This Nepali Man Lost an Eye to a Tiger. Now, He Fights to Save Them.

As he healed from a tiger attack, Bhadai Tharu found new respect for the wild animal. But after helping to double their numbers, he’s faced with a new loss — the trust of those who live near the dangerous beasts.

Read this story in
This Nepali Man Lost an Eye to a Tiger. Now, He Fights to Save Them.

Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal

Bhadai Tharu, left, and Shukna Tharu, a local game scout, survey for tigers inside Gauri Mahila Community Forest.

BARDIYA, NEPAL — It was a version of the same dream Bhadai Tharu had been having for months. And for someone who believed in dreams, he kept thinking what the meaning could possibly be. That January morning in 2004, Tharu, then 36, woke up and vividly remembered his dream: A tiger was gobbling down a deer in Gauri Mahila Community Forest in western Nepal. The thought of it made him restless, and he had a feeling that something bad would happen soon.

Nevertheless, the same day, Tharu — who was then chairman of the community forest — and his wife, like others in the area, entered the forest to harvest grass, used by villagers to thatch the rooftops of their houses.

It was early afternoon, and the weather was foggy. The community forest was filled with tall grass, locally known as khaar, dense enough to hide a person or an animal. As soon as Tharu came close to the grass, a tiger pounced on him. Tharu froze. The tiger scooped out his eye. Despite being badly hurt, Tharu says he put up a fight that lasted perhaps five minutes. “I never thought that I would fight with a tiger like this,” he says. But seeing Tharu fight back, the tiger left. Its roar reverberated in the forest. Tharu, with the help of his wife and some locals, rushed to the nearby hospital, his eyeball hanging out of its socket.

expand image
expand slideshow

Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal

Bhadai Tharu, center, returns with forest watchers and representatives of wildlife organizations to the office of the Khata Community Forest Coordination Committee.

Fast-forward to 2024. Tharu, 56, is a well-known name in tiger conservation in the country and has received several national and international awards, including an honor in 2017 from Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and the 2004 Abraham Conservation Award, on behalf of the community forest, from WWF Nepal, the local arm of the World Wide Fund For Nature, an award that recognizes grassroots efforts that make significant contributions to protect Nepal’s biodiversity.

Tharu’s contribution toward tiger conservation makes him a valuable resource for the country, says Ajay Karki, deputy director general of the parks and wildlife department.

But Tharu also has his fair share of critics. As the population of tigers in Nepal has increased, so have tiger attacks.

A new vision

It was after the tiger attack that Tharu became closely involved in tiger conservation work. At first, the pain of the wounds made him angry, and he says he was filled with a desire to seek revenge. But as he started to heal, he changed his mind. While he always thought that saving the forest was his job, after the attack saving the tigers became his duty. He says he realized that since humans go uninvited to the forest, the home of the tigers, “it was natural for the tiger to attack.”

His passion synched with the country’s own aspirations with respect to tigers.

In 2010, Nepal joined 12 other countries at the Global Tiger Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Globally, tiger numbers had plummeted from 100,000 to below 3,500, according to data presented at the summit. Nepal pledged to double its tiger population, from 121 to 250, by 2022. The country achieved that goal, and in 2022 received the TX2 Award and Conservation Excellence Award from a consortium of international environmental groups. The TX2 Award, which stands for “tigers times two,” highlighted the role of Bardiya National Park, one of the largest in Nepal. Out of 355 wild tigers in Nepal, there were 117 in Bardiya National Park alone. Tharu was at the forefront of the work done at the national park.

But Tharu’s rise to fame has come at a price.

expand image
expand slideshow

Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal

Bhadai Tharu leads forest watchers and representatives of wildlife organizations through Gauri Mahila Community Forest in the Khata Corridor of the park, and inspects a tree marked by tiger claws.

With the increase in the population of tigers came an increase in conflicts between tigers and rural communities. In 2012-2013, five people died in tiger attacks in the country; in 2021-2022, the number rose to 21. Since 2018, 59 people have died due to tiger attacks across five national wildlife parks, according to data from the parks and wildlife department. There is no doubt human-tiger conflicts have increased, spokesperson Bed Kumar Dhakal says, but in many cases the reason is that people have deliberately entered restricted areas where tigers live.

As more people die, blame falls on the man at the forefront of saving these big cats. But Tharu says taking care of tigers is his passion. “If I don’t see a tiger in the forest when I go out, I don’t feel happy,” he says.

From pain to pride

Tharu was born in a village in Madhuwan municipality into an indigenous ethnic group, the Tharus. His family depended on agriculture for its livelihood, and still does. He enrolled in primary school but never took the exams, and instead focused on farming.

A round-faced man with a cheerful demeanor, Tharu always carries a smile and his wounds as reminders of what happened two decades ago. The tiger attack changed his life. His treatment lasted a year, after which he was able to function normally, but it took three years to recover completely from the wounds that also marked his chest and hands.

