New environment minister Birendra Prasad Mahato proposes to auction tiger hunting rights
KATHMANDU, Nepal––“We could charge $25 million for every tiger killed,” Nepalese minister for forests and environment Birendra Prasad Mahato reportedly told a podcast audience in mid-July 2023, as International Tiger Day, July 29, 2023, approached.
Mahato recommended that Nepal should begin auctioning tiger hunting rights to trophy hunters.
Has Mahato checked tiger head prices lately?
$25 million is about 100 times more than the top end price that the chance to shoot a tiger might realistically bring.
Shooting a ranched tiger in South Africa costs about $45,000. At that price, shooting the entire tiger population of Nepal twice over would fetch only $16 million.
Mahato could be presumed to have offered such an exaggerated figure to be raised by auctioning tiger killing rights in hopes of building public support for his proposal, in a nation where 25 million rupees, worth about $190,000 in U.S. dollars, would be about as much as the average household might earn in 100 years.
No conservation credentials
Appointed to his position overseeing Nepalese wildlife and natural resources on May 24, 2023, Mahato, 51, brought to the job no background in either forestry or environmental management, but an extensive history in politics and business, and influential relatives, including a brother who is reputedly among the richest men in Nepal.
“Birendra Mahato said he had received offers from U.S. and Japanese hunters who wanted to pay millions of dollars to kill a tiger in Nepal,” Mongabay staff writer Abhaya Raj Joshi reported from Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital city.
“The country represents a rare conservation success story for the big cat, Panthera tigris, whose population here has tripled over the past 12 years,” Joshi noted.
“We could go into global bidding”
At $25 million per tiger, “The cost of killing five tigers would easily cover the environment ministry’s total budget for the 2023/24 fiscal year,” Joshi continued, like Mahato also evidently failing to check current tiger trophy prices.
Said Mahato, “We could go into global bidding, and allow the highest bidder to hunt tigers for a month every four to five years.”
Mahato rationalized his suggestion by arguing that “Nepal would soon face the problem of having too many tigers for its limited space and resources, which could lead to increased conflicts with humans and lack of food for the animals,” Joshi summarized.
“The money raised from selling hunting permits could be used for conservation work,” Mahato added, according to Joshi.
The “North American model”
This would be the so-called “North American model” for wildlife conservation, in effect in every U.S. state and at the federal level, promoted globally since 1961 by the World Wildlife Fund.
While the “North American model,” developed in the Theodore Roosevelt era, has helped to a limited extent to conserve wildlife and habitat in the U.S. and Canada, which have relatively large populations of sport hunters who hunt close to home, it has often proved to be a catastrophic failure in developing world nations, where most hunters come from abroad and have little or no local accountability.
The net effect of the “North American model,” in nation after nation is that trophy-sized animals are hunted to the vanishing point, the legal traffic in heads and hides covers for uncontrolled poaching, the hunting industry creates just a fraction as many jobs for locals as non-lethal wildlife tourism, and the large sums of cash paid by hunters to government agencies for trophy permits stokes corruption.
“Mahato’s suggestion and justifications have come under scathing criticism from conservationists, experts, and local communities,” Joshi found when he consulted other sources.
“Hunting just doesn’t work to reduce conflict,” Mark Elbroch of the wild feline conservation group Panthera told Joshi.
University of Michigan associate professor Neil Carter, “who recently studied social networks among tigers in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park using long-term camera trap data,” Joshi noted, “said tigers of different sexes and ages have important roles to play in the social network. That means the loss of individuals central to the network could create disproportionate disruptions to the population,” Joshi paraphrased.
“Nepal faces a dilemma of coexisting with tigers”
Bhim Gurung, among the co-authors of the Carter study, explained to Joshi that “If the main male tiger dies, the survival rate goes down further as the new male tries to kill all cubs born from the previous male.”
Acknowledged Joshi, “Nepal faces a dilemma of coexisting with tigers,” whose numbers have grown from 121 in 2010 to 355 in 2023, about what the tiger population was in 1997.
“At the same time,” Joshi wrote, “the human population has also expanded in the southern plains, where most tigers live, thanks to a successful malaria eradication program.
“Prey densities estimated across the plains and hills of Chitwan-Parsa,” Joshi said, “can support 177 adult tigers. The 2022 census indicates that the population there has already reached 155.”
“Hunting is a terrible idea”
“The population will not continue increasing forever,” Elbroch told Joshi. “Limiting factors such as availability of prey and various climatic factors will come into play.
“But hunting is a terrible idea,” Elbroch concluded.
