A blog by ZSL Publications Officer, Jonathan Kemeys
The fence stretched far into the distance, disappearing into the treeline. To the left of us lay crop fields – barley, rice, chickpeas and maize. On the other, just 50 metres away, flowed a river. Beyond that, loomed the treeline of Banke National Park.
Banke is one of Nepal’s newest protected areas, created in 2010, and Ram Jiwan Tharu was showing us around his village, Mahadeva. Summer in this area of Nepal can reach 45°C, and the light breeze coming off the river had the effect of an oven door being opened, but Ram – a cotton scarf slung fashionably over one shoulder and a trilby perched on his head – was animated as he talked to us about life in the village.
We had journeyed to Nepal ahead of ZSL’s For People, For Wildlife campaign to meet people like Ram, who live side-by-side with the country’s wildlife – his insights would help us tell their story back in the UK. At ZSL, we are raising money to continue our work with local people in Nepal, and expand into Kenya, and the fence Ram had brought us to – stretching for several kilometres – was built by our conservationists in 2018 to protect Mahadeva’s crops from raiding deer and wild boar from the forest.
“Before the national park, wild animals weren’t such a problem,” says Ram. “They were hunted, which kept the numbers down.” Now they’re protected, he says – good news for local biodiversity, but creating a new problem for farmers like Ram. “I would often lose everything – even the seeds – after an animal raid. But now, with the fence, I can grow enough chickpeas and rice to feed my family.”
With his crops safe and family’s future protected, Ram is glad wildlife is thriving and sees his community as custodians of the forest. But this relationship with wildlife wasn’t always so healthy. As a child, he remembers hunters coming from Europe, the US and Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, to hunt chital deer, jungle fowl, peacocks and Bāgha – tigers.
Tigers are rare in the jungle now, but this wasn’t always the case – Ram points to the banks of the river where hunters used to set up camp, and says it wasn’t uncommon for a dozen tigers to be killed in just a couple of weeks. “One tiger was so big that, when his skin was laid across the back of an elephant, it almost touched the floor on either side.”
Tigers around the world have paid a heavy price for humanity’s greed – there are less than 4,000 left in the wild today, an estimated 95% decline on numbers pre-1900. Banke itself has a small but growing population of 20, and for them to flourish we need more conservation programmes that address the relationship between people and wildlife.
The fence – a simple but effective solution – stops the deer and wild boar from raiding crops, meaning villagers don’t have to engage in illegal pest control to protect their livelihoods. Locals have a sustainable and secure source of income, and are less tempted by the quick returns of poaching. And the growing deer population provide more food for the tigers.
We return to Ram’s home and leave as the sun begins to set, amber sunlight filtering through the wooden roof onto the whitewashed walls of his courtyard. Our chat is punctuated by a steady stream of cows, a little startled at the new visitors, returning from their day in the pasture to Ram’s shed. We’re all in varying states of disrepair from the heat, but Ram has hardly broken into a sweat all day. He’s clearly at home here – flourishing – and support from our conservationists will ensure he and his family can continue to call Mahadeva their home.
Our For People, For Wildlife appeal has now finished, but you can still support our work helping people like Ram set up sustainable livelihoods and protecting endangered wildlife. Every pound you give still makes a huge difference for animals threatened with extinction.
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