In the forest’s heartland: My experiences at Chitwan National Park, Nepal


National Motto of Nepal जननी जन्मभूमिश्च स्वर्गादपि गरीयसी : “Janani Janma-bhoomi-scha Swargadapi Gariyasi” “Mother and motherland are superior to Heaven.

Chitwan, meaning, heart of the jungle, is the first national park of Nepal. Situated in the Terai, it is a world heritage site and a significant conservation centre. But at Chitwan, I have literally found, the heartland. Chronicled here in these posts is my time at the Biodiversity Conservation Centre, managed by the National Trust for Nature Conservation, Nepal. My purpose in being here was a research project that I undertook with two other colleagues from University of Minnesota in Summer 2015. In my time in Nepal, I realized how little I knew about my wonderful neighbours. So I have been writing almost everyday of my stay, discussing my research work and also the valuable lessons of life that Nepali people have been sharing with me, sometimes evidently, sometimes hidden in their meaningful ways. In this weekly account, I hope to keep the memories of Nepal, intact. For me, Nepal was always about the mountains, the prayer flags, the temples and the tibetan chai, but I add to the list – an extraordinary love for conservation.

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The Project: 

In the last two years, Meghauli, a small village on the fringes of Chitwan National Park (CNP), Nepal, has had to cope with 4 fatalities,11 serious injuries and about $15,000  worth of crop loss due to wild animals. The impact of this loss is grave, as the main source of livelihood in the village is agriculture. In fact, stories of loss and damage are common across the 25 toles (hamlets) in Meghauli. Sharing a border of 25 kms with the national forest, Meghauli represents one of the biggest hurdles in the dynamics between biodiversity conservation and sustainable development that Chitwan National Park currently faces.

The amount of loss in terms of lives and livelihood becomes more staggering if we consider the entire border area of the protected park: in the last 20 years, around 30 tigers have killed close to a hundred people2 in an area of 766 square kilometers. The gross data on amount of crop damage and loss is not available. Even as Nepal celebrates three years of zero poaching, mitigation of human-wildlife conflict is a growing challenge around the park’s border, an area known as the “buffer zone.”

According to World Conservation Union (World Park Congress 2003), human-wildlife conflict occurs when wildlife’s requirements overlap with those of human populations, creating costs for both residents and wild animals. Further, given that residents of CNP’s buffer zone heavily depend on forests, wildlife conservation measures cannot be successfully implemented without resolving this issue. The need to correct this issue is also crucial as the country has adopted a community-driven conservation policy. It is essential that wildlife conflict mitigation be considered a priority in order to maintain the healthy attitude that locals have towards wildlife conservation.

To this end, our study was structured around identifying various conflict mitigation efforts and local perception towards wildlife. We chose Meghauli as our study site for two reasons. First it is situated at an interesting geographical location: surrounded by CNP on three sides and bound by two rivers, Rapti and Narayani on the east and west*. Secondly, our research will inform the ongoing conflict mitigation efforts that our research collaborator, National Trust for Nature Conservation, is undertaking in the area.

In order to assess possible conflict mitigation interventions, we conducted a Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) in Meghauli. This RRA included a community participatory map to understand conflict and mitigation sites, two transect walks, 12 stakeholder interviews and a focus group using participatory intervention planning (PIP) as a framework. Through these efforts, we aimed at identifying the main areas of fund allocation by the government and buffer zone management committee in order to understand current spending in mitigation efforts, decipher possible interventions by encouraging discussion between local residents, community leaders, and technical experts, as well as factor in the history and success of human-wildlife conflict mitigation efforts in the area. Finally, we also conducted  household surveys in Meghauli from all nine wards, in order to record communities’ perceptions toward wildlife and their willingness to participate in mitigation efforts. Our sample size was 100.

The end result of this research will be presented in a final report, which will include three working models for possible interventions. We aim to arrive at these models by combining the data obtained from the RRA and the household surveys.

(Prepared with Diego Villagra Mostaceros)

Arriving at this project and methodology was itself like a journey. It was insightful to understand that very often things change on the field and an attitude of adaptability is needed. We underwent a complete project change and started from the scratch upon arriving in Nepal.

The time spent in Meghauli and the local immersion that our framework needed helped not only to develop an in-depth understanding of the research topic but also helped us fight some of the challenges that inadvertently arises out of our work as ‘outsiders’.

Contextual understanding of the project:

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It is interesting to consider the geography of Nepal’s Terai region. Home to several species of rare and protected wildlife, Chitwan National Park is bound on three sides by the rivers Rapti, Rue and Narayani. Along the park’s boundaries are community forests, which are cushioned between human settlements and the national park. One can see along the border of the buffer zone several villages and cultivated land. Conservation is an important undertaking here, but what stands out as one of the biggest barriers towards it is the conflict that arises by continual negative interaction between humans and wildlife. For both the species this place is home.   

