In 2005, Nepal recorded 277,000 foreign visitors, down from 492,000 in 1999. Although tourists have largely escaped the attention of Maoist rebels, some visitors have been forced to pay a "tax" to armed insurgents. The possibility of getting caught in a crossfire or of being blown up by one of the mines that lurk under certain roads has kept tourists away. In Baghmara, on the northern border of Chitwan, tourist dollars offer an incentive to villages to tolerate tigers and rhinos, but with tourism at a nadir and tiger attacks on the rise, tolerance is wearing thin.
The Save the Tiger Fund recently reported that tigers now live in only 7 percent of their historic ranges across Asia. At the same time, the amount of habitat occupied by tigers has fallen by 40 percent in the last ten years. After 35 years of working to promote the conservation of tigers and other large mammals, we find these statistics terribly depressing. But the Terai Arc is one of the few bright spots highlighted in the report.
Despite the obstacles—from boulder-mining to crop-raiding—our traverse of the arc largely confirmed the report's optimism and helped dispel our gloom. Here, tiger numbers are increasing and tiger habitat is improving. Elephant numbers are also on the rise, and rhinos will surely rebound if anti-poaching efforts can be resumed. Local people are benefiting from conservation, too, although much more needs to be done—such as surrounding crops with trenches or plants unpalatable to animals and building more watchtowers—to protect them from wild animals roaming their backyards.
If the goal of a connected, international conservation landscape comes to fruition, the arc may become one of the rare places where tigers, rhinos and Asian elephants survive in the wild. How it fares will tell us whether people and wildlife can thrive together or if that is just a dream.
John Seidensticker is a scientist at Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park and Susan Lumpkin is communications director of Friends of the National Zoo.