When their lease expired in mid-July, resorts located within Chitwan National Park thought they would renew the agreement as they usually do before the autumn tourist season, and business would go on as usual. This time the renewal process has become snarled in politics, and the six resorts inside the Park are bracing themselves for the worst.
The government had decided against renewing the lease in 2010, but then let the resorts stay for another two years because of Nepal Tourism Year 2011. On Thursday the Cabinet formed a committee made up of the Ministers of Forest, Finance, Tourism and Environment to look into the issue and submit a report for further action. Resort owners had wanted an independent research team to study the net impact of the resorts and the Park's carrying capacity. They say they are willing to abide by the verdict of the study, and leave the Park in five years if it is negative.
"It's all about money and politics, it is not about conservation and wildlife," says one outraged resort owner who declined to be named, "why else would the ministry deliberately cut itself off from the crores we pay in royalty to the Park every year?"
Krishna Prasad Acharya, director general of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), says the lodges within the Park are internationally-recognised models for sustainable ecotourism which have worked well for years. But Acharya said the Department would be bound by whatever decision the government takes.
The resorts inside the Park include Tiger Tops which pioneered ecotourism in Nepal with its tree-top rooms and put Chitwan on the international tourism map since the 1970s. Resort owners say the autumn season is now ruined because it is too late to take reservations. Some 3,000 employees of these hotels have demanded alternative employment, and threatened an agitation.
Tiger Tops is taking bookings for the autumn, but shifting guests to its Karnali Lodge and Tharu Lodge properties at extra expense. The annual international elephant polo tournament is also being moved from Chitwan to Bardia.
"Tourism doesn't kill tigers, and there is no scientific evidence that Tiger Tops has been detrimental to the environment. In fact there is evidence to the contrary that it is a positive force for conservation, the national park and the country," Chairman of Tiger Tops, Kristjan Edwards, told Nepali Times.
The dispute between resorts situated inside and outside the Park is not new. Those outside say they cannot compete with those inside, as they cannot take private elephants inside the Park for safaris unless they pay a fee, and can only offer guests elephant rides through the buffer zone.
Resorts located within the Park do not have this problem as their elephants already live inside the park. But owners of the resorts within the park say they have to pay hefty royalties for their location and other facilities. Tiger Tops alone pays the government Rs 10 million a year. The five other hotels incude Safari Narayani, Chitwan Jungle Lodge, Machan Wildlife, Island Jungle Resort and Temple Tiger.
Resort owners also reject criticism that the presence of tourists inside the Park disturbs wildlife, arguing that most guests are ecologically conscious and in any case the presence of the hotel is a deterrence against poachers. Studies conducted over the past 40 years show that Chitwan's famous rhino and tiger populations have rebounded. In fact, there has been zero poaching of tigers and rhinos for over a year now.
There was actually a spurt in tiger and rhino poaching just after the war ended when some of the resorts had closed down. Officials at the DNPWC confirm that the presence of the lodges has made it easier to keep a check on poaching.
Whether the licences are renewed or not, it is clear Chitwan National Park needs resorts in its immediate vicinity catering to high-end tourists who support the upkeep of the Park. If the resorts inside the Park are closed, the caretaker function they fulfilled over the years must also be maintained.
Chitwan National Park was established in 1970 at a time when tigers and rhinos there had nearly been hunted into extinction. Today, the tiger population has rebounded to at least 130, and there are more than 500 rhinos besides scores of other mammals and more than 420 species of birds.
Chitwan is listed as a World Heritage Site, and UNESCO representative in Nepal, Axel Plathe, said: "In theory, businesses within the Park are not only protecting a UNESCO world heritage site, but also investing in the development of surrounding areas. Such decisions should be made on a bureaucratic, not political level."
Chitwan wildlife experts say decades of ecotourism efforts and Nepal's attraction as a major wildlife tourism destination are on the line.
Conflict vs conservation, SOPHIA TAMOT
Post-conflict, conservation must remain with communities
Chuck the wildlife whiz
Tiger expert Chuck McDougal gets the Brian Hodgson Award for his work to save the Chitwan tiger
Charles (Chuck) McDougal had such an interest in South Asia that at age 11, together with a school friend, he decided to set off from Washington to meet the Dalai Lama. They were detained by the police in Chicago while walking along Lake Michigan in solar helmets.
Chuck's interest in the subcontinent never waned, and he did a PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of New Mexico researching ethnic groups in Orissa, and then came to eastern Nepal in 1964 to study the Kulunge Rai. He stayed, starting a trekking company and exploring new trekking routes in the Himalaya.
He partnered with Jim Edwards and founded the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Chitwan in 1972, pre-dating the establishment of the national park for which Chuck lobbied. His interest in conservation led him to research the habits of the tiger for the Smithsonian's Nepal Tiger Ecology Project.
In his 40 years of research on the tiger, he has written Face of the Tiger (Andre Deutz 1977) and a major study on the ecology and conservation of the tiger is due to be published by Harvard later this year. Chuck's most significant work is the Long Term Tiger Monitoring Project, an ongoing research study of the tiger population of western Chitwan from Kasara to Ledaghat. The research has developed a skilled cadre of manpower in Nepal with expertise at camera trapping, stripe identification and pugmark identification.
Chuck McDougal remains a key non-executive director of Tiger Tops, with special responsibility for conservation and research programs; a senior trustee of ITNC, a UK Registered Charity and unofficial advisor to numerous charities and official bodies.
His academic attainment as an anthropologist, coupled with his amateur (in the technical meaning of the word) naturalist has given him a breadth of vision (coupled with over 40 years of experience in Nepal, India and Bhutan) and a very human appreciation of the needs for wildlife conservation as identified through his lifelong commitment to that icon of the sub-continent – the tiger. His research continues under his deft leadership in his eightieth year and long may he continue to provide insight, inspiration and, above all, leadership to current and future conservationists in Nepal and the rest of the Indian sub-continent.
On 20 July the British Embassy in Kathmandu recognised his extensive conservation work in the Himalayas with the Brian Hodgson Award. The award was established by Himalayan Nature and was named after Nepal's second British resident who documented many different species of wildlife between 1833 and 1844.