From the mighty snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas to the rich tropical forests and grassland tiger habitat of The Terai, Nepal’s ecology is as valuable as it is vulnerable. Valji Varia explains the pressures that threaten some of the World’s most precious wildlife habitat.
Between the spectacular snow-capped Himalayas to the north and the intensively farmed Gangetic Plain to the south lie the steep hill slopes and fertile valleys of Nepal’s tree rich Terai land. In the past Nepal was an extensively forested country but now with the need for the expansion of agricultural land, the growing regional demand for timber, and the local reliance on firewood as the primary source of domestic energy, less than 30% of the country’s forest cover remains.
The Terai area is rich in biodiversity and in addition to the essential tree root system that transverses the land and provides the much needed stability to the soil to prevent run-off from the annual monsoon rains, the natural forests provide a wealth of benefits to the local population including firewood, timber for construction, leaf fodder for animals to feed in the dry season and grazing land for their livestock.
The deforestation of the rich sal forests also has a significant impact on the resident wildlife that inhabits the National Parks of Nepal. Due to loss of habitat wild animals are compelled to go beyond the park boundaries on their search for food and this inevitably results in animal-human conflict. Crops are raided and there are annual incidents of people being killed by wild elephants and Indian one-horned rhinoceros which in turn results in animals being killed. In areas such as Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve wild and domestic water buffaloes are interbreeding therefore making the genetically pure Wild Buffalo number in Nepal smaller and rarer. The majestic Panthera tigris numbers continue to be difficult to monitor and with the continuous erosion of this prime habitat healthy populations and genetic diversity become increasingly more difficult to sustain.
Shankar Tiwari, resident naturalist and founder of Travel Nepal Pvt. Ltd believes that alongside the negative effects on wildlife and local communities, the deforestation in Nepal is causing adverse effects on the biome as a whole. When forests are cleared the soil is exposed to the sun making it dry and infertile. Essential nutrients such as nitrogen are being lost and washed away by rain water and because of this merely replanting trees may not be enough to solve the problem of deforestation. Erosion of the soil will also mean that crop yields will start to fall, there will be a significant increased risk of landslides, and large areas of land will be rendered permanently impoverished. Shankar also points to other long term consequences such as disruption of the natural water cycle, loss of biodiversity, flooding, drought and overall climate change.
The Government of Nepal has established Head Quarters at each of its National Parks with army and ranger posts to help prevent illegal logging and to protect the resident wildlife from poaching. Tourism plays its part in maintaining and supporting the management of these protected areas by way of entrance fees. However, hotels and lodges also demand large amounts of timber for construction and firewood for cooking and heating so deforestation continues in these areas. Biogas is a logical alternative to firewood and the introduction of improved cooking stoves would ease the demand for the hardwood.
Local volunteers supported by NGOs and aid donors aim to establish new plantations, distribute seedlings to farmers and plant trees that are grown in tree nurseries for reintroduction into the Terai areas. The Forestry Sector is currently applying different strategies to cope with deforestation including the reduction of consumption of forest products, promoting community forestry, improvement of pasture and livestock management, generating employment through forest development work and reducing land tax on private forests.
The land, humans, livestock and forest are all vital components of a delicate equilibrium throughout this region. However, the use of arable and forest land has tipped in favour of the mixed farming system and recent widespread logging in the southern area has resulted in deforestation and degradation being one of the biggest environmental problems in Nepal. The underlying causes for this shift are numerous and complex.
A significant number of families in Nepal depend on agriculture for their livelihood and in the past large areas of the Terai were cleared for resettlement programmes which inevitably resulted in an increase of agriculture which has continued to expand into the steep hill slopes and marginal lands. Many of the rural people of Nepal also have insufficient land holdings for grazing and as a result domesticated herds of livestock are found grazing in forested areas with National Park status, destroying any chance for new seedlings to grow. The ever growing population of cows, water buffalo and goats, which is now comparable to the local human population, require a significant supply of palatable, tender grasses and tree fodder adding to the excessive and uncontrolled grazing in the area.
Many local people who live near National Parks and Wildlife Reserves are also dependent on firewood as their only source of fuel for heating and cooking. The geographical locations place them far away from the main highways systems and in many of these locations the infrastructure is not in place for a regular supply of electricity. If people cannot afford kerosene and liquid petroleum gas they can walk or cycle to collect firewood in the forest to meet their needs and those of their families.
In areas of high unemployment the selling of timber in local towns can act as a valuable source of income. In addition, due to a prolonged period of political instability, lack of monitoring and an ever growing demand for timber from the Indian market there has been a significant increase in smuggling of sal trees across the border. The Nepalese government recently announced a temporary two-month logging ban throughout the country due to the serious concerns regarding the rate of deforestation. Forest areas are also being cleared for the building of roads, reservoirs, hydroelectricity projects and oil and mining exploitation. Mosquito suppression has also opened formerly malarial land for settlement in the Terai.
Terai-Duar savannah and grasslands of Saccharam ravennae (elephant grass) with backdrop of the Himalayas. Leopards co-exist with tigers in the alluvial floodplain habitat of the Royal Chitwan National Park.
Nepal’s Royal Chitwan National Park’s status as a World Heritage Site reflects its crucial importance as refuge for Greater One-horned Rhinoceros, The Asian Elephant and The Bengal Tiger. 408 Asian rhinos were recorded in the Chitwan area in 2008. They love wallowing, can swim quite well and can run about 30 mph.