Protecting protected areas from infrastructureHighways, irrigation canals, transmission lines and new railways disturb Nepal’s national parks
Nepal's community forestry program doubled tree cover to 45% in 30 years. Nature sanctuaries make up a quarter of the country's area.
Two years ago, Nepal’s national parks marked five years with zero rhino poaching. Nepal is also the first tiger range country to nearly triple its population of the big cats.
But new linear infrastructure projects will soon be crisscrossing national parks along the Tarai, disturbing the habitat and blocking wildlife migration routes.
Nearly 400km of the 1,028km East-West Highway slices through national parks in Parsa, Chitwan, Bardia and Banke districts. Transmission lines have been built through protected areas, more are planned. Irrigation canals such as Babai, Ranijamara and Sitka obstruct wildlife movement pathways.
“Nepal is among the fastest growing countries in terms of infrastructure, but projects are also the least well planned,” says World Wildlife Fund Nepal (WWF-N) Country Director Ghana Gurung.
Development vs conservation has been a longstanding dilemma for countries like Nepal, but experts say it need not be. Around the world, planners are now building infrastructure with climate-smart and wildlife-friendly safeguards. With technical expertise and investment, there is no reason Nepal cannot do the same.
In fact, the 30km Narayanghat-Mugling Highway features the first two of Nepal’s wildlife underpasses where the busy highway artery passes through an important animal migration corridor. Camera traps at underpasses showed deer, wild boar and other animals used them regularly, with half the wildlife movement occurring in winter when animals search for water
The Narayanghat-Butwal highway, which is being upgraded, will have 40 wildlife crossings along the Daunne-Gaidakot section. Their location is being determined after monitoring wildlife movement in the area. The project funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) will also monitor how much the animals use the crossings.
The facilities are necessary not just to prevent the fragmentation of wildlife habitats, but also to reduce roadkill of endangered species.
But there is contradiction between road engineers and conservationists, with the former prioritising connectivity while the latter are blamed for one-dimensional advocacy for wildlife.
Bridging this gap is the recently launched Asia’s Linear Infrastructure safeGuarding Nature (ALIGN) project which aims to protect protected areas from the impact of new infrastructure.
Funded by USAID and implemented by WWF, the ALIGN project was launched at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Montreal in December 2022 with an initial focus on three countries: Nepal for its rich biodiversity, Mongolia for its fragile protected areas, and India which is accelerating investment in infrastructure.
ALIGN has three main objectives: refine and strengthen existing policies such that they align with international best practices, enhance partnerships to promote and support investment, and implement safeguards for linear infrastructure and capacity building.
“As it stands we have a very weak policy framework but we must strengthen it to avoid the impacts of big infrastructure. Soon we will be reviewing them,” says Semina Kafle of the ALIGN project.
She adds: “Our focus is on producing our own experts.But there is a big gap between how an engineer thinks versus a conservationist. So we have decided to go back to school and make the impact of linear infrastructure on climate and wildlife an integral part of engineering studies.”
ALIGN is working with the Institute of Engineering (IOE) in Pulchok Campus to develop a syllabus for an elective for students of civil and electrical engineering, and urban planning.
The team is also collaborating with American universities to bring engineering lecturers to the Institute. As the demand and interest for the course increases, the elective will be upgraded to a core course or even a Master’s program.
“It is crucial that we equip our students with the latest technologies and construct linear infrastructure while also ensuring the safety of the wildlife,” says Shashidhar Joshi, dean of IOE.
He adds: “This is already practiced elsewhere in the world and we are integrating it now into our engineering studies to redefine infrastructure and planning."
Poorly planned highway, power line, or railway alignments now threaten to undo Nepal's conservation success. With poaching controlled to a large extent, protected areas are now getting overcrowded leading to more frequent contact between people and tigers, wild elephants and leopards.
Wildlife crossings over or under highways or irrigation canals can make them safer for endangered species. Otherwise roadkill will be a problem on upgraded highways because of more vehicles and their speed.
Safe routes for animals will also reduce human-wildlife contact. They provide drainage, preventing inundation especially as climate-induced weather extremes lead to more downpours and flash floods.
Wildlife friendly structures across highways and irrigation canals are helpful, but they need to be maintained and monitored. An underpass in Barandabhar, a 29km-long forest corridor bisected by the East-West Highway in Chitwan is often cited as a notable wildlife crossing.
But, says Sandesh Singh Hamal of the ALIGN Project, lack of upkeep has turned it into a garbage dump.
He adds: “Who should be responsible for their maintenance? There should be no conflict regarding the jurisdiction, we cannot pass the buck from one agency to another.”
The ALIGN project has a performance period until September 2025 during which it will also facilitate learning and sharing between the three focal countries. With Nepal embarking on mega projects like the East-West Railway, Nijgad Airport and the Kathmandu-Tarai Expressway, wildlife crossings need to be integrated into their planning.
Says Ghana Gurung of WWF: “We will work with governments and try to bring engineers and conservationists together to ensure infrastructures do not disturb protected areas.”