It was nearly dusk when A.J.T. Johnsingh set off at his usual forced-march pace down a dusty path hugging the eastern bank of the Ganges River in Rajaji National Park. Johnsingh, one of India's foremost conservation biologists, was looking for tiger tracks, though he hadn't seen any here in years. Every few yards, he trotted off the path and onto the sandy riverbank, calling out the names of birds and plants he spotted along the way. Suddenly he stopped and pointed at a paw print—a tigress. Any other tracks she left had been obliterated by human footprints, bicycle treads and the mingled tracks of cattle, goats, deer, pigs and elephants. But we were thrilled: somewhere, not far away, a tiger was stirring.
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India's Rajaji National Park, which lies 140 miles northeast of New Delhi, is bisected by the slow-moving Ganges just south of where the river tumbles out of the Himalayas. In the past, tigers, elephants and other animals had little trouble crossing the river in this region, but now roads, train tracks, irrigation canals, a multitude of temples and ashrams and a military ammunition depot pose a formidable barrier, creating two separate park areas. The riverside forest Johnsingh led us through is the last mile and a half of corridor between the two parts of Rajaji National Park. Johnsingh has struggled for years to keep this crucial forest link intact so that populations of animals don't get stranded on one side or the other.
Johnsingh, a wildlife biologist with the World Wildlife Fund's India branch and the Nature Conservation Foundation, was excited by the prospect that the tigress might venture across the river and mate with tigers in the western half of Rajaji, giving the isolated, declining tiger population there a much-needed boost of fresh genes. "For more than 20 years I've seen the habitat get mostly worse in Rajaji," Johnsingh said. "This tiger's track on the riverbank tells me we might be turning the corner and that maybe we can restore and maintain tigers in this park, and beyond."
The effort to preserve this habitat spanning the Ganges is but a small part of a grand conservation experiment being conducted at the base of the Himalayas in northern India and western Nepal, along a green ribbon of forest and tall grassland called the Terai (Sanskrit for "lowlands") Arc. One of the world's most diverse landscapes, it is also one of the most imperiled. Between Rajaji and Parsa Wildlife Reserve, about 620 miles to the east in Nepal, lie several protected areas that conservationists hope to string together as a stronghold for tigers, leopards, Asian elephants and other endangered species.
The need for such an approach is acute, and growing. Today, India's economic boom threatens to obliterate the 11 percent of the nation that still shelters large mammals. There is a huge demand for wood and stone for construction. New roads, including one called the Golden Quadrilateral, a multilane highway that links India's major cities, gobble up and fragment wildlife habitat. At the same time, many Indians remain desperately poor. Some people poach wild animals to put food on their tables, and they collect wood from protected forests for cooking. Illegal wildlife traders also hire the poor to poach tigers and other animals, paying them money they cannot match at other jobs. The skin and bones of a tiger fetch traders thousands of dollars on the black market.
In Nepal, the problems have been even worse. A deadly conflict has raged for more than a decade between the government and a homegrown Maoist insurgency. In February 2005, King Gyanendra assumed absolute control of the government. Massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Katmandu and other cities, in which 17 protesters were killed and many more injured, forced him to restore Parliament in April of this year. The Maoists have agreed to peace talks, but whether they will now join the political process or return to armed conflict was an open question as this magazine went to press.
Intense fighting in the past five years has put Nepal's tigers, rhinos and elephants at greater risk, because it has diverted law enforcement's attention away from the illegal killing of wild animals, which appears to be on the rise. The hostilities have also scared away tourists—one of the nation's largest sources of foreign exchange. Tourism gives value to wildlife and helps ensure its survival.
In a sense, the protected areas of the Terai Arc frame a big idea—that tigers, elephants, rhinos and human beings can live together along the base of the Himalayas, one of the most beautiful places on earth. The notion of creating vast international conservation areas by linking smaller ones isn't new—some conservationists have proposed connecting Yellowstone to the Yukon, for instance—but nowhere has the approach gone as far as it has in the Terai Arc. This past fall, we traveled the length of the region on behalf of the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park and the conservation organization Save the Tiger Fund. On previous visits we'd seen signs of flourishing wildlife. But given a recent plague of poaching in India and the hostilities in Nepal, we wondered how much would be left.
The brothers A. S. and N. S. Negi are separated by 18 years of age but are united in their passion for conservation. N. S., now 81, served for many years as a forest ranger in Corbett National Park, 20 miles to the east of Rajaji; A. S. Negi was Corbett's director in the early 1990s. Now both retired, the brothers and Johnsingh formed a small organization called Operation Eye of the Tiger in 1996 to protect tigers and preserve their beloved park, named for Jim Corbett, the British hunter who killed numerous man-eating tigers in northern India in the first half of the 20th century. We met up with the Negi brothers in the bucolic Mandal Valley that forms the northern boundary of the park.
Eye of the Tiger has helped 1,200 families in the area buy liquid petroleum gas connectors, which allows them to cook with gas instead of wood. This has helped reduce the amount of firewood burned by each family by up to 6,600 to 8,800 pounds per year. Not only does this save the forest for wildlife, it also saves women and girls from the arduous task of collecting firewood—and the danger of encountering a tiger or elephant. Unfortunately, A. S. Negi says, the price of bottled gas, once low, is rising in energy-hungry India and may soon be out of reach of most villagers. Through additional subsidies, the Negis told us, they persuaded some villagers to replace their free-ranging scrub cattle, which graze in wildlife habitat, with animals that yield more milk and are not allowed to roam. But we wondered what such small steps might have to do with tiger conservation.