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When the world's charismatic mammals–rhinos, elephants, tigers, lions, oh my–have all seen periods of decline in the last decade, it's hard to find bright spots when it comes to conservation. But holy cow, Nepal has cracked the code. Last year was the worst year for rhino poaching in decades, but in Nepal the population of Asiatic one-horned rhinos grew, without a single recorded poaching event. And while tigers continue to be poached for their magical bones, Nepal has seen enough growth that it's now considering capping species' growth to curb attacks on humans.
Now, I've got no problem that when I first heard about the story, I got a little salty, which wasn't fair. It's a matter of framing: It's not that Nepal has decided it's had enough of conservation, it's that it's done such a good job with its efforts so far that, at this juncture, it has to figure out how to curb a growing problem of human-animal interactions before it moves any farther.
Or, in other words, Nepal's managed to grow its populations of elephants, leopards, tigers, and other species so well that attacks on humans have increased. And while wanting to protect endangered species is a good thing, it's also quite selfish to think that people living near reserves should just put up with, say, leopards terrorizing entire communities.
"Before, we used to record about 30 human deaths because of wildlife attacks annually but in the past few years the figure appears to have risen significantly," Nepalese Forest Ministry spokesman Krishna Acharya told the BBC.
Wild animals attacking humans is a horrible thing on its own, and in conservation terms, attacks can turn popular sentiment against rare species and hamper conservation efforts in the future. Look no farther than the glee with which some hunters have been killing wolves here in the US. Nepal has already dedicated about a quarter of its country to protected land and reserves, and the dramatic rise in human-animal interactions suggests those parks are beginning to fill up. Big cats in particular are territorial and require huge ranges, and once reserves get filled up, they have no problem spreading into buffer zones, especially in community forests managed by farmers.
The reality for Nepal is that it's unlikely to be able to dedicate any more land to conservation, especially as the Nepalese human population grows as well. Capping species growth is a bummer from a strictly numerical standpoint, as it sucks to hamper growth of endangered species in an environment that's fostering said growth. But it's also not possible to leave humans and animals constantly in conflict, and we can't blame Nepalese conservationists for being good at their jobs. So, while caps are being discussed, there are two other things that can be done to help foster healthy growth of endangered species like tigers.
The first is translocation. If Nepal can't house all of its leopards, but is seeing population growth, why not send them elsewhere? India, for one, has renewed interest in tiger tourism–which is a good way to build support for tiger reserves–and poaching has left populations there depressed. The only problem is that moving animals isn't as easy as shipping furniture. Translocation of tigers can be hit or miss, and, as Brian Switek pointed out, doing it with elephants may be a downright bad idea. That's not to mention that it's incredibly costly. But for very rare species, it may be an option for buffering populations elsewhere, and I'm glad to see that Nepal will at least be exploring what it might be able to do.
More broadly, making current ranges more effective is also key. The most immediate thing Nepal can do to try to curb human-animal interactions is to more clearly demarcate boundaries between reserves and human areas. Nepal can also try to make its buffer zones more effective at containing humans and animals in their areas, although there's no clear answer as to how buffer zones should work, and Nepal's community farms are anecdotally very popular with the species in question.
Additionally, increasing the connectivity of reserves can produce higher-quality territories. While Nepal is pretty limited in what new land it can dedicate, creating larger patchworks of reserves in India and elsewhere can increase the viability of that land, and potentially increase the effectiveness of translocation activities by further isolating translocated individuals from human activity.
The fact of the matter is that Nepal is a conservation bright spot; it's a country that's taken conservation seriously and has the results to show it. But having too many animals to deal with is a huge problem, especially if you live in leopard territory. That highlights the very reality of conservation today: Habitat loss is the leading driver of long-term population decline for many species, and even with successful conservation programs, there's a limit to how much wild land we can preserve, which in turns gives a real limit to how many tigers, leopards, and the like that we can actually support.