By Navin Singh Khadka
BBC Nepali Service
Big cats have been poached for their pelt and bones
Conservationists in Nepal say efforts to save the nation's dwindling tiger populations are facing a twin attack.
They have recorded a significant decrease in the number of the endangered species in some of the protected areas of the country.
The bad news comes just as concern is growing over the immigration of traditional hunting and poaching communities from neighbouring India.
During the 10-year Maoist conflict, which ended two years ago, poachers were already active in some conserved areas, cashing in on the absence of army personnel who were otherwise engaged in the conflict with the then rebels. Some of these poachers had been identified as Nepalese nationals.
The recent decline in tiger population, however, has coincided with the arrival of the Indian hunting tribes.
A recent count in the western Nepalese Shuklaphanta wildlife reserve, which shares an open border with India, has shown a decrease of about 50% in tiger numbers from just three years ago.
The 10-year Maoist conflict took troops away from wildlife protection patrols
Initial results of a tiger count in another nearby protected area, the Bardiya National Park, are not good either.
"It is very disturbing news," says Diwakar Chapagain of conservation group WWF, which supported the government in the tiger count.
"More so when there are indications that the tigers did not die natural deaths," he added.
Following the tiger count in Shuklaphanta wildlife reserve, the report submitted by the tiger task force concluded that there had not been a noticeable decline in the tigers' key prey species.
"(Therefore) tiger mortality due to natural deaths and through poaching is worth exploring," it recommended.
But conservationists closely monitoring poaching and illegal trading of wildlife believe they have some explanation for the observed decreases.
They say members of Indian traditional hunting communities - Bawariyas and Beheliyas - have been increasingly moving in after being hounded out by authorities in India.
"From our informers on the ground, we have information that more than 50 Bawariyas and Beheliyas families have entered Nepal and they are now in Nepalese-protected areas and jungles," says Prasanna Yonjan of Wildlife Conservation Nepal, which has helped officials catch illegal wildlife traders and traffickers.
Hem Aryal, the forest officer in Banke district (where the Bardiya National park is located), says he has been tipped off about the arrival of the hunting communities by Indian authorities.
"In one of our recent bilateral meetings, Indian officials with the border security force told us that they had noticed some movement of these hunting tribes in border areas," he said. "We are therefore on high alert."
After arresting an illegal wildlife trafficker recently, Aryal's team is even more convinced that the hunters and poachers are already active in the Nepalese side.
"This trafficker revealed to us that the leopard skin he was carrying was given to him by Indian hunters; their description perfectly matched with what the Indian officials have told us," he said.
Some conservationists in India share the same opinion as their Nepalese counterparts about the recent tiger poaching and the arrival of traditional Indian hunters.
Traffickers use devices like double-sided number plates to evade detection
"I believe there is a definite connection between the arrival of gangs of Bawariyas and Beheliyas in Nepal and the decline in tiger numbers there," says Belinda Wright, executive director of Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), a non-governmental organisation.
Although none of the members of these communities have been arrested in Nepal so far, some of them were detained in India last December.
According to WPSI, which took part in the police operation, 12 of the 16 people arrested with three tiger skins and skeletons in Allahabad of Uttar Pradesh, were from the Beheliyas community.
After years of being chased by Indian authorities, members of the Bawariyas and Beheliyas communities have now come across into the Nepali territory in search of safe haven, conservationists believe.
"At least five of them are on the wanted list of the CBI (one of the Indian intelligence agencies)," says Ms Wright.
"Members of these nomadic communities travel in small groups often with women and children. They usually set up camp 5-10km from a protected area with good wildlife populations.
"Men do the poaching, often assisted by local contacts, while women act as couriers carrying the skins and bones to their home base or to a known buyer."
The tiger population in India has halved within a matter of a few years - from 3,000 just a couple of years ago to 1,500 today.
In Nepal, previous estimations showed the number of tigers to be about 350.
But conservationists say the recent count in some of the protected areas suggests that the number must have dwindled drastically.
Skins and bones of tigers and leopards are among the most frequently seized illegal wildlife goods in Nepal.
Wildlife officials say at least three such contrabands are seized across the country every month.
The biggest seizure to date took place in 2005, in Langtang National Park, north of Kathmandu.
An army patrol had then found more than 240 tiger and leopard skins in a truck heading towards Tibet.
Security officials and conservationists said most of the tiger products either originated in Nepal or were smuggled in from other countries like India, Bangladesh and Bhutan, and were often destined for China.
While the illegal trade continues to be a serious threat to Nepal's conservation efforts, the arrival of the Indian traditional hunters and poachers is sure to add up to its challenge.