Mike MacEacheran | The lost rhinos of Bardia National Park, Geographical
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The lost rhinos of Bardia National Park, Geographical

In the remote far west of Nepal, Bardia National Park is a haven for rare wildlife, indigenous culture and biodiversity. But haunted by years of civil war, the survival of this delicate ecosystem has been in the balance. Now, local stakeholders believe the park has the potential to become one of the best ecotourism destinations in Asia.

Driving through Bardia National Park’s rickety wooden gates, which flank the entrance like ravaged pearly gates, it feels like entering a long forgotten Eden. Verdant savannah grasses billow in the breeze and canopies of pea green forest leaves rustle in the sunshine. Above, the skies shake as Langur monkeys pounce from tree to tree. Despite the unabashed splendour, there is complete silence and not a tourist in sight.

Bardia has been blessed with a unique proposition. Deep within its 968 square kilometres of riverine forest, await Nepal’s healthiest population of wild elephants, roaming greater one-horned rhinoceros, gharial crocodiles and critically threatened Royal Bengal tigers and cubs. There are also more than 102 recorded tree species and gatherings of giant hornbills, sarus crane and black stork. Yet despite this, Bardia has long fallen off the map.

As travel to and from the area has been at the mercy of local politics, Bardia receives only a clutch of tourists. Rather than venture beyond the pages of the travel brochure, visitors to Nepal choose instead to ride on elephant back through the more fashionable Chitwan Park, a few hours south of Kathmandu. Located in the Far Western Region of the country, however, Bardia is the largest national park in the lowland Terai and is more primed for eco-tourism. It feels like a million miles from anywhere: yet with some assistance, it could easily become one of the best parks in Asia.

Originally annexed from Nepal to India by the British Empire’s East India Company in 1815, Bardia and the Far Western Region have had a long and tumultuous history. Indeed, the area, which stretches from Nepalganj to state capital Dipayal, is still called Naya Muluk, meaning new country.

Established as the Royal Karnali Wildlife Reserve in 1976, to protect a variety of ecosystems and Asia’s most potent tiger population, Bardia was originally the jewel of Western Nepal. In 1982, 1500 households of the indigenous Tharu people were resettled outside the park, allowing the vegetation and wildlife to flourish. Sheltered by the mighty spine of Himalayan peaks to the north, and cradled by the reassuring twists and turns of the Karnali River to the West and South, the reserve became the ideal breeding ground for a number of species.

Following the relocation of 83 rhinoceros from Chitwan during the late ’80s by the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) – and a boundary extension to include the Babai River Valley – Bardia achieved national park status. Receiving a royal decree from the then King of Nepal, the stage was set for the country’s premier area of biodiversity to blossom and breathe. But that was before Nepal’s descent into a ten year period of Maoist strikes, uprisings and guerrilla warfare.

During the late ’90s and early ’00s, the park became overrun by Maoist insurgents and communist rebels installed makeshift camps on the banks of the Karnali River from where to run their anti-monarchist campaigns. Poaching became rife and the effect on the indigenous wildlife was near catastrophic. The resident population of 55,000 spotted deer was decimated; now, there are only 10,000. Bardia, in turn, became a paradise lost.

Salvation has come in the form of local environmentalists, government intervention and a series of innovative park management strategies. Over the past few years, a United Nations peace deal has been brokered, animal numbers have started to rise, and the environmental fight back from local stakeholders has been swift. For the time being at least, Bardia is a paradise maintained.

“The nature guides, elephant mahouts, and regular stewards within the camps are made up of 95 per cent local people from Bardia – so they all have a part in the web of inter-relationships between tourism, business, and the natural environment,” explains Marcus Cotton, chief executive of Tiger Mountain Nepal, a patron of a number of Bardia’s sustainability initiatives. “I’m an optimist – but the cynic in me notes that if there was no prospect for tourism, more local young men would move away, seeking work in the regional towns, thus reducing pressure on the park for resources and as a poaching base.”

Subash Gurung, a Bardia field guide, is one such stakeholder keen to make a positive impact. Having relocated from Chitwan National Park, he is hopeful that Bardia is on the verge of a long overdue regeneration. In the past 12 months, he has seen a dramatic increase in animal sightings and a renewed focus on environmental protectionism from the local Tharu communities. “Everything declined very badly during the insurgency,” he recalls as we drive further into the park. But the smile on his face does not disappear for long. “It was a very bad time for the park and the people here neglected it, though I am sure we can recover what we once lost.” On Subash’s regular trips into the jungle, to help support biodiversity research and guide handfuls of intrepid visitors, he has counted 40 tiger and more than 100 rhino sightings in the past 18 months. A few years ago, that would have been unheard of.

