The silent victims of Nepal’s tiger conservation success

Communities that live with wildlife bear the unfair and uncompensated burden of conservation.

Royal Bengal tigers gesture in their enclosure at the central zoo in Lalitpur, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, on July 29, 2022. - Nepal has nearly tripled its wild tiger population, officials announced Friday, in a victory for the Himalayan country's efforts to help the big cats claw their way back from extinction. (Photo by Prakash MATHEMA / AFP)
Royal Bengal tigers in their enclosure at the central zoo in Lalitpur, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, on July 29, 2022. Nepal has nearly tripled its wild tiger population over the past decade, in a victory for the Himalayan country's efforts to help the big cats claw their way back from extinction. But it has come at a cost to local communities. (Photo by Prakash MATHEMA / AFP) (AFP)

Nepal’s incredible feat of nearly tripling its tiger numbers in just over a decade, announced a few weeks ago, was celebrated worldwide. Indeed, the increase in tiger population, from 121 in 2009 to 355 in 2022, is an impressive accomplishment that has brought this species back from the brink of extinction in the country.

The resource-constrained nation has done so by clamping down on rampant poaching and protecting critical tiger habitats. However, this roaring success is accompanied by an uncomfortable elephant in the room – the unfair, uncompensated burden of conservation placed on local communities that live next to forest lands with wildlife.

During the past decade, as tiger numbers rose, so did the toll of their human victims: More than 100 people in Nepal died due to tiger attacks in this period. At least 30 people were killed in tiger attacks in just three years around a single national park, Bardiya, which will receive the prestigious TX2 conservation award in a few months for increasing its tiger numbers from 18 in 2009 to an impressive 125 in 2022.

While the world is busy counting tigers, the cost to local communities remains overlooked and poorly documented. Besides human fatalities, there are other costs – such as livestock losses, livelihood disruptions and plain fear. All of this makes it difficult for people to live harmoniously with wildlife. And it’s not just tiger attacks; human casualties have increased significantly in Nepal due to conflict with other important species like rhinos, leopards and elephants.

This harsh truth, often ignored, needs to be acknowledged as conservationists from around the world come together in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu – which received the TX2 award with Nepal – from October 17 to 19.

Nepal has a track record of successful conservation but it is still a poor country without the resources to reduce the growing human-wildlife conflict, compensate victims or deal with the public reaction when things go wrong. In June 2022, when people living around Bardiya protested to demand protection from wildlife attacks, the police opened fire and fatally shot an 18-year-old girl.

Addressing the concerns of communities that live near wildlife matters for the future of endangered species too. Local people are an integral part of conservation, and if they turn against wildlife, it can lead to indifference at best and retaliation at worst.

For example, Nepal has more than 200 wild elephants in the densely populated lowlands bordering India. Over the last 20 years, elephants have killed 274 people while humans have killed 39 elephants, according to a recent study. Retaliatory killings are also emerging as a threat to snow leopards in Nepal’s Himalayas.

Undoubtedly, we need to conserve wildlife – in the wild. Yet, there’s a question to be asked: Must the world’s poor and vulnerable pay a disproportionate price for this?

While the lives of people in the Global South are seemingly expendable in the service of wildlife conservation, any risk to human life in the Global North, even from endangered species, is treated very differently. For example, a critically endangered Malayan tiger in a Florida zoo was shot dead after injuring a worker and a snow leopard kept in Britain’s Dudley Zoo was killed after it escaped its enclosure.

The treatment of wildlife in zoos in the West might not be directly comparable to wild habitats in poorer countries. Still, the differential attitudes towards wildlife and human life are telling.

Take, for instance, the resistance faced by campaigns to reintroduce wolves in the United Kingdom, centuries after they were driven to extinction. Norway hosts just about 80 locally endangered wolves, yet some of them are being culled with state sanction even though they are living in a dedicated conservation zone, because of a perceived threat to people and livestock.

When one of the world’s wealthiest countries, three times the size of Nepal, does not want even 80 wolves on its land, how fair is it to leave Nepal and its citizens alone in bearing the cost of conserving more than 300 tigers?

In Nepal, there is a popular expression: “If you have a cow, you cannot say the milk is mine but not the dung.”

Wildlife is a global asset. Yet, while the rewards of biodiversity are reaped across the planet, it is unfair that the cost is borne largely by certain communities. This burden – acknowledged in academic research but not acted upon in the real world – is mounting for people who live alongside wildlife, mostly in the Global South.

Nepal is also unable to deal with tigers that either injure or kill humans. Its policy is to capture them and keep them in captivity. Yet each tiger needs about $50,000 annually for food and care, and the cage alone costs $100,000. Recently, the government has stopped capturing problematic tigers despite mounting casualties: It simply doesn’t have the money.

So what can be done to make conservation fairer for poorer countries and for their citizens who live with these wild animals?

Nepal has received monetary support from other nations and international organisations to help protect tigers in the wild. However, it is also important to consider providing financial compensation to specific communities that are the unintended victims of conservation success.

Other approaches are non-monetary, such as sharing decision-making rights over natural resources with locals, rather than forcing them to accept top-down rules. These ideas, while good in theory, are often complicated to execute in practice.

Earlier this year, environmental groups called on richer countries to contribute $100bn a year until 2030 to help developing countries conserve their biodiversity. The United Nations Biodiversity Conference – COP15 – is expected to discuss this demand in December.

While such a global biodiversity fund may not be a silver bullet to end human-wildlife conflict, additional resources could be deployed to find ways to compensate and control losses to communities and build co-existence.

Meanwhile, rich countries should stop indulging in a perfunctory celebration of conservation successes while, in some cases, culling endangered species themselves, and in other instances, leaving poor countries and communities with the actual burden of saving wildlife.

They need to step forward to share the cost equitably and in proportion to their capabilities so that locals have a reason to accept wolves or tigers in their forests.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.