Conservation vs Conservatives

Nepal’s minister sees national parks as a gold mine, not as an ecosystem to be protected

Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) mother with cub age four months in Ranthambhore in Rajasthan. Photo: ANDY ROUSE/WWF

One of the few arenas for which Nepal has got well-deserved international praise is conservation. Nearly a quarter of the country’s area is protected, the wild tiger population has tripled in 12 years, rhino poaching has been curbed, and forest cover has doubled in the past 30 years to 45% of Nepal’s area. 

And that makes Forest and Environment Minister Birendra Prasad Mahato of the JSP salivate. He is the architect behind a series of proposals that could undermine Nepal’s hard-earned conservation achievements, forgetting that his portfolio is for protecting forests, not destroying them.

Nepal was the first tiger range country to not just double but nearly triple the population of big cats. The minister now wants to auction tiger trophy hunting licenses because Nepal has “too many tigers”. 

“Beyond just the unethical and unscientific, the proposal to cull tigers is illegal, illogical and unimplementable,” says Hemanta Mishra, one of the founders of Chitwan National Park in 1973, which rescued Nepal’s tigers and rhinos from the brink of extinction. 

“The proposal violates the CITES treaty and Nepal’s own laws. Even if super-wealthy foreigners shoot tigers in Nepal, they will certainly be breaking the laws of their own countries if they take the trophies back. In short, it ain’t doable,” says Mishra, who is now Global Ambassador at WellBeing International.

Indeed, many find Minister Mahato’s assertion laughable that Nepal can earn up to $25 million through tiger hunting licenses and that would underwrite the cost of maintaining national parks. 

The tiger is on Appendix 1 of CITES, and Nepal is among 184 countries to have signed this international treaty. Nearly half of all tourists coming to Nepal visit national parks, and there are growing numbers of Nepali tourists also contribute to local jobs and income. 

In fact, 90% of the revenue of the parks is from tourism. Chitwan and Bardia are world class national parks and any loss of biodiversity would undermine tourism.

Admittedly, the increase in tiger numbers has affected prey density forcing some to venture outside national parks and leading to contact with villagers outside. Expansion of forests has also led to crop loss from wildlife. There are protocols in place to deal with man-eating tigers, and crop damage by wildlife. 

The government is trying to dismantle other areas in which Nepal has achieved success, like community forestry, by allowing ‘management’ of trees. It is strongly backing the Nijgad Airport project that would decimate the last remaining native forests in the eastern Tarai, and it is drafting a bill to amend laws to allow resorts, hotels and infrastructure inside national parks.  

“Minister Mahato clearly has no understanding of how conservation works,” says environmentalist Babu Krishna Karki. “Someone who dreams of making a national park a source of revenue doesn’t know the first thing about conservation. How can he consciously spout such nonsense?”

Birenda Mahato Forest Minister
Forest and Environment Minister Birendra Prasad Mahato. Photo: RSS(Photo: HARRAM BHETUWAL)

Minister Mahato has accused national park employees of colluding with wildlife poachers, and even blamed international development partners of making money from Nepal’s achievement in tiger conservation.

Mahato was appointed forest minister in May by Upendra Yadav’s Tarai-based JSP and has been brazenly trying to find ways to cash in by allowing extractive projects inside national parks. Given this government’s lack of transparency and impunity for corruption, he may well get his way.

“We have to be very careful not to kill the goose that lays golden eggs,” warns Ghana Gurung of WWF Nepal. “Tiger culling is an absolute no-no, and any decision to allow resorts inside national parks has to be consultative and transparent.”

Indeed, Tarai national parks like Chitwan, Parsa, Bardia already face threats from encroachment, poaching, river pollution, and the climate crisis. Allowing infrastructure like roads, railways and irrigation canals inside them will further damage the ecosystem.  

Mahato has formed a task force under the Director General of the Forest Department Shivkumar Wagle to relax the restrictions to collect Tamarix dioica, a kind of lichen locally known as jhau that has medicinal properties. A ban has been in place in harvesting this shrub since 2010. 

Botany professor Krishna Kumar Shrestha says that some lichens found in branches of trees or on rocks are rare species, and as such should be studied thoroughly first.

“We have to ensure the reproduction of those lichen species before lifting the ban otherwise we are destroying biological diversity,” he adds.

Experts who have spoken against Mahato’s proposals are being sidelined by his ministry.  Forest Secretary Rewati Raman Poudel was transferred after he raised objections and was replaced by Deepak Kharel of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.

Mahato himself has no background in conservation, and his only claim to fame is that he is the brother of Belarussian billionaire of Nepali origin Upendra Mahato, and was the chair of Machhapuchche Bank and has investments in hydropower. 

As minister, Mahato has also exerted pressure to pass the EIA of the Rs3 billion Pathibhara Cable Car project which is opposed by the local indigenous Yakthung Limbu people. He has also forced officials to ignore EIAs on several hydropower projects in which he has investments.

The National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act has provisions to operate facilities inside the park for tourism, but the regulation stipulates that any decision has to be transparent so it does not impact on the ecosystem. Under Nepal’s current governance climate, that is problematic. 

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