Although the Tharu live close to the forest, for centuries their legacy has been based on subsistence agriculture and fishing, with hunting being of almost no importance. However, with the rise of poaching throughout Asia, many local men have become lured by greater financial rewards. Locals have been hired as middle men and paid thousands of rupees just for information as to where the tigers and rhinos are. Used in Chinese medicine, a poached tiger is believed to fetch between £15,000 and £30,000 for the carcass, penis and bones. During the Maoist insurgency, it was impossible to police.

Joining us on our Bardia visit, head guide Rajan Chaudhary explains that government efforts make a negligible impact on improving matters. “The Nepali government has a small fund for anti-poaching activities but this is dwarfed by private investment and donations from NGOs and tourist lodges,” he says. “The government’s attitude makes me very frustrated. We see everything in decline and there is no investment to help stem the loss.” Now, one thousand soldiers are commissioned to patrol the park throughout the year for security. In contrast, back in 1998, there were four times as many and they were involved in a very different type of war.

What makes Ranjan more hopeful is another touted project: for which his enthusiasm and energy is palpable. With provincial support from WWF Nepal, the Nepali government’s on going Terai Arc Landscape Programme (TAL) is attempting to right Bardia’s wrongs. The first step is to increase the park’s size and safety net buffer zone to maximise animal breeding and migration between Bardia and the neighbouring Banke National Park.

With the aim of strengthening biodiversity conservation along the contiguous Indo-Nepal border, WWF India is also at the forefront of introducing cross-boundary protection measures and attempts are underway to create a green corridor between Bardia, Banke and India’s Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. Bardia and Banke National Parks – often collectively known as the Tiger Conservation Unit (TCU) – could one day offer a protected area of 1,518 square kilometres. Currently, a lack of funding is holding up their assimilation, but if successful, it will become the biggest tiger conservation area in the whole of Asia.

As we progress deeper into the park, our jeep’s wheels softly grumbling as they spin in the dirt, the truth of what Subash and Rajan are saying becomes increasingly apparent. We draw closer to the remnant ox-bow lakes, which fringe the riverbank left over from the monsoon, and animal sightings become more and more frequent. Within the space of an hour, as we cross over undulating riverbeds and past seven metre tall grasses and bulrushes, we spot four rhino and their young, a herd of roaming wild elephants, spotted deer and mugger crocodiles. The unmistakeable paw-prints of a female tiger and her cubs are also freshly printed on a riverbank.

Later that day, in the burning sunshine outside the park’s buffer zone, the indigenous Tharu and local stakeholders are eager to share their stories and perspectives. For local environmentalists, one of the most celebrated projects is the area’s menthol agriculture project. With the assistance of the WWF, local farmers have been encouraged to adopt more lucrative cash crops in favour of traditional rice and grains. Far less attractive to the park’s wildlife as a food source, the menthol crop acts as a natural barrier to fence the local animal population within Bardia and – as a result – the human-wildlife conflict has been significantly reduced.

Populated by clusters of thatched huts and oxen pulling carts, the village of Thakurdwara is the epitome of this success story. Gaurie Malaker, manager of the Karnali Lodge, introduces me to a number of industrious local farmers who have since reaped significant financial rewards, more than doubling their previous annual income. Compared to the loose change rice was once sold for, menthol and camomile now have a stronger market value and are worth between 1000 and 3500 rupees per kilogram. “It’s a sound investment for the farmers,” she translates, though none is really needed: the farmers’ tobacco stained grins speak more than words ever could.

Above and beyond this, the tourist lodges have also introduced a pioneering bio-briquette scheme for the Tharu Women’s Group, Ajrar. Initiated to discourage deforestation and to raise conservation awareness – firewood is still illegally taken from the fringes of the park for domestic use – Gaurie has shown the Tharu that fuel can be made from a number of waste products including fruit rinds, rice husks, dried leaves or sawdust and used as an alternative energy source. “This places less strain on Bardia’s resources and lessens harmful toxic emissions,” she adds. The finished product is a thick, disk-shaped briquette that is beginning to be produced on a more industrious scale than she had ever anticipated. It is hoped that it will become a catalyst for a much more harmonious relationship between the Tharu and their homeland.

Before I leave, I can sense the region’s optimism. On one hand, the end of the Maoist insurgency has made the country safe again and the government’s concerted efforts to promote 2011 as Visit Nepal Year should lead to an overall increase in tourists, with a financial bonus to address Bardia’s needs on top. On the other, the rangers are aware that the park is only equipped to deal with an incremental rise at represent: anything more would place a severe strain on the park’s embryonic infrastructure, resources and tourist lodgings.

“If the word got out that this was the most pristine environment to see a tiger in the wild then we’d need to find the right balance to protect them yet benefit from them,” concludes Rajan. He remains cautious, but the lure of a tourist surge is a big incentive. “If more tourists can come and appreciate Bardia’s tigers, elephants and rhinos, then surely that would be good for everybody?” It may be the best hope that this pristine wilderness has for becoming a paradise regained.