How water may hold the key to tiger conservation in the Himalayas

Photo of a tiger footprint
A tiger pugmark in the dry earth. Photo: Mayuri Phukan

Through a combination of fundamental research and collaboration with societal partners, Save the tiger! Save the grasslands! Save the water! aims to help provide a sustainable habitat for the tiger population living in the Himalayan foothills. 

There are roughly 5500 wild tigers alive in the world today. The foothills of the Nepalese, Indian and Bhutanese Himalayas are particularly important for tiger conservation, but the grasslands nourishing the free-roaming deer that these large felines rely upon for prey are deteriorating quickly. And although climate change and other land use-related human activity like deforestation and urbanisation are well understood to be driving this, it’s water that lies at the heart of the issue.

This is why an ambitious transdisciplinary collaboration between Utrecht University and a broad consortium of academic and non-academic partners in the Netherlands and Nepal is trying to unravel the complex, intertwined relationship between climate, rivers, groundwater, land-use and grazing at the foot of the Nepalese Himalayas. The aim: to help provide a sustainable habitat for the tiger population.

To learn more we spoke to project PhD researchers Mayuri Phukan and Pranisha Pokhrel, both based at Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, to hear more about this important research, the central role of water, and their exciting fieldwork in these little-studied areas.

Photo of Pranisha Pokhrel during fieldwork
Pranisha Pokhrel at a meteorological station in the Karnali River Catchment. Photo:

Understanding the impact of changes upstream

The conservation of grasslands and the tiger is directly linked to our understanding of how climate change and socio-economic developments today and in the future will affect water availability, explains Pranisha Pokhrel. Pokhrel’s research focuses on Nepal’s mountainous and remote Karnali River Catchment. “I'm trying to understand how changes upstream affect the discharge into the floodplain, and pinpoint the causes of these changes”. With a Bachelor's in Civil Engineering specialising in Hydropower and four years working in Nepal's Hydropower sector, Pokhrel is passionate about water. “Pursuing a Master’s at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education further fueled my interest in continuing my academic journey as a PhD candidate”. 

Pokhrel’s insights will support further research on floodplain dynamics and groundwater and feed into water management strategies that the project will develop further down the line.

Photo of Mayuri Phukan
Mayuri Phukan. Photo:

Understanding the water system supporting grasslands

Mayuri Phukan’s PhD research takes us to water below the surface. She focuses on how the groundwater hydrology of a Himalayan megafan and surface water-groundwater dynamics impact the grasslands of the Bardia National Park in Nepalese foothills. “A megafan refers to a large fan-shaped deposition of sediment carried by rivers or streams as they flow out of a mountain range onto a flat or gently sloping plain,” she explains. The natural and manmade grasslands around this megafan are important grazing sites for tiger prey. “It is important to understand the water system that supports the natural functioning of these grasslands so that we can develop the right policies to preserve them”.

Phukan, who has a background in physics and water resource management, is not new to this type of research. “Before joining the PhD program I worked as a researcher in an Indian think-tank specialised in hydrological modelling, flood adaptation and river basin management, she explains. “By constructing hydrological and ecohydrological models we can see how the Bardia National Park grasslands will respond to different levels of stress that come with a changing climate and land use.”

Photo of a river in Nepal
Water levels have been decreasing during the dry season in Bardia National Park. Photo: Mayuri Phukan

Out into the field

Phukan is currently in Nepal for fieldwork. “It’s been a very interesting process so far. Not many studies have been conducted in the area on groundwater hydrology, so data is sparse”. The area has three major rivers and several seasonal streams flowing through it. However, over the years the water in these channels has been decreasing during the dry season. “We also observe that groundwater levels are decreasing, which impacts not only the vegetation and wildlife but also people living in adjacent areas who must construct deeper wells for access to water for their homes and irrigation”.

Photo of meteorological station in Nepal
Pokhrel traveled along the hills of the Karnali River Catchment to establish a network of meteorological stations. Photo: Pranisha Pokhrel

Pokhrel, on the other hand, is back in Utrecht. Last autumn, she traveled with a team of researchers along the hills of the Karnali River Catchment to establish a network of meteorological stations at elevations ranging from 639 to 2980 meters above sea level. The stations provide a wide range of data on precipitation, solar radiation, humidity, temperature, soil moisture, wind gusts, and wind direction. “This information collected from stations will help us establish historical trends and verify the hydrological model for the entire basin, which is crucial for understanding future water availability” she explains. 

A focus on Dutch-Nepalese cooperation

A key aim of the project is to establish Dutch–Nepalese cooperation through knowledge sharing. For Phukan this is a major plus: “During my fieldwork I have the opportunity to meet and work with very warm local Nepalese residents, technicians and workers. While we do not really speak each other’s languages, we manage to meet in between to conduct the research and learn from each other”. The researchers hope that the project insights will not only benefit the tigers and biodiversity more generally, but also improve water access for the local residents.

We have one final burning question left: have they managed to catch a glimpse of a tiger in the flesh? “Unfortunately not yet, only their pugmarks!”

Save the tiger! Save the grasslands! Save the water! is made up of a broad network of academic and non-academic partners in the Netherlands and Nepal.

Consortium partners: Utrecht University, TU Delft, VU Amsterdam, Wageningen University & Research, HAN University of Applied Science, HVHL University of Applied Science, HAS University of Applied Science, National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC)

Co-financing partners: Himalayan Tiger Foundation, Rotterdam Zoo, VanderSat, Swansea University, Practical Action

Collaborators: Kathmandu University, Tribhuvan University, Wildlife Institute of India, Office of Bardia National Park, Sensing Clues Foundation, Buffer Zone User Committee of Bardiya, Tharu Women Upliftment Centre , Ujayalo Nepal, Smartphones For Water Nepal, ICIMOD, Nature Conservation Foundation, Snow Leopard Trust, Prof. em. Herbert Prins