Eco-tourism in Gadi-Siraichuli

Tucked away in northern Chitwan between the Prithvi and Mahendra Highways is a land that has been bypassed by time. And this has helped protect the unique landscape and biodiversity of Gadi-Siraichuli.

The mountain forest here is one of a network of sites in the world designated as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area by BirdLife International. It is the habitat of the Spiny Babbler (Turdoides nipalensis), the rare and shy bird that is found only in Nepal.

Ironically it is state neglect of the past decades that has protected the unique ecosystem of Gadi-Siraichuli. The mountains also have historical significance for the 18th century fort that dates back to the Anglo-Nepal wars of the early 19th century.

A five- day trekking itinerary takes visitors through remote villages and wilderness areas so untouched that it is hard to believe Gadi-Siraichuli is that close to the national highways.

The nomadic Chepang people still practice Shamanism, and it is the only health care for villagers before they can reach hospitals in Bharatpur. Children along the trail have to travel two hours each way to reach the three government schools in the area.

Thanks to the Bird Education Society, the trail from Kot to Upardang Gadi via Kaaule has become a popular hike for birders from Nepal and around the world.

The trail begins in the village of Hugdi along the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway, from where it is an uphill to Kot Pass that leads to the fort. When the clouds part, there is a panoramic view of Himalchuli and Annapurnas, with Himalayan vultures wheeling overhead.

The walk then follows the Rigdi Khola to the nightstop at Lower Kaaule village. Lush sub-tropical broad-leaf forests cover the valley sides. Black and Bonelli’s Eagles appear over the skyline.

Lower Kaaule is a Magar and Chhetri settlement with 25 houses situated by the river amidst terraced fields. There are homestays here where the owners are used to trekkers passing through. Villagers practice agroforestry, bee-keeping and organic farming, and there are orange, peach and pear trees along the paths. Recently, tea gardens and black cardamom plantations have sprung up.

The autumn nights are clear and starlit, with the Milky Way, shooting stars and satellites crossing the sky. Visitors fall asleep listening to the calls of Collared Owlets and Mountain Scops Owls nearby.

The next morning it is a climb up a steep forested slope alive with flycatchers, warblers and babblers on the trail to Kotari, and onward to Upper Kaaule where there is also a homestay.

This is where the Spiny Babbler was sighted in 2020, marking a new locality for this bird. The next morning the trail climbs through the dense rhododendron forest of Gadi-Siraichuli to Upardang Gadi village via Chisapanitar. There are plenty of homestays, and the area is a haven for birders. There are stunning mountain views, especially before sunrise.

Read also: Spiny babbler tourism, Kamal Maden

The fort at Upardang Gadi is situated at 1,275m with unsurpassed views of Chitwan Valley to the south and the mountains to the north. Birds of prey soar over the fort, with sightings of the Greater Spotted, Steppe Eagles and Pied Harriers. At dusk Lesser Kestrels hawk acrobatically for termites.

The next day it is downhill to Shaktikhor in Chitwan, where a forest was cleared for a UN-supervised camp for the demobilisation of the Maoists after the conflict ended in 2006, and then on to the highway.

Gadi-Siraichuli forest has been designated one of Nepal’s 37 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas, which are of global importance for birds and other wildlife. It includes the largest extent and the highest quality of subtropical mixed broadleaved forest remaining Nepal that supports significant populations of bird species as well as four globally threatened and 20 nationally threatened species.

The Chepang people followed a nomadic lifestyle until recently, and various factors including influx of settlers forced them to take up a more sedentary subsistence  agriculture. But Chepang families still harvest wild food from the forest which serves as the watershed providing drinking water for seven villages in Chitwan, but it is still outside Nepal’s protected area system.

Designating the area as a Watershed and Bird Sanctuary would be invaluable in protecting the forest for wildlife and as a resource for local communities, including their precious water sources. Promoting eco-tourism would also raise incomes and help in conservation of this precious habitat.

Carol Inskipp is a UK conservationist and author of books on Nepal birds and their conservation, who has been coming to Nepal since 1977.

Prem Thapa is an avid birder,  trekker, and life member of Bird Education Society, and works at Samsara Trekking & Safari in Kathmandu.

Read more: Protecting the last home of the Spiny Babbler, Carol Inskipp and Rupendra Karmacharya

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