1-7 April 2016 #802

Save nature from politicians

Patronage and corruption threaten to undo Nepal’s achievements in conservation.

Bikram Rai

One achievement that Nepalis can justifiably feel proud of is nature conservation. In a country where a vertical topography bestows such a stunning spectrum of biodiversity, preserving nature is Nepal’s contribution to protecting the global environment.

The foundations of conservation in this country were laid during the much-vilified Panchayat, and it was royal patronage that saved our national parks from the devastation that has been seen in India and elsewhere.

In earlier times, the jungles of the Tarai were decimated by trophy hunting. In 1850, Jang Bahadur Rana infamously killed 30 tigers in just one hunt. In 1911, Nepal’s rulers hosted King George V in Chitwan, and the 600-elephant hunting expedition massacred 36 tigers, 18 rhinos, and innumerable leopards, bears and even porcupines in a day of bloodshed. That gory record was broken by Juddha Shamsher who personally slaughtered 433 tigers from 1933 to 1940.

Nepal’s royal families later turned from being avid hunters to ardent conservationists. But, by then there was an even more lethal threat to wildlife: habitat loss caused by national policy of transmigration of hill peoples to the plains during King Mahendra’s reign.

The tide turned in 1973 when enlightened Nepali environmentalists and the royal government set aside what was left of Chitwan into a 923 sq km national park and a World Heritage Site. The tiger and the rhino were rescued from the brink of extinction, and there are now over 200 tigers and 500 rhinos in Chitwan alone. Gharials released into the wild from a breeding centre in Nepal have been found as far downstream as the Ganges delta in Bangladesh.

After the democratic transition, however, political interference and corruption threaten to undo past achievements. Wildlife poachers with political protection thrive amidst Nepal’s unstable transition. There is demographic pressure as the population of the Tarai explodes. The proposed East-West Railway alignment bifurcates Chitwan, jeopardising the park’s integrity. Pollution, overfishing and dam construction on the Narayani endanger aquatic fauna and the reptiles and birds that depend on it for food.

Despite all these hazards, Chitwan survived because of the pragmatism shown by Nepal’s early conservationists in partnering with local communities. The antagonistic ‘people vs park’ practice seen in other nature reserves was replaced by a ‘people for park’ approach. Community forests were set up in the buffer zone, villagers were allowed in to cut thatch once a year, and in return they helped by providing intelligence about the activities of poachers.

Chitwan also became a model for eco-tourism and sustainable nature protection. In the 1970s and 80s, it was Tiger Tops Jungle Resort -- with rooms located on the high branches of tall sal trees -- that introduced exotic Chitwan (and Nepal) to the world. Not only did the lodge showcase the amazing work done to conserve Nepal’s biodiversity but, by attracting upmarket world travellers, brought the government substantial revenue that was ploughed back into conservation work in Chitwan and other national parks.

In 2012, Tiger Tops and a few other concessions lost their contracts. The argument was ostensibly that such resorts disturbed the wilderness area, but as we reported in this paper back then, it was mainly due to political pressure exerted by lodge owners in Sauraha who thought they could corner the upscale tourism market. Today, Sauraha has become a backpacker strip, overrun mainly by cheap eateries and sleazy bars, earning it the moniker ‘Thamel by the Park’. Meanwhile, Nepal lost the only destinations it once had for high-end safari tourism in the same league as Cottar’s 1920s Camp in Kenya’s Masai Mara, or Four Seasons in Tanzania’s Serengeti.

The debate about whether or not concessions should be given out to the highest bidders to set up resorts inside the park has hotted up again after the Supreme Court overturned its own earlier ban in a decision in 2014. The government is drawing up guidelines to regulate future contracts for park lodges.

We have misgivings about allowing resorts inside the park given the state of lawlessness and impunity, the politics of patronage and reckless kleptocracy prevalent in Nepal today. As we have seen with shady petroleum contracts, the protection of black-marketers and the state’s involvement in illegal sand-mining and logging, Chitwan concessions could very well go not to the most bonafide bidder, but to the ones offering the juiciest kickbacks.

Even so we cannot -- and indeed we should not -- halt progress any more than we could stop breathing just because the air is too polluted. Our effort should be targeted towards cleaning up the park lodge industry, and reviving the successful eco-tourism model that allowed Nepal’s national parks to be sustainably conserved through revenue from high-end tourism.

Read also:

Restoring resorts, Smriti Basnet

Conservation and tourism, Kristjan Edwards

Quality control in tourism, Robin Marston

Resorting to politics, Lukas Grimm

Conservation matters, Hum Gurung

Trespassing into nature, Sunir Pandey and Bhrikuti Rai

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