Baiji may not seem very relevant to Nepal, a country with few endemic species, but it does show that it doesn’t take much for a species to go extinct despite the best conservation efforts.
What is needed is a concerted attempt by Nepal to identify its conservation needs, and work towards them accordingly. True, as Shrestha says, “it is easier to raise funds for tiger conservation programmes than other wildlife”, but if our conservation programme intends to preserve Nepal’s wildlife, it needs to present a clearer agenda than at the moment. Also, perhaps some sensitive donors who are willing to listen to that.