Nepali Times Asian Paints
Going, going gone


OUTRAGE: A male rhino with its horn hacked off found in Bardiya National Park in April,
Travelling west on the East-West Highway between Bardiya and Sukla Phanta till as recently as ten years ago one passed unbroken hardwood jungle with occasional settlements.

Today, there are a few scraggly patches of forests, and even these have no undergrowth because of over-grazing. The national parks themselves show signs of encroachment.

The most dramatic deforestation has taken place in the two years after April 2006, as political parties, the landless, criminals and illegal loggers have all used the weakness of the state to clear the jungles. And this process went out of control during the April elections.

At the Banke DFO, an official shrugs as he shows permits issued to cut trees: most were given out just before and just after the elections in April. They were issued to community forests in which user committees and smugglers were in collusion.

"We can say that the local forestry officials facilitated and in some cases abetted the smugglers in logging forests," says Tapta Poudel, president of the Federation of Community Forest User Groups in Banke. Poudel says he saw 30 bullock carts hauling timber in the Baijapur area on election day alone as smugglers used the absence of security personnel to plunder timber.

User groups and villagers in the far western Tarai say community forests were under pressure even during the conflict from Maoists who wanted a cut from the sale of timber. This process turned into open extortion after April 2006 and especially in the runup to elections, they say. "The Maoists used timber to generate funds and at election time they converted the forests into votes by encouraging villagers to cut trees and grab land," says IP Kharel of Jana Morcha.

bullock carts full of concealed timber head off into India at the border in Banke.

The Maoist leader heavily involved in deforestation, Pradip Chaudhari, was nominated by the Maoists to the CA.

Maoist leader Matrika Prasad Yadav has served as the Minister of Forests, and denies reports that his party has been involved in illegal logging, accusing timber smugglers of making the allegations after he stopped them. When approached by Nepali Times, Yadav said cryptically: "You find out who is logging and write about them, I'm not going to tell you who is or who is not involved."

Although deforestation has been most dramatic in the west, it has also been intense in Rautahat, Mahottari, Dhanusha, Sindhuli and Siraha, officials say. Keshav Raj Kandel, director general at the Department of Forests, says logging can't be controlled because thieves have political protection. "When you arrest an offender, you get a call from the Prime Minister instructing to release him, what can you do?" he asks.

There are no statistics about how much of the forest was lost during elections, but the estimate from Kailali alone is 21,000 hectares. Kailali DFO Man Bahadur Khadka says the past two years have been a free-for-all. "Before our eyes, we have seen dense forests turn into dense settlements," he says.

Krishnaraj Subedi, a member of a community forest committee, says 952 hectares of illegally settled forests were recovered, last year but the political parties pressured them to return the land. "Now we don't even bother," he says. Loggers who are caught red-handed have to be released because of political pressure, says a forestry official.

Even the national parks, which are guarded by the Nepal Army are not spared. Large tracts of forests on the eastern edge of Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve have been occupied since January by people who say they were never compensated when the nature reserve was expanded 10 years ago.

Says a security source at Sukla Phanta: "We can't do anything about the squatters, they have political protection."

Guns n' rhinos

The most visible casualty of the past two years of political instability has been wildlife.

Well-armed poachers enter the national parks bordering India at will, using the absence of army patrols to kill rhinos, tigers and other wildlife. The worst affected are Bardiya and Sukla Phanta in western Nepal, which were relatively well protected during the war.

The withdrawal of the army from checkpoints within the park during 2001-2007 saw increased poaching. A tiger census in Sukla Phanta between January-April showed that the number of big cats was down to only five from the 23 tigers ten years ago.

There has been a dramatic decline in rhino populations in nearby Bardiya as well, with five killed in the past six months alone. Last October four rhinos were killed in a three-week period. Most of these are among the 83 rhinos translocated from Chitwan in the 1990s.

A census last June showed there were only 31 rhinos left in the park, and another count in February showed the number was down to 22.

Even Chitwan has been affected. Four tigers were poisoned in the past three months, and sacks of tiger skin and bones were confiscated. Nine rhinos were found in Chitwan last year with their horns hacked off.

"If this goes on at the rate it is going, the only tigers and rhinos left will be in the zoo," says Annapurna Nanda Das, of the Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation in Kathmandu.

Poachers are getting more audacious, are better armed and use the international border. In April, rangers in Thakur Dwar in Bardiya found the hornless corpse of a rhino and next to it the body of a soldier killed by poachers armed with assault rifles.

The army says the situation inside the national park is getting more dangerous, but budget is tighter and there is heavy encroachment. "Since we are not allowed to patrol with guns in the buffer zone, poaching has increased in the recent months," admits Col Samir Singh at Bardiya.

Under the comprehensive peace agreement, the army is not allowed to patrol the buffer zone with arms, and conservationists say this is the reason why poaching has increased. ( 'Parking the army', #391). The other reason is that the intelligence network among villagers in the buffer zone broke down after the war.

Dewan Rai and Rameswor Bohara in Bardiya

Seeing the forest and trees - From Issue #408 (11 July 2008 - 17 July 2008)
Horns of a dilemma - From Issue #398 (02 May 2008 - 08 May 2008)
"You need political will to save wildlife" - From Issue #345 (20 April 2007 - 26 April 2007)
Baby rhinos in danger - From Issue #337 (23 February 2007 - 01 March 2007)
Conflict vs conservation - From Issue #316 (22 September 2006 - 28 September 2006)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)