More people than there are tigers in Nepal's dwindling wilds massed at the Soaltee last week for a round-robin of meetings, workshops, press briefings and declarations.
Their mission: defining actions to save wild tigers from extinction, with the immediate goal of doubling the population of wild tigers in the next decade. Their motto: saving tigers is our test, if we pass, we get to keep the planet. The global tiger workshop was the first of its kind, and laid the groundwork for the Year of the Tiger, 2010.
It's about time. It hasn't quite been the Century of the Tiger. In the last 100 years, their numbers have plummeted from about 100,000 to 4,000 today, thanks to human encroachment into tiger habitats, misguided enactments of masculinity, and the ignoble pretence range states like China maintain in allowing illegal tiger farms to flourish. It's culture, it's medicine, insist advocates of tiger farms, and we could reduce the demand for wild tigers by farming them. Bullshit. It's not culture, it's not medicine, it's their economy, stupid.
What was the Cultural Revolution for if not to root out practices that threaten the wellbeing of society? It was for the little red book, perhaps, not the ever-expanding IUCN red list. So is the tiger then a useful member of our earthly society, beyond fuelling the Chinese obsession with dismembering endangered species? We're told it's a keystone species, an apex species, meaning it has a disproportionate effect on the health of the ecosystems within which it lives. Currently, 121 breeding tigers prowl the confines of Chitwan National Park. But if the tigers were to go, if Chitwan were to go, what would it mean for you and for me?
One can debate the pros and cons of tigers to local communities living around national parks such as Chitwan, but it's clear the disappearance of this species would be damaging to sub-tropical tourism in Nepal. Economics aside, it's perhaps this tourism that explains what it is the tiger means to us.
Let's face it, the tiger is a celebrity, plain and simple. The smallest of chances to view the planet's most powerful terrestrial predator draws crowds to enclaves such as Chitwan. Alas, his domain is much diminished.
ocal communities have had to bear the consequences. Six children were killed by tigers in the run-up to the workshop. We may not suffer the same in Kathmandu, but most of us have heard of leopard sightings in the Valley.
Some of us more than others. A few months back, a friend told me how disappointed he was, not that a leopard had appeared in Bishalnagar, but that it had been shot before he got to the site. An adult female and two cubs had been cornered, and the mother attacked zoo staff, leaving the police with no choice. The cubs fled, and one was picked up close by the following day.
Almost a whole week later, the other cub showed up in my garden in Dhapasi. Terrified by our tibetan mastiff, it scrambled up a palm tree and waited for the zoo to turn up as hundreds of locals peered and pointed. After almost five hours up a tree, the leopard was tranquilised and brought down safely.....and whisked off to Jawalakhel Zoo.
It was all very exciting, of course, but sad and worrisome in equal measure. What on earth was a leopard doing in my garden? One only needs to look out from Dhapasi towards Tokha and up to Shivapuri to find the answer. The urban waterline laps ever higher, and poaching in the forests continues apace. And so a mother and her two cubs ventured out in search of greener pastures.
I've never seen a wild tiger. But I'll die happy even if I never do, if only I have the knowledge that they can stay in the wild, for some portion of eternity.
Burning bright - FROM ISSUE #437 (06 FEB 2009 - 12 FEB 2009)