January 2011. We crawled through the traffic of Kathmandu, choked with motorcycles and Indian transports, met Nepal’s charismatic Minister of Environment at a roadside stand, and together made our way south toward Chitwan National Park. It was there that we would find a young male Bengal Tiger who was forced out of Chitwan, an overcrowded haven, and was recuperating from an injury. I’d accompany WWF staff and the Nepalese government to move him to the safer and more prey-dense forests of Bardia National Park in the westernmost corner of the country.
Wild tigers have become something of an anomaly on today’s planet. WWF scientists across the 13 countries where they still exist recently completed a census and put the number at about 3,200. Poaching for skins and aphrodisiacs is perhaps the biggest and most obvious problem. But we all have a role where this precipitous decline is concerned. Products that we consume or use each and every day--oils, energy bars, soaps, coffee, tea, biofuels, candy--have all torn up tiger habitat and have played a significant role in obliterating 95% of the 100,000 tigers that once roamed the wilds across Asia. That’s why I’m reaching out to a long list of early adopter companies looking to minimize the impact of raw material extraction on tiger habitat.
That number--3,200--is dangerously low. WWF, our conservation partners in the NGO community, governments, businesses and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio had all recently drawn a line in the sand for tigers at a high-profile conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, hosted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Saving the species, we’d decided, begins with knowing the whereabouts and behavior of all 3,200 of them. Each and every one. Nepal is leading the charge.
Our to-be-translocated tiger in Chitwan would get set up with a collar that would make it the envy of any well-respecting cat: a TrackTag and GPS Plus-2010. The TrackTag unit would take and record 60,000 locations (called fixes), one every 15 minutes on a single battery. The coupled GPS unit would send live data via satellite every six hours. In about 18 months the collar is designed to drop and send a signal so we can go pick it up, analyze the TrackTag data, and understand the roaming behavior of these big cats. The GPS signal and a little help from our friends at Google would give us something close to a live feed and assist us if the animal seemed to be heading in a direction that would mean trouble.
It’s not a cheap operation. The equipment, tranquilizing, data transmission and air time run about $16,000 apiece. We’re experimenting with cheaper options, but for now that number holds my attention, as does the thought of keeping those data out of the hands of people looking to make a fortune off selling tigers to wealthy individuals--particularly in Asia, where vendors are eager for the perceived prestige and power of including tiger parts in wine, ornamentation, and pharmaceuticals.
Before we darted the tiger, I approached and a roar unlike anything I had ever experienced transformed the scene--a good 20 yards from the cat and the ground literally shook. As did my hands when the sedative took hold and I tightened the final bolt of the collar of the sedated animal as the chief vet shouted “hurry up, hurry up” in Nepali.
All went according to plan. Tiger dosed. Tiger's length, tail, paws, and teeth all measured. Everything bigger than expected. And the astonishing fur softer than I imagined. We placed him in a custom-built cage in the back of a truck with a bumper that reads: "Conservation for Development," emblematic of the human-based approach to conservation in Nepal. Then 11 hours of driving across the Southern end of Nepal--across rutted roads glutted with overloaded buses, Tata trucks from India, motorcycles, rickshaws, cattle, and people. We passed through landscapes where we are engaging this mass of humanity in restoring forests and rebuilding connections for tiger corridors. This landscape, dotted with parks, and rural poor populations in between is known as the Terai Arc landscape, one of several last stands for reversing the decline in tiger populations and giving the world hope that we can save this animal before it’s gone.
We arrived in Bardia after dark, and woke up early the next morning, drove two hours into the most remote section of the park, set the cage, climbed nearby sal trees, lifted the cage’s cover and waited. Nothing. Not a sound. All of us anxious for this to work and to remain high enough to be safe. Just as the nerves were approaching their climax, someone slammed a truck door and out shot the tiger. He bolted though the forest. Out of sight in under 10 heartbeats. I’d never seen anything so powerful move through a forest like this.
The next three days we retraced our steps through communities where we are using other technologies to reduce their dependence on forests, across a landscape where a pioneering combination of laser and satellite imagery can inventory forest carbon for sale on global markets, and finally to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, who according to legend was reincarnated from a prince named Namobuddha who sacrificed himself to save a dying tiger in the woods.
A week later my WWF-Nepal colleagues sent me a note along with a detailed map of where the tiger, named Namobuddha, had moved, and established his territory:
"Carter--great news! We just picked up a signal from our tiger and followed him on elephant up into the highlands. He made his first kill and appears to be adjusting nicely to Bardia."
One reason this release took on such importance was it represented an opening to do more. The Nepalese government has committed to collaring 10 tigers in the coming months.
We all know that collars and data aren't the final solution. They're an important part of a much bigger program both in Nepal and globally to eliminate poaching and to protect and restore the tiger's habitat. A central component to that job hinges on measuring, valuing and trading one of the world's most abundant elements: carbon. More on that later.
As President and CEO of WWFUS, Carter Roberts leads World Wildlife Fund’s work to save endangered species and their habitats through innovative programs with governments, businesses and local communities throughout the world. WWF, famous for its panda logo, is the world largest conservation network, with over 6 million members and programs across 100 countries.