Between existence and extinction in Nepal

THE 6TH EXTINCTION: This orchid with medicinal properties, Dactylorhiza hatagirea, (Panchaule) is an endangered species.

Nepal is situated at the crossroads of four eco-biological domains to the north, south, east and west. The country’s great altitudinal range endows it with biodiversity that is the richest in the world in such a small area.

Nepal is also the most densely inhabited mountain country in the world, and is squeezed between two of the planet’s most populous nations. Now, climate change has been added to the threats to the endangered life forms that inhabit Nepal’s fragile ecosystems.

The United Nations released an apocalyptic report in Paris last week warning that one million animal and plant species across the planet are on the verge of extinction. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment concluded that besides charismatic mammals, insects, fish and microorganisms, 75% of crops will vanish.

Here in Nepal, despite successes in nature conservation, species are threatened by new infrastructure projects like the proposed Nijgad Airport and the East-West Railway, which are expected to wipe out 200,000ha of forests. Human encroachment of natural habitats, rampant pesticide use, poisoning of rivers and wildlife trafficking were bad enough, but climate change now adds a whole new dimension to the threat.

“In Nepal, we have usually focussed on big mammals. Those are important but the attention should shift to other species that are vital to maintain the ecological balance,” explains naturalist Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha. Indeed, the country may be losing insects and reptile species that have not even been discovered yet.

For example, there has been little study of the impact of wetland destruction and the pollution of water bodies on insects and amphibians. A new dragonfly species that was discovered above Pokhara’s Phewa Lake last year may become extinct since its habitat is so degraded. Bee populations have been declining at an alarming rate due to the spread of pesticides, leading to a loss of farm productivity. The disappearance of insects and aquatic fauna has had a cascade effect on indigenous and migratory birds wintering in Nepal.

“There is a crucial need of public awareness about less well-known species — they may have important roles for the ecosystem that we don’t even know about yet,” says Sagar Dahal of the Small Mammal Conservation and Research Foundation.

Extreme weather caused by global warming has also led to a serious water shortage across Nepal, which in turn is profoundly affecting wildlife, medicinal plants, rare orchids and the insects that depend on them.

The last major mass extinction on Earth 65 million years ago wiped out not only dinosaurs, but 75% of all species. It took the planet 10 million years to recover. But unlike previous extinctions that were caused by natural catastrophes, this time human activity is the cause.

The loss of biodiversity and destruction of nature and its impact cited in the IBPES report are felt more acutely in Nepal due to the vulnerability of the Himalaya to climate change, deforestation, pollution and poaching.

“Global environmental degradation will affect countries like Nepal more because of our sensitive topography,” writes IBPES researcher from Nepal, Uttam Babu Shrestha in a Kantipur op-ed this week. “Proposed large infrastructure projects will have lasting negative impacts on the environment.”

Nepal has been successful in curbing domestic poaching, but it is a major transit point for wildlife contraband en route to China. The presence of smugglers means the country needs to be vigilant about a revival in poaching. It is a conduit for tiger and leopard pelts, rhino horns and other endangered species. Earlier this year, 200kg of pangolin scales bound for China were found at Kathmandu airport.

“Nepal may be landlocked in every other aspect but it is land-linked when it comes to smuggling,” Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha told Nepali Times.

The good news is that Nepal’s conservationists, planners and the government know what the problems are, as well as the solutions. The country also has vast experience in balancing nature conservation with meeting human needs. It just needs a long-term strategy and all stakeholders to work towards protecting our abundant biodiversity.

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.