Model for post-Covid ecotourism

Ornithologists Carol Inskipp, Rupendra Karmacharya and Prem Thapa with a follow-up about how their lobbying has halted a controversial road project in a northern Chitwan forest, and restored hope for the rare Spiny Babbler and other endangered wildlife.  

Gadi village. Photo: CAROL INSKIPP

In April 2019 our report in Nepali Times highlighted the serious threat posed by a new road through the Gadi-Siraichuli watershed and its rich wildlife habitat in the Mahabharat Range. Last week, the Ichakamana Municipality in Chitwan district halted its construction and re-routed the road to save the forest.

The road serves the remote, under-developed region inhabited mostly by the Chepang people, and the road had been forcefully constructed by the people of Mathlo Kaule to Chisapanitar and Gadi.

Protecting the last home of the Spiny Babbler 

View of Himalchuli and Manaslu from Mathlo Kaule. Photo: PREM THAPA

The region also has historical significance because of an 18th-century fort and is exceptionally rich in biodiversity. In fact, the Gadi-Siraichuli forest has been designated an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area by BirdLife International and Bird Conservation Nepal.

It is one of a network of sites around the world which are of international value for birds and other wildlife. Gadi-Siraichuli is a stronghold of the Spiny Babbler (Turdoides nipalensis), the elusive bird found only in Nepal and nowhere else.

The forest is the home to the rare Spiny Babbler and the Himalayan Cuita. Photos: SAGAR GIRI, BIMITA BHANDARI

Local people from Gadi objected strongly to the new road because it would destroy their only water source, and result in landslides. Indeed, rockfalls from the new road have already damaged the forest. If construction had continued, it would have dried up the only two remaining water sources for eight villages.

A 2015 survey in Chitwan after the earthquakes concluded that the geology of the region had been disturbed, and the slopes were too unstable for unplanned road building.

Now, there is good news. Last week, Ichakamana Municipality halted the construction of the road, and passed the budget for an alternative alignment suggested in this newspaper two years ago for the road to go via Thapthali and Mayatar to Gadi. This new route will be far less damaging to the environment, as well as connect more villages to Gadi.

The Ichakamana Municipality acted with foresight to protect both the watershed and the environment. It also opens up opportunities for Gadi-Siraichuli to develop low-intensity sustainable tourism through nature and culture tours.

Such small-scale ecotourism could bring great advantages including additional income to the Chepang, Magar, Gurung and Chhetri communities here, and could be a model for similar areas in other parts of Nepal.

If the Municipality designates the area as ‘Gadhi-Siraichuli Watershed and Bird Sanctuary’, it will be a recognised destination for tourists interested in pristine forests with rich wildlife. Indeed, it would be the first bird sanctuary in Nepal.

Now that construction of a road cutting through the forest has been halted, ecotourism and birding has a future in Gadi-Siraichuli forest. Photo: PREM THAPA

Local youths could be trained as guides by the Bird Education Society (BES), a Sauraha-based NGO that has been monitoring the district’s birdlife since the 1990s and has recorded sightings of 320 species of birds, with new ones continually being added to the list.

Some of these are very rare birds like the Red-faced Liocichla, sighted here four years ago for the first time after the 19th century. There are also 15 mammal species including the splendid Black Giant Squirrel and Assamese Macaque. The richness of birds and other wildlife will undoubtedly attract naturalists from overseas as well as many from Nepal.

The region’s other attraction is the historic Upardangadi Fort, located above Gadi village, which was built by the Shah kings 250 years ago to protect Nepal from attacks from the south by the British East India Company. The fort lies on the top of a 1,275 m mountain top with a sweeping panorama of Himalchuli-Manaslu to the north as well as a magnificent view of the Chitwan Valley to the south.

The 18th century Upardangadi Fort on a mountain top above the forests of Gadi-Siraichuli, which has thick forests rich in biodiversity. Photo: PREM THAPA

The rich traditional culture of the Chepang, Gurung and Magars inhabitants can also be a draw, and provide additional income to the indigenous people of the region. There are already new homestays in Gadi and Tallo Kaule, that offer visitors a place to stay and immerse in local traditions and wildlife tourism.

BES is providing homestay training in a sustainable and eco-friendly way for local people, many of whom are from marginalised communities. The Municipality will now have to invest in proper homestays, improve trails, and train locals. Bird and biodiversity conservation and would be highly beneficial to ecotourism development here.

When local villagers find they are benefitting financially from such grassroots tourism, they are much more likely to actively protect their wondrous forests with its bio-diversity. And this is also the kind of post-Covid tourism model Nepal should strive for.

Carol Inskipp is a UK conservationist and author of books on Nepal birds and their conservation, who has been coming to Nepal since 1977.

Rupendra Karmacharya runs a lodge in Gadi village, and works to preserve the local culture and biodiversity.

Prem Thapa is an avid birder, trekker, life member of Bird Education Society, and works at Samsara Trekking & Safari in Kathmandu.