Champions of Nepal’s conservation movement

Nepal’s royals were successful in saving the country’s wildlife, but not its monarchy

King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya with Jim Edwards in May 1988

It was the most splendid of glittering weddings. Fairy lights threaded through the bushes, candles glowed on the ivy-wrapped tables, oil lamps marked the stone flagged paths, and white cushions padded the benches arranged around the low garden walls.

The stage setting enhanced the sequined saris, embroidered gowns, bare midriffs and gossamer shawls of the women, and men strutted in finest silk, high collars and gilded long jackets – an ambassador and husband in impossibly well-cut Italian suits. The diamonds dazzled, emeralds reflected the under-lit swimming pool and sapphires caught the blue of the fading sky. A thin sliver of moon hung suspended above the tiled and tiered rooftops as waiters glided by with laden platters and silver trays of drinks.

Ministers and politicians mixed comfortably with the assembled aristocrats, generals, entrepreneurs and diplomats. Everyone was here. I spotted political party leaders, retired Ranas, an eminent surgeon,  a son of Tenzing Norgay, and daughter of Toni Hagen.

“The king is here!” A whisper rustled through the crowd.

The pavilion door was guarded with Rottweiler zeal: only the chosen few guests were allowed in to meet their ex-majesties. The former queen appeared unusually animated, her greying hair drawn back from her pointed chin. Through the glass windows, we could see much deferential nodding, submissive bows and polite conversation with the dethroned Mr and Mrs Shah.

Later, when Gyanendra came to leave, the chattering crowd parted, backing away spontaneously from the entourage with former feudal respect, but the royal couple were in relaxed and festive mode. Spotting me in the throng, he broke away and came over with a wide smile to shake my hand and exchange a few words before moving on with a light laugh.

“Amazing, what a changed personality,” observed a seasoned guest. “Wow, what a smile – I have never seen his teeth before!”

Amidst the wedding reception hubbub, we reflected that in recent years he had not had much to laugh about. The personal cost of losing so many immediate family in the 2001 massacre, and the public price of losing a kingdom as the monarchy became a federal democratic republic -- albeit with minimal fuss or strife when the moment came to vacate his palace and relinquish his privileges.

A quick-draw friend sent me a snapshot (pictured) with the caption: ‘Taken in the heat of the moment. Picture of you and your old friend’ and a quizzical emoji.

The royals and their guests were indeed frequent visitors to Tiger Tops in the formerly ‘Royal’ Chitwan and Bardia National Parks when I was working there in the early days. With fanfare and formality, they would arrive with the usual trappings of jeepfuls of wardens, wildlife department, palace officials and security guards. Nepal’s absolute monarch was never referred to except as ‘His Majesty’ in the most hushed and venerated tone, even in private.

A frisson of excitement would reverberate through the camp at the news of a royal visit. The lodge and bar would be swept and spruced, the wood oiled and the brass polished. Tablecloths would be replaced, chick blinds repaired, petromaxes primed, white stones repainted and green uniforms tidied. Helicopter arrivals were a rare event, so grass would be cleared, the ground levelled and lime-marked with a big ‘H’. Our big boss, Jim Edwards would arrive from Kathmandu to host the visit, taking advantage of the opportunity for a little politicking on the side.

Jim had started life in Nepal with a hunting company before turning conservationist when environmental conditions changed. The depletion of Nepal’s tiger, leopard, gaur and rhino populations was the result of their wild habitat shrinking to unsustainable levels with encroachment, disturbance and poaching.

Jim appreciated the proclivity for hunting that ran deep through the veins of Nepal’s rulers, a culture of maharaja and vice-regal hunts testified by the volumes of trophy photographs stored in the Kaiser Library and displayed in Rana homes.

Like many former hunters with a passion for the world’s wild places, the royal family spearheaded the conservation movement in Nepal. Under royal rule, Nepal’s exemplary protected area network was first established, encompassing landscapes in the high mountains, middle hills and Tarai plains, and preserving Nepal’s vast biodiversity in Palearctic and Indomalayan ecozones. Previously a prized royal hunting reserve, Chitwan was the country’s first national park declared in 1973 and South Asia’s first World Heritage Site in 1984.

As the king’s younger brother, Gyanendra led His Majesty’s Government conservation efforts and served on the World Wildlife Fund international board. In 1982 he founded King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation as a non-governmental and non-profit organisation, now the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), with innovative environmental and community-based solutions such as the Annapurna Conservation Area. Today protected areas cover over 20% of Nepal.

Based in their rural palaces at Kasara park headquarters or on the river near Narayanghat, King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya would stop by for some quick refreshments as part of their jungle progression. But it was Prince Gyanendra who came most often. Hosting Prince Bernhard and the elite WWF 1001 Club for several days in Chitwan in 1977, we launched gharial crocodiles with Peter Scott, discussed tiger distribution with Chuck McDougal and arranged a private dinner for the group one perfect October evening in Jim’s private bungalow, resonant with night sounds vibrating in the surrounding forest.

Not long after, Gyanendra brought the Indian Prime Minister’s son to stay. Rajiv Gandhi was still a quiet dedicated airline pilot before family pressure forced him into politics. In 1986 Gyanendra escorted Prince Philip to Tiger Tops during Queen Elizabeth’s state visit. Scratchy and acerbic, Philip growled at the press corps but was captivated by Chitwan’s wildlife and Nepal’s conservation gains.

Hosting David Attenborough in Nirmal Niwas during the filming of a BBC nature series, we marvelled at Gyanendra’s collection of mounted hunting trophies. “Looks like this rhino charged through the wall then got stuck,” giggled Sir David as we were ushered through the entrance hall.

So perhaps not “old friends”, but in a radically changed world, certainly old acquaintances with an enduring jungle connection.

Read Nepali Times interview with then Prince Gyanendra during the World Wildlife Fund Annual Meeting in Kathmandu in November 2000.

Lisa Choegyal