The Bengal tiger population of Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve in Nepal has declined at least 30 percent, according to camera trap results monitored by World Wildlife Fund (WWF). While once a refuge that boasted among the highest densities of the endangered species in the Eastern Himalayas, the recent survey (April 2008) showed a population of between 6-14 tigers, down from 20-50 tigers in 2005.
Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve in Nepal is 117 sq miles, less than twice the size of the District of Columbia, and is home to tigers, rhinos and the world's largest flock of Bengal florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis) and swamp deer (Cervus duvauceli). It connects with two tiger reserves in India, Pilbhit and Dudhwa.
The Government of Nepal made a low-key announcement on July 1 based on the results of a long-term camera trap study conducted in large part by WWF. Officials identified poaching as perhaps the major cause of tigers disappearing from this protected area. Ironically, armed poachers have been photographed by the very equipment set up to capture tiger images.
'Camera traps' are cameras with infrared sensors that take a picture when they sense movement in the forest. The Suklaphanta camera traps used two cameras positioned to capture tiger images from both sides of the tiger because its stripes are not symmetrical. Each date, time and location of a photographic capture along with a GPS coordinate is recorded in a log book.
Tiger populations have declined by 95 percent over the past 100 years, and three sub-species have become extinct with a fourth not seen in the wild for over 25 years. There are an estimated 2,000 Bengal tigers remaining in the wild. Bengal tigers mostly inhabit the dry and wet deciduous forests of central and south India, the Terai-Duar grassland and sal forests of the Himalayan foothills of India and Nepal, and the temperate forests of Bhutan. They are also found in Bangladesh, Myanmar and China. The mangroves of the Sunderban (shared between Bangladesh and India) are the only mangrove forests where tigers are found.
"The loss of tigers in Suklaphanta is undoubtedly linked to the powerful global mafia that controls illegal wildlife trade," said Jon Miceler, managing director of WWF's Eastern Himalayas Program. "The evidence suggests that Nepal's endangered tigers are increasingly vulnerable to this despicable trade that has already emptied several Indian tiger reserves—clearly, this is symptomatic of the larger tiger crisis in the region. We need a stronger, more sustained response to this issue in order to protect the future of tigers in the wild."
Suklaphanta shares a porous international border with India, allowing for easy and untraceable transportation of wildlife contraband. Unlike poaching of other species like rhinos where only the horns are removed, virtually no evidence remains at a tiger poaching site because all its parts are in high demand for illegal wildlife trade.
In May, two tiger skins and nearly 70 pounds of tiger bones were seized from the border town of Dhangadi. Just last month, two separate raids recovered tiger bones being smuggled by local middlemen through the reserve.
"With only 4,000 tigers remaining in the wild, every tiger lost to poaching pushes this magnificent animal closer to extinction," said Dr. Sybille Klenzendorf, director of WWF's Species Conservation Program. "Tigers cannot be saved in small forest fragments when faced with a threat like illegal wildlife trade—this is a global problem that needs the concerted effort of governments, grassroots organizations and all concerned individuals."
Most poached tigers end up in China and South East Asia where they are used in traditional Chinese medicine, prized as symbols of wealth and served as exotic food.