Tiger Range Nations: A Clarion Call for Future Cooperation

On International Tiger Day, we are compelled to remind ourselves why the tiger is worth saving. The tiger is without exception, an apex predator in whichever ecosystem it occupies, be it the icy tundra of the Russian far east, the dry scrub jungles of central and western India, the high-altitude alpine forests of Himalayan nations like Bhutan and the island forest of Sumatra in Indonesia. From a wildlife conservation perspective, the tiger on account of its status as an undeniably charismatic apex predator, serves as the ideal “umbrella” species for each of these incredibly diverse ecosystems. Thus, conserving the tiger in an ecosystem, has the “trickle-down effect” of conserving not just a wealth of fauna and flora, but ecosystem services essential to the sustenance of human life, such as sources of water like rivers.


To protect the tiger is to protect the ecosystem. Abhinav Dhar©


As can be surmised from the diversity of ecosystems in which it occurs, the tiger's global range of distribution spans across multiple landscapes in 13 nation states, with ecosystems overlapping between neighbouring states in many areas. Nations comprising this ‘range of distribution’ are tiger range nations. In the last century alone, 10 tiger range nations have experienced the extinction of tigers within their borders.


The most potent threats to the tiger’s survival today are habitat destruction (which includes the destruction of migratory corridors between habitats, creating genetic bottlenecks in protected areas), poaching both directly and indirectly (through the destruction of its prey base by poaching for bushmeat) and unmitigated human-wildlife conflict. Considering that these shared challenges threaten a shared biodiversity, greater cooperation between tiger range nations would naturally be expected. While there have been commendable efforts such as the establishment of the Global Tiger Forum (the intergovernmental body behind International Tiger Day), such cooperation has primarily been “start-stop” in nature and often held hostage to geopolitics.


As discussed in an earlier piece, the most successful wildlife conservation initiatives in the 21st century have been highly localised ones, especially where local communities have been taken on board and public-private partnerships have endured. This is more than evident in certain landscapes in India, which holds approximately 70% of the world’s tiger population. That is not to say that cooperation between tiger range nations is irrelevant. Indeed, there are two key areas where greater inter-governmental cooperation would only serve to enhance the impact of existing efforts on ground zero, and ensure the future of the world’s tiger populations.


Joint Management of Shared Ecosystems: Lessons from the Terai Arc


As mentioned earlier, there are ecosystems divided between some neighboring tiger range nations. It is in these select cases that ‘landscape-scale conservation strategies’ should be adopted. The "Terai Arc" serves as an instructive lesson on the management of ecosystems shared between neighbouring nations.


The Terai is a threatened and fragmented ecosystem under tremendous anthropogenic pressure spread across India and Nepal (which includes the iconic Corbett Tiger Reserve in India and the Chitwan National Park in Nepal). Besides the tiger, the Terai is home to endangered megafauna like the Asiatic elephant, and the greater Indian one-horned rhinoceros. The Terai is also home to other endangered species like the critically endangered fish eating crocodilian, the Gharial, the Gangetic River dolphin, and the Bengal florican. While most of the Terai's wildlife is concentrated in National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries on both sides of the Indo-Nepalese border, the survival of genetically viable populations in these protected areas demands the targeted facilitation of species dispersal, especially tigers (Wikramanayake et al).



Future generations of tigers will need viable migratory corridors to prevent genetic bottlenecks, these sometimes fall on the borders of nations. Abhinav Dhar©


In 2004, India and Nepal adopted just such a strategy for the 'Terai Arc'. A joint coalition of governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations selected 12 protected areas on both sides of the border where known migratory corridors existed . In fact, since the tiger is the apex predator in this ecosystem, the corridors themselves were identified by the tiger's “ecological requirements and behavioural characteristics”. The support of local communities was crucial to ensure the mitigation of human wildlife conflict, and the strategy has largely been considered a success today, all the while still evolving in a consultative manner. A similar strategy had been agreed upon by India and Bangladesh for the Sundarbans in 2015. Such frameworks can be implemented in multiple shared ecosystems across tiger range nations (Wikramanayake et al).


A young male tiger feeds on his mother's cattle kill on the edge of Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in July 2021. Human -wildlife conflict arises out of situations such as this. If left unmitigated, it is detrimental to the long term survival of the species. Abhinav Dhar©



Wildlife Crime and Digital Innovation

The illegal wildlife trade is the most lucrative black-market business after narcotics, human trafficking, and illegal weapons. It is a global menace which fuels poaching for animal parts. Indeed, the last two tiger crises in India were the result of poaching fuelled first by a demand for bones in China’s traditional medicine market (1990-2002) and then, tiger skins in occupied Tibet (2003-2006), which was tacitly encouraged by the Peoples Republic of China (Thapar).


While enhanced protection measures on the ground saw the recovery of tiger populations in nations like India, it really was during the second crisis that the ‘global’ nature of the trade became apparent to law enforcement and non-governmental organisations. Indeed, when a network of tiger poachers and regional traders were arrested in western and central India in 2006, the man at the top of the chain of command was a Tibetan based out of New Delhi, who frequently traversed international borders between India, Nepal, and occupied Tibet. Equally telling, was the fact that the illegal wildlife trade was just one of several criminal activities he indulged in.


While there has been a degree of cooperation between tiger range nations when it comes to the pursuit of wildlife criminals it has largely been lackluster. Some of this can of course be attributed to geopolitical hurdles when it comes to South Asian nations. In more recent times, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau of India can be credited with attempting to foster such cooperation, having facilitated arrests of wildlife criminals in neighbouring nations like Nepal and engaging in multilateral operations with non-governmental organisations. Yet, there is still an urgent need to pool intelligence on poachers, regional traders, and international criminals for effective deterrence across borders.


I was privileged to represent Tiger Watch at the Global Environment Facility’s consultation on “Combatting the Illegal Wildlife Trade” at the World Bank in 2019. It was at this consultation that the possibility of a global database on wildlife criminals, put together by law enforcement agencies and select non-governmental groups, and secured through blockchain was raised. It is innovation such as this that will foster meaningful cooperation between tiger range nations and bring about a far more secure future for our shared natural heritage.



The tiger's survival across its global range is dependent on cooperation between tiger range nations. Abhinav Dhar©


Sources

1. Thapar, Valmik. The Last Tiger: Struggling for Survival. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2005.


2. Wikramanayake, Eric et al. " Chapter 10: The Terai Arc Landscape: A Tiger Conservation Success Story in a Human-dominated landscape" . pp 163-173. in: Tigers of the World : The Science , Politics and Conservation of Panthera tigris (Second Edition). Elsevier, 2010.