Does Nepal need the army to guard parks?

Despite the military's anti-poaching role, local communities have a better track record in conservation

Nepal’s success in doubling its forest cover in 30 years has been possible for two reasons: community management of woodlands, and the protection of the country’s national parks by the Nepal Army.

But questions are now being raised about why national parks need to be guarded with guns when protection by local communities have been so successful.

“Our internal evaluation has shown that it is due to the presence of the military that endangered species have been successfully protected,” says Megh Nath Kafle of the Ministry of Forest’s Department of Biodiversity and Environment. “Without the army, conservation would have been much more difficult.”

However, some activists say giving all the credit for Nepal’s successes in conservation solely to the military would be a disservice to the scores of local communities that have been even more successful in protecting wildlife habitats.

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“People living at the edge of national parks have played the most important role in nature conservation,” says Bharati Pathak of the Federation of Community Forest User Groups.

“By praising only the army, we ignore the contribution of local communities. The Annapurna Conservation Area is an example of successful conservation even without a military presence,” she adds.

The Nepal Army has also been accused of harassing local communities for entering buffer zone forests to collect wild edibles, or grazing livestock even though those areas outside the parks are not within the army’s jurisdiction.

Conservationists, however, say that the military's presence is critical in parks along the border with India to deter poachers. Killing tigers and rhinos for their pelts, bones and horns nearly decimated India’s wildlife in the 1980s and 1990s. Poaching increased in Nepal during the Maoist conflict when the army was redeployed elsewhere.

The Royal Nepal Army’s involvement in guarding national parks started in 1975 after Chitwan National Park was established, mainly to protect the seriously depleted numbers of rhinos and tigers.

Today, more than 8,000 soldiers are stationed in Nepal’s various nature reserves, with battalions in Chitwan, Bardia, Shuklaphanta, Banke, Parsa, Shivapuri and Langtang, while there are company-strength bases guarding Khaptad, Sagarmatha, Bara, Shey Phoksundo, Makalu Barun, Kosi Tappu and Dhorpatan reserves. Conservation areas like Annapurna, Manaslu, Kanchenjunga and Gauri Shankar do not have an army presence.

The main duty of the soldiers is to control encroachment and poaching with regular patrols as well as to help with wildlife census and wildlife translocation activities.

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“Problems arise when villagers enter the national park from the buffer zones, and our patrols have to take action,” explains Brigadier General Krishna Prasad Bhandari. “Our units constantly work with the national park authorities to spread awareness about park rules.”

Even so, for many activists and locals it is not clear why nature needs to be protected with guns when local communities everywhere in Nepal have a proven track record in effective nature conservation. 

“It would be much more effective if the army worked more closely with local communities because without their cooperation, genuine conservation is not possible,” says Ramprit Yadav, a pioneer naturalist who was involved in the establishment of Chitwan National Park.

Soldiers have been accused of terrorising local villagers, especially those from Indigenous communities like Tharu, Bote, Chepang and Majhi.

“Conservation does not come out of the barrel of a gun, you have to involve local communities, especially Indigenous peoples who have traditionally managed their forest habitats,” says Naya Sharma Poudel of Forest Action Nepal.

Nepal’s forest cover has increased from 26% in 1992 to 45% today, largely due to the role of the community forestry program. Nearly 24% of the country's area is now protected nature reserves, and the army is deployed in 15 of them. 

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