Growing up in Kathmandu, I’d often go with my friends and family to the closest national parks to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. These mountains, some of the highest in the world, and its lowland forests, were the places I played with my friends and found peace and quiet with my family. And so naturally I wanted to protect it as best I could, along with all the lifeforms that called it home.
When I began my career in environmental policy, I was expecting to be working with plants and animals. But after two years, what I’ve learned, time and time again, is that conservation isn’t just about wildlife – it’s about people.
For decades, conservationists have been trying to figure out how best to protect our ecosystems and biodiversity. But local communities and indigenous peoples already know the secret – they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. But amidst a fast changing world, these relationships between communities and nature are evolving, too.
Once remote villages now have access to mobile devices and social media. Younger generations are travelling abroad for education. Migrants are entering and leaving for employment opportunities. And as societies, traditions and environmental conditions change, so must our ways of preserving both nature and culture.
These rapid social and environmental changes often came up in conversations I had recently under the canopies of Banke, Nepal’s youngest national park.
Banke National Park was established 12 years ago, as part of Nepal’s commitment to doubling the population of tigers in the wild by 2022. Spanning 550 km², it sits within the Terai Arc Landscape (TAL), a precious ecological treasure stretching over 700 kilometres across southern Nepal along its border with India, under the shadows of the Himalayas.
Despite being Nepal’s youngest national park, the tiger population here increased from 4 in 2013 to 21 in 2018. This is an amazing conservation feat, an achievement only possible through the sustained collaboration and commitment of the various people and sectors involved. But with this progress in wildlife conservation, we also have to consider the kinds of impacts it has on people.
For someone who owns a tourist lodge, this might come as great news with more visitors coming to see the thriving tigers. But for someone whose house sits on the edge of the forest in close contact with these predators and other animals, this could mean danger and loss.
With tiger numbers on the rise, how have communities around the park been impacted? How did the establishment of Banke National Park change their way of living? How do they feel about tiger conservation and what roles do they want to take in it, if any? What are their needs? These are questions I ask.
To find answers, I talk to the people who know Banke best: local communities and indigenous peoples who call the area their home.
So I went there to ask them myself.
ASSESSING GROUND REALITIES
From Kathmandu, we flew to Nepalgunj then drove to the nearest buffer zone – a transition space between protected areas and surrounding human settlements – to visit neighbourhoods nestled around Banke National Park.
In just under an hour, we went from highways and dense buildings to gravel roads and small homes to complete forest. You can imagine how wild animals might sometimes roam out into villages, and what kind of panic and loss that might cause.
With the support of WWF Nepal’s field team, who are key to sustaining long term relationships with people around Banke, we were able to arrange meetings with several community members who we got to know better each day. After introducing ourselves and discussing the reasons we were there, they began telling us about their lifestyles and how they work towards conservation on a daily basis, showing us around their village and introducing us to their neighbours.
Typically, households spend most of their time farming vegetables and grains, raising livestock and doing house chores. They also enter the forest regularly to collect food, fuelwood for cooking and heating, as well as fodder for their livestock.
But to conserve natural resources, national park regulations now require community members to apply for a permit (costing around 10-15 rupees) to enter the forest at certain times of the day, with a collection limit for each person. Before establishing the protected area, the government has to conduct public consultations to get Free, Prior and Informed Consent and ensure that rules like this won’t create stress and social tension or cause communities to lose their traditional cultures – this might look straightforward on paper, but from what the locals have told us, when it comes to practice, things can get a bit complicated.
With the expansion of industry and agriculture in the area, the local population around Banke, once mostly composed of indigenous Tharu people, is now more diverse with a new mix of people from various parts of the country. Meanwhile, community leaders have gained more influence in politics and are also much more active and empowered in the decision-making process. Understanding contexts like this – how communities are composed and how they’re changing – is key to designing our conservation programmes and strategies.
It was eye-opening to see how these social dynamics came into play with the implementation of new environmental policies. Rules don’t affect everyone the same. Indigenous communities might depend more on natural resources in their daily lives, while newcomers to the area might not. Women might have more duties but less voice in community decisions than men. Some people might have more money and land to adapt to new restrictions, while others might have a better relationship with park authorities or a better understanding of new regulations in place.
This process takes time and resources but it’d be impossible to hear these insights and understand these challenges just by reading consultation summaries from our office. And with the communities’ trust and openness, we’ve been working together to develop solutions to address human-wildlife conflict and find ways towards inclusive conservation, not just around Banke but also throughout the TAL.
PEOPLE, PLACES AND PERSPECTIVES
After saying our goodbyes to the Deurali Community Forest community, we headed to Hariyali Community Forest community. There, we met Sabitri who told us about the wild boars which kept destroying his family’s crops and the loss it created. In a meeting, the community brainstormed and developed fences with the most detailed specifications – horizontal wires, small mesh size and more – to create the most effective design. Who better to come up with the perfect solution than the people who live in the place and with the challenges everyday?
In our conversations around Chitwan National Park, indigenous Bote community members told us about how displeased they were when new protected area restrictions began requiring them to acquire licences to fish, even though they’ve been doing so since their ancestors’ time. Then, when special provisions were put in place to allow them to enter the rivers – especially during the full moon, a sacred time in their culture – for sustainable fishing, other non-indigenous long-term residents didn’t understand why they didn’t get the same access.
If we want long-term community involvement and partnership in our conservation work, these are some of the complex frameworks we have to figure out. It takes a different formula in each place and time, but as long as you make sure to keep an open conversation going, it is possible to find solutions and strike a balance for each stakeholder.
Meanwhile, in Khata Corridor, community members used to take turns staying up through the night to guard their homes and families in fear of elephant rampages. On our last trip, we helped them set up electric fences as a solution to this, but when the fences broke, they sometimes didn’t know how to fix it or couldn’t afford to do so. This time around, it was inspiring to return and see them develop ownership and set up committees and revolving funds to ensure the sustainability of this project and others.
Nearby, a group of citizen scientists like Chain Kumar are even helping biologists from our team set up camera traps, check and maintain them and send data to send to biologists in the city, helping identify more than 30 individual tigers using the Khata corridor in the past two years. Locals aren’t just nature’s stewards, they're also experts – no amount of report-reading will give me even a fraction of the wisdom they’ve passed down through generations and generations.
As conservationists, it is our job to not only study ecological landscapes but also social landscapes, to not only help tigers move more freely across landscapes, but also make sure that kids are going to school safely in their own hometowns. And as conservationists, there is much we can learn from local communities and work with them as partners to create a world where humans and wildlife can thrive alongside one another.
WWF’s Living with Tigers report urges tiger range countries to put those living with tigers at the heart of future tiger conservation plans for effective human-tiger coexistence strategies.