Connecting Tigers Through Community Forests
Caught in the stifling heat of the terai plains of Nepal, Sheren Shrestha finds respite in the wildernesses of the Khata corridor. As he navigates the forest, guided by the Terai Arc Landscape (TAL)-Nepal programme team, he learns about the initiatives undertaken by the Nepal government and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to secure wild cat populations by protecting and resurrecting crucial wildlife corridors.
Photo: Simon de TREY-WHITE/WWF-UK
In the stifling heat of the Terai plains in southwestern Nepal, Maya Yogi Tharu leads us through the Khata wildlife corridor. Accompanied by two local forest guides armed with sticks, we observe countless deer pellets, rhino footprints and tiger signs.
I am in awe as Maya recounts her experience. “Just, two decades ago, these were eroded remnants of ancient jungles, thick with human encroachments, few animals and untenable forest exploitation.” The forest we see today is a stark contrast, dense with vegetation and abundant evidence of wildlife.
The Khata wildlife corridor connects Bardia National Park (NP) of Nepal to the Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in India, providing passage for tigers and other large mammals. It is a small stretch of land spread over 5,000 hectares, but is one of the critical linkages forming the larger trans boundary Terai Arc Landscape (TAL).
Stretching 49,000 sq. km. from the Bagmati river in eastern Nepal to the Yamuna river plains in northern India, TAL comprises a mosaic of Protected Areas (PAs), national forests and corridors in a human-modified landscape. Over 23,199 sq. km. falls in Nepal across 14 districts of southern plains and mid-hills.
In the early 20th century, contiguous forests extended along this sub-Himalayan belt. Historical hunting records indicate rich wildlife assemblage. The publication, Tigers of the World, records: “…in 1933–1934 (when) 41 tigers were shot in 11 days, another 77 were killed in a three-month period in 1935–1936, and 120 more were shot during 1938–1939, bringing the total to 238 tigers killed in the Central lowlands (Chitwan). In the same six-year period, 423 tigers or roughly 70 per year were killed across the Terai (lowlands) of Nepal.”
Royal hunting grounds aside, these forests presented a formidable natural barrier. Infested with malaria-causing mosquitoes, the only residents were indigenous Tharu tribes people – who were immune to the disease.
The mid-1950s saw the beginning of drastic changes in this landscape, following successful malaria eradication. The forests were cleared for timber, allowing large-scale influx of settlers.
To counter rapid forest degeneration, Nepal initiated concerted tiger conservation action in the 1970s. Chitwan was declared the first national park of Nepal in 1973. Subsequently, more PAs were notified, including Bardia in 1988. These parks were a refuge for the wildlife of Terai, protected by new laws, administrations, and deployment of the Nepal Army. Yet, political instabilities in the 1990s brought about further erosion of these natural asylums.
Photo: Simon de TREY-WHITE/WWF-UK
COMMUNITY FORESTS: CHAIN-LINKING TIGER HABITATS
In 2001, the TAL (Terai Arc Landscape)-Nepal programme was launched by the government and WWF to safeguard the extant wilderness of Terai. This programme was a visionary approach to establish secure wild populations of tigers, rhinos and other wildlife in this intensely human-dominated landscape. The strategy involved securing inter-linkages like Khata between wild habitats while addressing critical underlying threats, in collaboration with authorities and local communities.
In Khata, the TAL programme created a ‘chain’ of community forests linking Bardia to Katarniaghat. Three community forests had already been established in the late 1990s. The TAL programme took this concept of community forestry, further and deeper, to find sustainable solutions for wildlife and people.
Led by the government’s Department of Forests and Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, the TAL programme reached out to the community.
“Since the initiation of the TAL programme, there has been considerable positive impact on the Khata corridor,” says Ramesh Thapa, former Chief Conservation Officer, who retired in 2018 after decades of service in Bardia NP. “This programme brought together government, non-government institutions and other conservation supporters under one platform, contributing to both conservation and development.”
