By Gopal Sharma
KATHMANDU (Reuters) - The number of wild Royal Bengal tigers in Nepal has increased to 198, a 63.6 percent rise in five years, a government survey of the big cats showed.
The findings are crucial for the protection of endangered tigers facing the threat of extinction from poachers for the lucrative trade in their parts, encroachment of habitat by villagers due to the rise in human settlements and loss of prey.
Conflicts between people and wild animals are frequent in Nepal, which has pledged to double the population of tigers by the year 2022 from an estimated 2010 level of 125.
"This is very encouraging," said Maheshwar Dhakal, an ecologist with Nepal's National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Department, adding that the Himalayan nation was on target to achieve its goal ahead of the deadline.
"But the increased numbers have also added to our responsibilities and challenges for the conservation of tigers," Dhakal told Reuters after releasing the findings of the four-month survey late on Monday.
The study was supported by the conservation group WWF and the United States.
Conservation experts credit the increase to effective policing of national parks, stronger anti-poaching drives and better management of tiger habitats in Nepal, where forests cover 29 percent of the land.
Nepal needs to carefully protect the habitat and animals on which tigers prey so the big cats have enough space to roam and food to eat, experts said.
As the number of tigers have increased over the years, so have incidents of conflict with villagers.
Seven people were killed in attacks by tigers around national parks last year compared to four in 2011, park officials said.
Villagers are also seeking better protection.
"Government is making conservation plans for tigers. But it should also come up with plans to protect people from tigers," Krishna Bhurtel, a local village headman in Chitwan, told Nepali newspaper Nagarik. Chitwan is home to more than 100 tigers.
Wildlife authorities captured a tiger in Chitwan after it killed two people, including a villager who was pulled from his bed in May.
Thousands of tigers once roamed the forests in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. But their numbers have plummeted to just about 3,000 now, wildlife experts say.
Diwakar Chapagain, who heads a WWF Nepal unit which monitors wildlife trade, said tiger skins were in high demand in Tibet where well-heeled people use them as festival costumes.
In Nepal, kings used to stand on tiger skins in front of stuffed tigers for special occasions. The monarchy was abolished in 2008.
Some affluent Nepalis have mounted tiger heads on the walls of their living rooms.
Tiger parts are also in high demand for use in traditional Chinese medicines, conservationists say.
"The trade in tiger parts is lucrative and fetches thousands of dollars in illegal markets," WWF official Chapagain said highlighting the threat tigers face.
(The story was corrected to remove reference to "tiger balm" in penultimate paragraph)
(Reporting by Gopal Sharma, editing by Paul Casciato)