By Sheren Shrestha
Our world is full of ironies. And at times thankfully so. At one end of the conservation spectrum, scientific research provides evidence of the sixth mass extinction of global biodiversity, fuelled by peoples thoughtless actions. At the other end are cases of victories - revival of local wildlife populations, due to human initiatives and positive action. No story represents this better than that of the tiger.
I have been fortunate to work with protagonists of conservation in India, and be associated with these stories of change. Notwithstanding questions on national populations, experts agree on the improved status of tigers in well-managed Protected Areas (PAs) in the country.
In 2016, I returned to my native country of Nepal, amidst news of successes in tiger conservation. Nepal, like India, has been working to protect its tigers. Its tiger population increased from 121 in 2008 to 198 in 2013, a 63 per cent spike in five years! While Nepals achievement, including possibly meeting the Tx2 target well in advance, was exhorted, there has been little mention of the efforts that went into bringing this about.
When I joined WWF Nepal that year, my colleague Sabita Malla offered me an opportunity to document the Himalayan nations success story. This is the story of Banke - a young national park created to boost the countrys efforts to double its tiger population. “Banke is one among many victories that helped Nepals case for the tigers," she said.
A Diamond in the Rough
Spread across 550 sq. km., this western Nepal Protected Area is part of the much larger, 49,000 sq. km. transboundary Terai Arc Landscape (TAL). Contiguous with the Bardia National Park, it is connected to the Suhelwa Wildlife Sanctuary in India and supports over 300 species of birds and 34 species of mammals including tigers.
In 1998, two decades prior to its notification as a national park, Banke was recognised for its rich biodiversity, as a ‘Gift to the Earth by the WWF Network. Nonetheless, comprising rather dry habitats - Churia (Shivalik) Hills to the north and Bhabhar forests to the south, Bankes potential to host tigers remained largely ignored and underappreciated. As with other unprotected forests, it faced immense pressures from resource extraction, poaching and encroachment.
In the late 2000s, as tiger range countries prepared to commit to doubling their tiger populations, it was evident that in Nepal, improving conservation in existing Protected Areas and notifying still more suitable habitats would be critical to securing wildlife through linkages/corridors that enabled free movement. This brought the focus sharply on Banke and efforts were reinitiated to preserve it.
In 2010, Banke was declared a national park but fringe communities perceived the move as a threat to their livelihoods. By definition, the national park status would prohibit the extraction of forest resources and grazing. It was a matter of the long-term sustained benefits that people were unaware of, versus short-term gains that they currently depended on.
Protests ensued, and many faced arrests, including Sabitra Pun, who was to later become President of the Buffer Zone Management Committee (BZMC) of Banke National Park. “We were not protesting the creation of the national park, but rather the way in which it was declared. It should have been done in consultation with the public," she stated.
The TAL Nepal programme - a joint initiative of the Nepal Governments Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation (MoFSC) and WWF Nepal - began to undertake multi-dimensional efforts to revive Banke, starting with reaching out to the community. Generating awareness, the programme allowed people to understand the benefits that would accrue over time, for themselves and their progeny. Moreover, revenues generated from the park would be shared with the buffer zone communities, as stipulated in the fourth (1992) amendment to the countrys National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act.
With community support, the TAL Nepal programme in Banke-funded by Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation (LDF), USAID, WWF U.K., WWF U.S., WWF Finland and WWF Canada among other donors, carried out multiple initiatives. Local communities managed community forests in the buffer zone and the Kamdi corridor connecting Banke to Suhelwa, where natural regeneration, afforestation, anti-poaching and sustainable natural resource use was the order of the day. The communities were also encouraged and supported to adopt alternative livelihoods and lifestyles to reduce their dependence on forests.
“Carefully-crafted community-focused programmes on alternative energy and sustainable livelihoods by the TAL programme helped to reduce pressure on forests and avenues for local people to support their livelihoods was created, which eventually motivated them towards conservation," recalls Tilak Dhakal, Co-Manager of TAL-Protected Areas and Buffer Zone Support Project.
Changes and Relocations
Within the park, monitoring and protection mechanisms were improved. Firelines were constructed to interrupt forest fires and prevent them from spreading, and also to facilitate patrolling. Anti-poaching camps and watchtowers were created, and capacity-building for the park staff was augmented. As with most other PAs in the country, the Nepal Army deployed its troop for protection and management of the area. Habitat management steps such as weed removal to encourage palatable plants, and the development of perennial waterholes for wildlife were instituted. Two villages from within the park agreed to shift voluntarily, thus adding greatly to the potential for biodiversity to return.
Sitting on the terrace of his modest house along the highway close to Banke National Park, Mahendra Pun, a voluntary relocation beneficiary from Gotheri settlement, says, “We used to herd livestock or do farming there (in Banke). Here, (in the relocated area) the land value is better; we find job opportunities in nearby towns. For entrepreneurs too, this place is good. Its much better for us here."
Cleared of human presence, the Gotheri grassland today harbours a healthy population of prey species and tigers. The outcome of such initiatives is evident. “Beginning with just a few signs in the late 2000s, Banke recorded three individual tigers in 2013. Since then, the numbers have increased steadily - to four individuals in 2014, six in 2015, nine in 2016 and 13 in the latest survey. These also include breeding females," informs Lal Bahadur Bhandari, Assistant Conservation Officer, Banke National Park.
“We are trying to promote sustainable tourism to increase revenues that are shared with communities," Bhandari stresses, adding that 30-50 per cent of the parks annual earning are spent on consultative community development.
Even as efforts to streamline the management continue, challenges exist - road kills on the 100 km. stretch of East-West Highway passing along the parks southern boundary are worrisome; an irrigation canal fragments the park; and the invasion of grasslands by weeds is a real and present threat.
As might be imagined, wildlife conflict is a cause for concern, as are poaching and on-going encroachment. Yet, by strengthening Bankes biodiversity potential, effective protected tiger habitats in Nepal now spread across 5,500 sq. km. in five national parks and their respective buffer zones.
Above all, this opens up an additional 7,600 sq. km. of Churia Range as potential habitat, to help secure the future of tigers in Nepal. Without a doubt, Banke offers tigers greater hope. It also demonstrates how the adaptability of these big cats can help to not merely augment their populations, but actually return ecological balance to lands that many had written off as beyond repair.
There are umbilical links between the restoration of natural ecosystems and the improvement of the quality and security of human life. For decades, economists, politicians, and planners across the world have regarded protecting wildernesses such as Banke as a ‘luxury… particularly when contrasted with the need to create jobs, feed people and improve the human condition. This situation has now changed. Increasingly, world leaders, with some infamous exceptions, have accepted that biodiverse landscapes, such as the critical tiger habitat complex covering the four transboundary Protected Areas - Bardia and Banke in Nepal and the Katerniaghat and Suhelwa Wildlife Sanctuaries in India - are landscapes of renewed hope, not only for tigers, but for millions whose survival always has and always will be dependent on our ability to adapt to nature instead of trying to refashion nature to fit into our distorted concepts of development.