Wildlife-people coexistence in Nepal national parkWhile farmers try to avoid encountering tigers, tourists want to encounter them
Bhadai Tharu and a group of a dozen villagers were collecting firewood inside Bardia National Park when there was a rustle in the undergrowth. Before he could react, a tigress leapt out of the bushes and pinned him down with her claws.
The others fled, but Tharu fought back, punching the animal with his fist. The tigress let go, and Tharu felt his face covered in blood. There was a hollow cavity where his left eye used to be.
That was 20 years ago. But instead of fear and revenge against tigers, Bhadai Tharu, 54, is the foremost conservationist activist on the fringes of this national park in the western Tarai.
“The tigress was just trying to protect herself. It was us who were intruding into her space,” says Tharu, who is now involved in protecting the community forest of the Khata Wildlife Corridor that connects Bardia National Park with the Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary across the border in India.
Tharu was awarded the Abraham Conservation Award, and still proudly wears the shades Leonardo DiCaprio gifted him during a visit to Bardia in 2010.
It's a jungle out there, Kunda Dixit
Tiger selfie is highest-ever sighting in Nepal, Mukesh Pokhrel
The wildlife corridor is important because although not within the park boundary, it is a trans-boundary landscape allowing free movement of wildlife between India and Nepal. As a social mobiliser, Bhadai Tharu has even composed a romantic song which he sings jauntily at community gatherings about an Indian tigress and a Nepali tiger falling in love and having lots of cubs.
Nepal has nearly tripled its wild tiger population from 121 in 2009 to more than 355 today, far exceeding a target set by tiger range countries in 2010 to double the population of this endangered mammal in 12 years. Of these, 132 tigers are in Bardia National Park alone, and 40 or so roam the Khata Wildlife Corridor commuting back and forth between India and Nepal.
But the growing numbers of tigers, wild elephants and other predators mean that the danger of human-wildlife encounters has also increased. On Monday, two sisters were killed by a tiger while they were collecting firewood inside Khata. More than 20 people have been killed in attacks by tigers and wild elephants in Bardia in the past four years.
Most of these encounters have happened in the buffer zone outside the national park, or in Khata when villagers enter the forests to forage for wild mushroom and fern or to graze livestock. A young woman was killed by police last year in Bardia when an angry protest against a villager who was killed by a tiger turned violent.
Experts are now trying to figure out the best way to conserve Nepal’s conservation success story. They say people living on the fringes of the park need to be convinced about the benefit of protecting the wildlife habitat and feel ownership of the national park (see adjoining piece).
“We cannot change how wildlife behaves, but we can change how humans behave,” says Shiva Raj Bhatta who was involved in Bardia National Park before joining World Wildlife Fund Nepal (WWF-N). “The reason for Nepal’s success in conservation is that it has been participatory, and we must continue to put the priority on the livelihoods of communities.”
How many tigers in Nepal?, Kunda Dixit
Champions of Nepal's conservation movement, Lisa Choegyal
Is wildlife conservation a victim of its own success in Nepal?, Mukesh Pokhrel
The strategy is to ensure that villagers outside the park and in the community forests in the buffer zone are allowed rotational harvesting of fodder grass, deadwood or edible forest crops. In addition, communities get help from the park and the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) to set up homestays so they can benefit from eco-tourism.
Citizen scientists from the community are trained to operate camera traps to identify and monitor problematic tigers, schools in Bardia conduct vocational training in running homestays and have active eco-clubs.
“Our income depends on saving wildlife. If there are no tigers, there are no tourists,” says Mangal Tharu, who runs a homestay in Dalla on the edge of the national park. It has become an international model for heritage conservation and eco-tourism, and needs to be replicated in Bardia and other parks in Nepal.
“We should stop calling it wildlife-people conflict, this is wildlife-people natural coexistence,” he adds.
Indeed, the balance conservationists have to strike is that while farmers try to avoid encountering tigers, tourists who come here want to see them. The park’s success in protecting nature is paradoxically the problem: increased concentrations of tigers, leopards and wild elephants mean communities need more help in building watch-towers, electric fences and leopard-proof goat corrals. An early warning system that detects wildlife movement alerts villagers through SMS.
Since most of the fatalities in the past four years have been of villagers entering the forest alone, WWF-N and Bardia National Park are working with community forest user groups to raise awareness about changing their activities. But that is of little consolation to the two women who were killed in Madhuban village in Khata this week. Eleven others have been killed by wild animals, six of them this year alone.
The revival of jungle has increased the danger to the community in villages like Madhuban near the Indian border.
Raj Bahadur Chaudhari remembers the surrounding land having just a few scraggly trees and a dusty floodplain. Today the Khata Wildlife Corridor (pictured above) is not just a corridor for wildlife movement: it is a conservation success story in its own right – thanks to the efforts of the community forestry user groups.
Indeed, Nepal’s longest bridge across the Geruwa channel of the Karnali River has itself become a model for how new infrastructure can allow unrestricted wildlife movement (see story, above). The 1.02km Kothiyaghat Bridge crosses a wide floodplain that used to be a barren wasteland, but is now a dense jungle allowing wildlife safe passage underneath its span.
Says Hari Gurung of an umbrella group of Khata’s community forests: “Khata is now a vital wildlife habitat outside the national park. It is a successful example of landscape level cross-border nature conservation. Now we have to also make it safe for people living here.”
Back to jungle, Nirmal Ghosh
Conservation matters, Hum Gurung
Tresspassing into nature, Bhrikuti Rai and Sunir Pandey