Relatively well remembered in Nepal, a nation of 30 million people, is that the actions of only three men reduced the tiger population to the brink of extirpation a mere dozen years ago.
One was the notoriously corrupt former King Gyanendra, a hunting enthusiast who ruled Nepal from 2001 to 2008.
Another was the now deceased Indian poacher Sansar Chand, 1958-2014.
The third was the formerly Nepal-based Tibetan wildlife trafficker Tshering Nema, also known as Neema Kampa.
Gyanendra from 1976 to 2006 represented Nepal in dealings with the World Wildlife Fund. Gyanendra was found in March 2008 to have extensively misused funds granted by the World Wildlife Fund and other international conservation organizations to the King Mahendra National Trust for Nature Conservation.
Much of that money was meant to protect tigers and habitat. Diverting those funds to personal use, Gyanendra left much tiger habitat left wide open to poaching, especially during the 10-year Nepalese civil war that raged into 2007.
Following a peace settlement, the Gyanendra regime and the Shah dynasty that had ruled and often misruled Nepal since 1559 was deposed in June 2008, ending monarchy in Nepal.
Chand by then had been jailed in India since 2005, and Nema since 2006.
Among them, however, they and their confederates among two Indian tribal families who invaded nominally protected Nepalise habitat, the Bawariyas and the Beheliyas, had reduced the Nepalese tiger population from about 350 to as few as 120.
Chand is best known for having poached tigers out of Sariska National Park, India, which boasted 35 tigers in 1985.
First arrested for tiger pelt trafficking in 1974, Chand drew a five-year prison term in 2004, was released on bail pending appeal, jumped bail, and was re-arrested on June 30, 2005.
Chand confessed then to Delhi police that the wildlife parts he routed to China through Nepal had included 470 tiger skins, 2,130 leopard skins, 6,000 fox skins, 4,000 cat skins, and 550 otter skins, as well as the bones and teeth of these animals, many of them killed in Nepal, not India.
Tshering Nema, aka Neema Kampa
Jailing Chand and several associates, with Nema still at large, only slowed the traffic.
On September 2, 2005, the Environmental News Service reported, the Royal Nepal Army intercepted five tiger skins, 36 leopard skins, 238 otter skins and 113 kilos of tiger and leopard bones in the Rasuwa district of Nepal, bordering Tibet.
Tshering Nema, also known as Neema Kampa, was finally caught in north Delhi in February 2006, found in alleged possession of the skins of 34 leopards and four otters.
“The consignment was en route to Siliguri in West Bengal,” reported the Times of India, “to be then dispatched to Tibet through Nepal.
Father was in the racket
Nema allegedly relayed poached pelts to Tibet via his father, Tamdin Vangyal of Nepal.
Rajasthan Police spokesperson A.K. Jain said that Vangyal was also in Delhi when Nema was arrested, but eluded capture.
“We have learnt that Vangyal was earlier arrested in Nepal with a consignment of 100 rhino skins, but was released,” Jain said.
If Nepal has 355 tigers now, it is a triumph for anti-poaching efforts since Chand and Nema were brought to justice.
After a decade of intensive poaching, no tigers were known to have been poached in Nepal from 2012 to 2015.
Most tiger deaths in Nepal today appear to be inflicted by other tigers in fights for habitat and mating opportunities, as with pumas in the western U.S.
Even without poaching, the tiger population of Chitwan National Park reportedly dropped from 120 in 2013, when those were almost all the tigers in the country, to 93 in 2018.
But by 2018, 93 tigers represented less than half of the tigers in Nepal.
Some of the loss of tigers from Chitwan was due to mortality, but dispersal was also a big factor, as young tigers left Chitwan to seek new range.
The official tiger population target in Nepal is 250, a number now exceeded by more than 100. Human conflict with tigers, sometimes resulting in the deaths of both people and tigers, is not unknown, especially in surprise encounters and when humans try to protect livestock from tigers.
The Champwat tigress
Outside of those situations, tigers rarely harm humans if other prey are abundant.
There have been noteworthy exceptions. The Champawat tigress, listed in the Guinness Book of Records, reputedly ate 436 humans in Nepal and India. Tiger conservationist Jim Corbett shot her in 1911, hours after she killed a 16-year-old girl.
Corbett, who detested sport hunting, found that the Champwat tigress, who was ten to eleven years old, had previously been shot in the mouth, apparently by a trophy hunter. Her upper and lower right canine teeth had been shattered by an earlier gunshot.
Corbett believed that inability to hunt her normal prey caused Champwat tigress to turn to hunting humans, out of desperation.