Not many safe havens for the endangered big cats are safe enough, states a World Wildlife Fund assessment, posing significant challenges in increasing world tiger population to 6,000 by 2022
What might come as a blow to tiger conservation efforts, a recent preliminary assessment conducted by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reveals that protected areas for tiger and other threatened species are not necessarily a safe refuge as designed.
This preliminary assessment of 63 legally protected areas in seven tiger range countries shows that only 22-35% maintained WWF’s minimum standards of protection.
The leader of WWF’s Tiger Alive Initiative, Mike Baltzer, said poaching is the most immediate threat to tigers and protected areas are the first line of defense against poaching.
“If this preliminary assessment reflects the full situation on-the-ground, then protected areas are not functioning as an effective safe haven for tigers. Without places tigers can be safer from poaching, there is no hope to meet the target of more than 6,000 tigers by 2022,” he said.
The conservation director of WWF-Bhutan, Vijay Moktan, said even though Bhutan’s (one of the tiger range countries) legal protection was strong, conservation of tigers was difficult in Bhutan too.
“Bhutan’s protected areas were not assessed in the study as the population of tigers in Bhutan was not very significant for the assessment,” he said.
The preliminary assessment was conducted by examining only three relatively easily measurable factors that may indicate the level of protection and vulnerability. These include legal protection, sufficient enforcement staff capacity to provide protection against poaching, and use of comprehensive law enforcement monitoring software systems.
The results revealed that staff and WWF field personnel from 41 of the 63 protected areas, or 65% feel there is not enough staff to protect those areas and achieve zero poaching.
Vijay Moktan said Bhutan too was facing similar problems of less enforcement staff in the protected areas to stop poaching.
“There are not many cases of tiger poaching in Bhutan, but this does not mean we have enough enforcement staff,” he said.
Citing an example of the Royal Manas National Park (RMNP), he said for RMNP that covers 1,057 square kilometers only 70 enforcement staffn were available to protect the parks and look out for poachers.
“Each individual has to cover around 15 square kilometer of the park which is very difficult,” he said.
This, he said, leads to poachers from across the border to come in and poach for tigers as well as other threatened species.
However, some protected areas in India like the Kaziranga National Park has approximately 800 enforcement staff for about 860 square kilometers. “This has been able to stem poaching activity in India,” states the assessment.
The assessment also shows that Nepal celebrated a Zero Poaching year for rhinos in 2011 and this was largely attributed to the increase of range posts across several protected areas.
Other factors that hamper Bhutan’s effort in protecting tigers are habitat fragmentation and human-tiger conflict which leads to retaliatory killings.
In 2001, farmers around Thrumsingla National Park killed a tiger after it predated on their cattle.
“This led to the farmers poisoning a carcass and leaving it to be eaten by the tiger which unfortunately happened,” said Vijay Moktan.
He said this has however decreased after compensation for livestock killed were put in place.
The assessment also indicated that only 18 of the protected areas surveyed or 29%, are currently using computer-based, law enforcement monitoring systems to help them manage their sites more effectively; the majority still rely on manual analysis.
Bhutan has eight protected areas which comprises more than 50% of the total land area. These include Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary, JigmeDorji National Park, JigmeSingyeWangchuck National Park, Phipsoo Wildlife Sanctuary, RMNP, Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, Thrumsingla National Park, and Wangchuck Centennial Park.
Of the protected areas, the largest number of tigers is found in RMNP.
WWF has identified three actions that governments of tiger range countries can take immediately to launch an elevated operation towards Zero Poaching.
These include identifying and delineating the most important sites requiring good protection from poaching, and ensuring these sites have sufficient numbers of enforcement staff who are well trained to monitor and improve their effectiveness by using monitoring systems.
WWF also suggests that the police and judiciary need to help to ensure strict punishment on poaching and to actively engage local communities living adjacent to important tiger conservation areas.