As we walk, run and cycle through our Around the World challenge, this week we’re visiting Nepal, to hear how ZSL is helping to build a better future for communities local to the country’s national parks, and the wildlife they live alongside…
It’s 7am. Mist hangs heavy in the air and sunlight filters through the leaves above, the nightly chorus of cicadas is drawing to an end and the birds of Bardia National Park in south-western Nepal have begun their morning song. Manju Mahatara stands on the edge of the forest. Unlike her grandmother and mother before her, who braved these woods in search of firewood and food for their livestock, Manju is a nature guide, trained by ZSL, and preparing to lead a group of tourists into the park in search of wildlife such as the greater one-horned rhinoceros.
“Rhinos have poor eyesight, but a very good sense of smell,” she says, armed only with a simple wooden staff and a pair of binoculars. “They are normally shy, but if we encounter an aggressive rhino we must drop our bags and run in a zig-zag direction. They’ll be distracted by the smell of our bags, giving us time to move away or climb a tree.”
A senior guide with two years’ experience, 23-year-old Manju is one of 17 female guides in Bardia National Park who have been trained by ZSL. Her career path might have been unthinkable a decade earlier. Until recently, tradition placed women at the centre of the home; wives, mothers, cooks, cleaners, fabric-menders and farmhands, but rarely leaders, entrepreneurs or breadwinners. Now, with the help of Nepal’s Government, ZSL and local conservation charities, communities living on the edges of Nepal’s national parks – areas termed ‘buffer zones’ – are rising up to take charge of the forest around them and finding new ways to live alongside nature.
Life in the buffer zone of a national park is tough, says Manju. “We don’t have the industries of cities like Kathmandu, so we have relied on traditional methods of making money, like farming. Before my job as a guide, I worked part-time as a cook to earn the money to pay my school fees. If I wasn’t a nature guide I would be helping my parents on their farm. Previously, people cut firewood and sold it for money,” she adds. “With ZSL’s support, we can earn money by sharing the wildlife with tourists, and stop going into the jungle to cut down trees.”
From conflict to coexistence
Bardia and Banke National Parks sit together at the western end of Nepal’s lowlands. They are part of a string of national parks dotted throughout the Terai Arc – a hugely important slice of grassland, jungle and river systems almost three times the size of Wales, which runs along Nepal’s southern border and into neighbouring India.
Established in 1988 and 2010 respectively, Bardia and Banke contain over 100 tigers, making the area one of the most important tiger strongholds in the world. There are also more than 120 wild Asian elephants and 50 greater one-horned rhinos in Bardia alone, and the parks are a prized destination for wildlife tourism. Wildlife’s success has come at a cost, though. Nepal’s tiger population has doubled in the past decade, and the good news has brought a new challenge for local people – how to avoid conflict with wild animals and ensure their own wellbeing. That is not always easy when dominant tigers take the best territory, driving younger or older individuals, as well as leopards, in search of new homes outside the park boundaries.
“A tiger recently broke into this shed and killed a cow,” says Ram Jiwan Tharu, a farmer in the village of Mahadeva, pointing to a building 50m down the road from his home. “In 2010, a herd of 35 elephants entered our village, destroying many of our crops.”
His family was forced to take shelter in a nearby machan, a type of watchtower built to withstand elephant attack. Ram himself has lost seven cows in two years to big cats and has applied to the Nepal Government for compensation. Just that morning, a fresh tiger footprint was discovered in the pasture near his home. And the problem does not stop there: “Wild boar and deer leave the national park to raid our crops on a daily basis,” says Ram.
Now, with help from ZSL, the community of Mahadeva – and similar villages across Nepal – have installed perimeter fences to protect crops, predator-proof corrals for livestock and early-warning systems to warn villagers of big cats or elephants approaching.
“Protecting wildlife is very important to me,” says Ram, “but ensuring the safety of my village and our food is my priority. Before, we were unable to grow rice, because wild boar and deer would eat everything. With the fencing, my crops are safe and I can feed my children.”
Communities vs the illegal wildlife trade
Now 69 years old, Ram recalls a time in his childhood when tourists from the US and Europe would arrive at his jungle to hunt tigers. “On one occasion, 12 tigers were killed in just three weeks,” he says. He talks of how one tiger, chased towards a gunman standing on a wooden platform by an entourage of beaters, managed to dodge the machine-gun fire. Just before reaching the gunman, the tiger was shot dead by a watching policeman. The policeman was promoted.
Thankfully, the poaching of tigers, rhinos and elephants has been largely eradicated in Nepal, with only a handful of incidents reported in the past decade. Commitment from the Government and the support of the Nepalese army to guard the parks are significant deterrents. However, pangolin poaching and the hunting of bushmeat – the wild boar, deer and other game that play an important role in the forest – remain a problem. For communities where the average wage might be less than £8 per day, the kilo of pangolin scales that will eventually earn £2,500 on the black market is an understandably appealing prospect.
Tackling this from the ground up, ZSL has teamed up with several villages in the buffer zones throughout Nepal to set up community anti-poaching units; groups of volunteers whose role is to instruct people on the value of wildlife, dissuade others from illegal activity and report to the national parks.
Krishna Lal Chaudhary is chairman of Banke’s community anti-poaching group. “Poaching is only possible with the help of the local community,” he says. “We are a barrier against those who would try to kill animals.” In rare cases a physical barrier – on one occasion he and other members even stood shoulder to shoulder along the perimeter of the forest, having received a tip-off.
“The anti-poaching units are also a chance to bring together our young people, and build a forum for their development and the protection of wildlife.”
“We have 1,000 members in the buffer zone of Bardia National Park alone,” says Manju. “It feels really special to be a part of a like-minded group.
“In Bardia, human-wildlife conflict is a big problem for conservation,” she adds. “At night, elephants often come into the villages, taking crops or even killing people – making people very angry.” Tourism, she hopes, will help to change attitudes and let people see wildlife as a benefit to the community.
Saving tigers, rhinos, elephants and pangolins starts with people. People like Manju, Krishna and Ram who, with ZSL’s help, are finding new ways to live alongside wildlife.