The wellbeing of the wilderness


A Karnali river patrol shows how difficult it is to balance livelihoods with nature protection

EMBEDDED IN NATURE: The Karnali is Nepal’s longest river, and one of the last remaining habitats for the Ganges River Dolphin. IUCN

The seven-man armed patrol in two jeeps drove along a dusty track high above the Karnali River following the southern flank of the Siwalik Hills. The swift-flowing waters of this glacier fed river was blue-green in the early morning light.

Lt Bikash Rayamajhi of the Shiva Dal Battalion led this river anti-poaching patrol. The gear was unloaded in the buffer zone near the Bardia National Park boundary. The rubber dinghy was inflated on a sandy beach as herons watched from a distance.

Bristling with paddles and firearms, the raft was a tight fit for eight men as it floated lazily downriver. The tranquility was misleading: a stretch of rapids awaited us.

Lt Rayamajhi explained that the guardianship of buffer zones is almost as crucial as protecting the interior of the parks. Overseen by the country’s Buffer Zone Management Committee, the Nepal Army acts as its boots-on-the-ground steward.

Cooperation from local villagers is vital. Half the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation’s revenue comes from tourism, and some of this is distributed to buffer zone communities, so that villagers are not forced to enter the national parks to extract natural resources.

The primary purpose of the Army’s raft patrol is to scout for clues of illegal fishing.

Bunched-up nets hidden among riverbank boulders was one give-away. When the locals cast the nets, they not only capture golden mahseer (carp) and catfish, they may also catch endangered aquatic species. Top on that list is the Ganges River Dolphin.

Once endemic to Nepal, India and Bangladesh, the population of the fresh water aquatic mammal has dwindled to fewer than 2,000 in the wild, out of which fewer than 100 dolphins still swim Nepal’s rivers.

Much of the danger to the dolphin is from fishing gear, poaching for dolphin oil, damming of rivers, and pollution. The Karnali is Nepal’s longest river and the only significant one that has not yet been dammed, but several large projects are planned on it and its tributaries.

The Army’s raft criss-crossed the river, confiscating nets along and above the shorelines. At one point, two fishermen came rushing down from a steep bluff, punching their fists in the air and hurling insults because their nets had been confiscated. The armed patrol didn’t seem unduly concerned. Across Nepal, there is a precarious balance that has to be struck between people’s livelihoods and the need to protect nature.

The river flows slower and grows wider as we float downstream. Silence prevails except for the plunge of oars. No motorboats yet on the Karnali, but soon the 21st century intruded in the form of the magnificent steel suspension of the single-tower cable-stayed Karnali Bridge at Chisapani with its 500m span.

A dozen or so dugouts sculpted from single tea trunks bobbed in and out of the span’s shadow. The juxtaposition of the lofty bridge and Stone Age dugouts was symbolic of how despite modernity, Nepal remains harnessed to antiquity. It is the country’s charm, though others could see it as a curse.

I was rooting for a Nepal that could develop without losing its cultural heritage and natural treasures. To what extent the economy can develop without damaging the ecology will be the challenge. The pace and parameters of that change will determine the well-being of Nepal’s inherited wild kingdom.

A balance is possible, as the Nepal Army’s river patrols showed. The military is collaborating with conservationists, using technology to preserve nature in Bardia, Chitwan and other nature sanctuaries in Nepal.

American author Mikel Dunham was embedded with the Nepal Army’s anti-poaching patrols in the Bardiya and Chitwan National Parks.

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