It is not surprising that the region is responsible for 70% of the country’s agricultural production. Yet until about 1940’s, this place was home to only the indigenous tribe Tharu. There was no other human influence. Few people lived around Chitwan because of the terrain, malaria and the government policy of protecting the forests. Immune to Malaria, the Tharus engaged in hunting, fishing and subsistence agriculture. They lived in synchronization with the ecosystem of the Terai, having very little impact on the natural habitat.

In 1940’s economic conditions in the hilly regions of Nepal worsened. A malaria eradication program was successfully conducted by Government of Nepal, in the Terai and it was opened for resettlement of the people of the hills. In the next 20 years the Terai metamorphosed into Nepal’s granary. The population of the river valleys increased and hunting and poaching were rampant.

By 1960, wildlife numbers were dwindling and huge number of settlers were already living near the forest. Stories of wildlife entering villages and destroying land, property and life became a common occurrence. One of the earliest and most strenuous relations were with the big cats. The first recorded incident, occurred in 1979 near Sauraha. A school teacher was visiting the river for his daily bath when he was killed by a tiger. The tiger had crossed the river to approach him. To counter this and poaching, Chitwan National Park was declared as a protected area in 1973. It was envisioned that this would create better boundaries for both humans and animals. But the problem of conflict with animals continued. In 1985, a tigress began killing cattle and buffalo in Madi Valley, south of Chitwan.  It is this close coexistence of humans and animals, and the fragmented bureaucratic conservation efforts that caused greatest concern to the government as it impacted both development and conservation.

In an effort to counteract these roadblocks, Nepal introduced buffer zones all around the protected park. The first buffer zone in Nepal was established in 1996 near Chitwan. The aim of creating the buffer zones was to encourage ‘safe zones’ in the forest where the locals could visit for natural resource extraction. It was also made to ensure that the locals are restricted to the border of the forest is better monitored. The program established a three-tier community-based institutional model that included user groups, user committees and a buffer zone management council. Each user group was responsible for a buffer zone forest, known as a community forest. Gradually, the locals took ownership of the community forest and the attitude towards conservation improved. The rivers formed boundaries of the community forests.

Today, this community based approach to conservation management, includes sharing of revenues from protected areas with local people living in the buffer zone. But even after two decades of community forestry, the conflict with animals still impacts lives of people living around the park. The reasons for this constant conflict are several: the increasing population of wild animals, continued migration, flooding of the river and lack of a substantial intervention program, have made living on the fringe a daily battle. In the last 20 years, around 30 tigers have killed close to a hundred people in an area of 766 square kilometers. The gross data on amount of crop damage and loss is not available. Decision-makers, conservation officers, and the public at large agree that human-wildlife conflict (HWC) continues to pose a major hurdle if the success achieved in terms of biodiversity conservation is to be matched in the area of sustainable development. Given the sheer size of CNP, this remains a feature of all the areas bordering the park to some degree or another. 

References: Tiger Moon, Fiona and Mel Sunquist, 1988

   thumb_IMG_6936_1024Planning the survey at Meghauli 

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Participatory Mapping: Meghauli

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 It was a pleasure meeting these people in Meghauli 

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Bicycles: Our lifeline

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Local power 

About Biodiversity Conservation Centre: 

The Biodiversity Conservation Centre (BCC) is one of the most active research and conservation centre of National Trust for Nature Conservation. Established in 1989 after the successful completion of tiger research, this centre has since then been actively involved in conservation of wildlife coupled with community development. Presently, the program coordinator at BCC is Dr. Chiranjibi Prasad Pokharel who has researched extensively on camera trapping of tigers. He has close to three decades of experience in conservation and he beautifully balances both development and conservation. Ram Kumar Aryal is the Administrative Head and both of them manage the affairs at the organization. Bisnu Lama and Harkaman Lama are very well-known senior wildlife experts who have experience of conservation in several countries. There is a team of very proficient researchers, Shashank Poudel, Babu Ram Lamichhane. A strong veterinary department and a young and promising veterinary Dr Amir Sadaula. Asis Grg is a trained conservationist and his work in animal rescue is very promising. Wildlife technicians like Tirtha and Tikaram are a blessing to the BCC. There is also a vibrant team of young researchers working on wetland conservation. I have not even mentioned the many wildlife experts, administrators, staff that work with a passion in their heart.  Hopefully through my weekly accounts I can introduce them here. The centre is visited by academicians from around the world and it’s a place of continuous learning.

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Weekly Account: Nepal Diaries

I have been writing every day, almost. Here are the links to my journey.

Week 1 

Week 2

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One thought on “In the forest’s heartland: My experiences at Chitwan National Park, Nepal

  1. Excellent piece of writing! Really enjoyed the narrative and got a peek into a different world. Your personal perspective adds so much meaning! 🙂

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