PICS: SITA MADEMBA
The Kosi Tappu Wildlife Reserve is the last remaining habitat for the wild buffalo, arna, in Nepal and the Gangetic fresh water dolphin. Their numbers have been severely depleted by habitat encroachment and disease, and no one really knew how many there were left in the world.
Kosi Tappu was established in 1975 to primarily conserve the endangered wild buffalo. Twelve years previously, all the arna in Chitwan were wiped out by an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease spread by livestock and it was felt the population needed to be spread out.
Despite the threats, a buffalo census carried out last month showed that the number of wild buffalo in the reserve has increased from 159 in 2004 to 219 this year. Yet conservationists warn that the endangered animals and birds in the reserve face grave threats.
The diversion of the river back to its old channel with the construction of a coffer dam has disturbed wildlife. Last month, security personnel discovered three stranded dolphins and managed to rescue two. The third was fatally poisoned by locals.
The green pastures near the breached levees where the arna used to graze, now look like a desert and the animals have been forced to graze outside the reserve. This puts them at risk from disease and poaching.
Indian contractors working on the rechanneling of the Kosi have also been illegally extracting sand from the arna pastures. The grasslands are now furrowed by 10-foot deep pits where wildlife can be trapped or drown.
Conservation official Nilamber Mishra says, "If any animal falls into those pits, it will die. We have requested the contractors and engineers to not dig the holes too deep. But they don't take us seriously."
Since the collapse of the levee, the reserve has become an island in a sea of humans. Eight security posts that were closed down during the conflict haven't yet been re-established. The barbed wire boundary erected two years ago has been stolen. Villagers from the buffer zone are now bringing livestock into the reserve to graze. The movement of people is even more uncontrolled because of all the construction work going on.
Kosi Tappu is considered one of the best sites for bird watching with over 480 species of birds recorded and many migrant species, but after the river changed its channel last year the birds didn't come.
Kosi flood victims in Sunsari have demanded that the reserve's boundary be shifted one kilometre to the west. But if that is done, say conservation officials, the river that is a crucial source of food and water for the animals, and birds will no longer be in the reserve.