Maya joined the TAL programme in its first year, with primary responsibility to mobilise community support for conservation. With thousands of households to reach out to, her task was anything but easy. Conservation was perceived a threat to people’s nature-dependent livelihoods. Agricultural expansion, encroachment, livestock grazing, extraction of forest products including wildlife, timber and fuelwood, were rampant. Poverty, population increase, inadequate livelihood opportunities, low awareness, and weak governance, were other chronic issues to contend with.
“It was a difficult start,” Maya recounts the aggression she endured. “We would go from village to village to help create community forests. Often, people misinterpreted our efforts, and I was even threatened by the people.” Fortunately, there was support from those who understood that the status quo was unsustainable. Integrating people’s welfare in conservation, the TAL programme mobilised people’s support, gradually, to form community forests – created and managed by the local people.
Each community forest was backed by collaborative efforts for holistic conservation. Under the country’s Forest Act, 1993, communities worked together to map their forest boundaries and developed operation plans for sustainable management.
“Building institutional capacity of community members to effectively execute the individual operation plans was essential. But, there was also need to reduce people’s dependence on forests,” says Sabita Malla, Senior Manager, WWF Nepal.
Photo: DNPWC/WWF Nepal
A NEO-CONSERVATION PROGRAMME
The TAL programme promoted – and helped communities adopt – conservation-friendly alternative livelihoods and lifestyles. It offered solutions that toggled together to achieve the overall goal. For instance, installation of domestic biogas plants increased incentives to promote stall-feeding of livestock and reduce household firewood consumption, decrease grazing pressure and resource extraction from forests. Today, over 15,000 biogas units have been installed across the TAL landscape.
“With each unit estimated to reduce 4.5 tons of fuelwood usage, this initiative potentially helps conserve hundreds of hectares of forests each year,” says Ugan Manandhar, former Deputy Director – Climate Change, WWF Nepal.
Today, the Khata corridor is a patchwork of over 70 community forests, managed by respective communities. More than 9,000 households work in coordination to preserve and sustainably benefit from these forests. And more community forests are being created with locals themselves addressing issues including poaching, encroachment and habitat improvement.
The significance of such initiatives cannot be overstated for a natural resources-dependent country like Nepal whose forest cover stands at around 45 per cent of the total geographical area of 147,181 sq. km. Protected Areas make up for 23 per cent, while community-managed forests such as those in Khata corridor add another 12 per cent to the biodiversity-friendly wilderness.
Apart from increasing forest cover, the Khata corridor serves as a vital conduit for wildlife. “After the implementation of TAL, there was an increased use of corridor forests by flagship species such as tigers and rhinos,” reported Acharya et al. 2008, in their publication State of Land Degradation and Rehabilitation Efforts in Nepal.
“In the latest national survey, we camera-trapped 13 individual tigers here,” adds Malla, who helped coordinate the survey. “We have also recorded tiger with cubs, and rhinos with calves.”
“Not only tigers and rhinos, but other large mammals including elephants use the corridor to move between Bardia and India’s Katarniaghat,” adds Thapa. “Khata allows genetic flow between these two habitats, reducing in-breeding and creating healthy populations of tigers.”
Despite these successes, efforts to crease out challenges continue. Wildlife conflict keeps Maya on edge. She speaks of difficulties facing many families, of houses destroyed, of people killed, and of potential solutions, aware that there may be no panacea. Preventing and mitigating conflicts is a vital priority as is prevention of encroachments, poaching, invasion by exotic weeds, among others.
Photo: Akash Babu Shrestha/WWF Nepal
Nevertheless, Khata exemplifies neo-conservation in our anthropocentric world: a story written by the people – 50,000 residents of the corridor, united to achieve a common goal. Recent reports of increasing tiger numbers in Nepal vindicates this story. Aligning improvement in people’s lives and enhancing their faith in nature, the Khata corridor adds to the country’s wilderness, and helps the country move closer to achieving the target of doubling its tiger population by 2022. Above all, it provides a prototype for conservation in an increasingly complex world, balancing needs of, and benefiting, both nature and people.
Author: Sheren Shrestha, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 12, December 2018.