Looking around the country today, it is hard to recall that Nepal was once internationally recognised for its pioneering work with eco-tourism and wildlife conservation. The Annapurna Area Conservation Project, the rescue of the tiger and rhino from the brink of extinction in Chitwan, the successful translocation of these species to nature reserves in western Nepal and the gharial breeding program on the Narayani were all once models. Some were replicated within Nepal and around the world.
But Nepal's human population has doubled since the early 1980s, and political instability has taken its toll. Fickle governments have lacked the political commitment or the time horizon to invest in safeguarding past accomplishments in conservation as well as address new threats. Whatever is happening now owes much to the momentum of past success.
The midhills have benefited from the community forestry program, an exemplar of creating sustainable livelihoods by protecting nature. But the lack of accountability during the political transition and the post-war culture of violence have eroded some of the gains as user groups collude to harvest logs for personal gain.
Elsewhere, especially in the Tarai, migration and population expansion are increasing the pressure on protected areas. The Maoists have been following the example set by the NC and UML in the 1990s by settling hill
farmers along what remains of the Tarai forests. The pressure on land in the plains is now the single biggest danger to the future of our forests.
Which is why the government's commitment to implement the World Wildlife Fund's campaign to double the number of wild tigers in Nepal by 2022 is such a huge challenge. Contiguous Tarai forests that served as wildlife corridors from the plains to the Mahabharat hills are being wiped away. Tiger, rhino and wild elephant populations can't roam as they used to, living instead in inbred isolation within fragmented jungle strips.
The breakdown of the state has emboldened poachers and Nepal now serves as a funnel for poached Indian tigers to China, just as it does for sandalwood and other contraband.
The solution is clear: protecting habitats, restoring jungle corridors along the Indo-Nepal border in the Tarai, and clamping down on the trade in tiger parts. But even these measures can be difficult in times of political volatility, and when joblessness and poverty drive desperate people to encroach and poach.
But Nepal has shown in the past that we can do it. We can once more take the lead in implementing eco-tourism models and fostering a sustainable, symbiotic relationship between people and parks.
Doubling Nepal's present population of 121 adult tigers is an achievable goal, and saving the charismatic species at the top of the food chain will also save the ecosystems where they live.