Tharu narrates the story of that day with a practiced air and a sense of pride. On the gray wall of his living room, over the door leading into the house, Tharu has neatly displayed his eight awards in decorative frames. On the other wall is a huge poster of a growling tiger.

After recovering, Tharu helped establish a five-member poaching control team in his community forest to prevent poaching of wild animals. By meeting personally with local users of various community forests and working closely with the forest authorities and the police, Tharu played a role in stopping poachers. In addition to being the chairman of the committee overseeing Gauri Mahila Community Forest, he is also vice chairman of the Khata Community Forest Coordination Committee, an umbrella organization of 38 community forests.

expand image
expand slideshow

Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal

Bhadai Tharu, right, and Shukna Tharu inspect the banks of a river for tiger tracks and signs of poachers inside Gauri Mahila Community Forest.

From construction of grazing areas inside the forest, to building water ponds for tigers, to giving immediate information about injured tigers to concerned offices, Tharu has kept himself involved in every aspect of tiger conservation. “He has also worked to educate the local people about the etiquettes of the forest and how to behave, and what to wear or do if they accidentally go to a tiger’s area,” says Santa Bahadur Magar, a ranger at Bardiya National Park.

Some of those guidelines include not going alone into the forest, but instead going in groups; walking with a stick; wearing green and other natural-looking colors as opposed to red; and not running if you encounter a tiger.

Entering the forest

But as soon as a tiger kills another human in the area, Tharu says, muffled or direct abuses start up again. Recently, he claims he received death threats, but never went to the police to file complaints. Kul Raj Budha, secretary of the Khata Community Forest Coordination Committee, says that after the death of a local woman due to a tiger attack in September 2023, there was a protest in Madhuwan municipality. Some protesters openly threatened to kill Tharu.

Bardiya National Park administrators say they are doing their bit by building fences around the parks, among other things, to prevent such incidents. Despite efforts to persuade farmers to adopt more wildlife-friendly practices, “they continue to enter the forest to collect grass and firewood,” says Ashish Neupane, assistant conservation officer at the park.

A tiger attacked Bishnu Budhathoki while she was cutting grass in the forest. “Let the government bring grass and firewood home, and we will not go to the forest,” says Jhak Bahadur Budhathoki, her husband.

Human settlements are spread across the Khata Corridor, the primary route for wildlife crossing between Nepal’s Bardiya National Park and India’s Katarniyaghat Wildlife Santuary. Those living on the periphery of the forest are generally socially marginalized, financially poor and greatly dependent on forest resources. For them, visiting the forest frequently is necessary to meet their basic needs.

Locals have protested and demanded safety from tigers in the corridor since 2022, says Asha Ram Tharu, a ward chairman in Madhuwan municipality. That is the year when police opened fire on protesting villagers. A teenage girl was killed. Asha Ram Tharu says that till about 10 years ago, there was no fear of wild animals.

Statistics provided by Bardiya National Park show that between 2008 and 2019 there were no deaths due to tiger attacks, though such deaths were recorded in other national parks. Between 1999 and 2007, four people died in such attacks in Bardiya National Park.

expand image
expand slideshow

Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal

Bhadai Tharu, right, and Shukna Tharu pause to converse under a lookout tower inside Gauri Mahila Community Forest.

In the past 10 years, overlapping uses of park space have led to an increase in the frequency of tiger-human incidents.

While the tiger population has increased in the Khata Corridor, tiger habitat has not expanded, says Prakash Kumar Poudel, president of the nonprofit Society for Conservation Biology Nepal. “Similarly, while the number of tigers is increasing, as there is a lack of proper management of their food supply in the forest, the tigers reach the villages in search of food.”

To increase their numbers, the government from 2011 to 2018 spent 46.6 million Nepali rupees (350,000 United States dollars) on tiger conservation efforts across all five national wildlife parks. Most of the money provided food and a safe habitat to the animals, says Dhakal, the parks and wildlife department spokesperson. But that investment stopped when Nepal reached its goal of doubling the tiger population.

Locals say they have no problem with efforts to save the animal, as long as humans do not get killed in the process. “We are not anti-tiger, but we too have to live in safety,” says Kalu Ram Tharu, who led a protest in Madhuwan municipality.

Ram Krishna Tharu, a local resident, says it was only after locals started dying because of tiger attacks that many of them got to know Bhadai Tharu.

“They are protecting tigers for personal profit,” Jhak Bahadur Budhathoki says.

Bhadai Tharu laughs off the accusations. He admits that, like everyone, he is also scared of tigers. But he also believes that they should be allowed to live freely like humans. And no matter how many threats people make, he will not shy away from his duty to protect wildlife, he says.

Yam Kumari Kandel is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Nepal.


Sunil Pokhrel, GPJ, translated this article from Nepali.

Related Stories