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In the wake of COVID-19, Nepal’s protected parks are reeling under pressure.
While the world retreats indoors on lockdown, 27-year-old Smritee Lama has been spending little time under concrete ceilings and a lot of time under the towering forest canopies of Chitwan National Park.
As a ranger based in Chitwan, she’s found herself at the frontlines of an alarming reality: A recent uptick in forest-related crimes.
The park she’s currently protecting, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the first park in the world to receive accreditation for its tiger conservation efforts, has been facing immense pressure since Nepal enforced its nationwide lockdown in mid-March.
“Rangers in Nepal’s protected areas have doubled their efforts to conserve nature” she says.
“There’s been a hundredfold increase in terms of entry into national parks despite the lockdown, as such you could say that the threats and challenges to biodiversity has also been multiplied a hundredfold”
Her concerns extend far beyond Chitwan National Park.
A preliminary review of unpublished case data from 11 protected areas in Nepal conducted by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC) and WWF Nepal has found that human entry into protected parks has significantly risen since the lockdown at alarming rates.
The first month of the lockdown (24 March – 24 April) saw more cases of illegal extraction of forest resources—such as illicit logging and harvesting—than the preceding 11 months combined.
This data has also indicated a link between the recent impacts of COVID-19 and the rise in cases; Citations of human disturbances within parks across the country have more than tripled compared to the month before the lockdown (483 cases were filed between April 2019 to March 2020 whereas 514 cases were filed within the first month of the lockdown period).
The threats are particularly evident in Nepal’s tiger-bearing habitats, placing ongoing restoration efforts across more than 1.3 million hectares of critical forests and decades of globally lauded conservation efforts at risk of derailment.
The review, informed by unpublished monthly case reports generated by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, Government of Nepal, focused on 11 protected areas, five of which were tiger-bearing. Only reports related to illicit harvesting and illegal logging were considered, as they represented a vast majority of the sample size.
PRESSURE ON PEOPLE, PRESSURE ON NATURE
According to experts, the rising pressure on forest resources can be attributed to the growing amount of financial uncertainty among people living in close proximity to protected areas.
“Throughout decades of our involvement in Nepal’s conservation efforts, we’ve found a key to natural resource recovery is local development of communities living alongside Nepal’s protected parks, buffer zones, and critical corridors,” says Shiva Raj Bhatta, Director of Programs at WWF Nepal.
“When communities are financially secure, we have found that they have more capacity to seek sustainable livelihood alternatives to forest resources.”
The stress on natural resources has been especially prevalent in Terai, Nepal’s low-lying plains region that stretches across the southern border between Nepal and India. The region also encompasses the Terai Arc Landscape (TAL), a world renown conservation landscape that extends across 14 protected ecosystems. Almost all of Nepal’s known prime tiger habitats are found within TAL.
Since the brink of the lockdown, scores of Nepali migrants—who collectively contribute nearly 30% to Nepal’s GDP in the form of remittances—have returned to the country, many now rendered jobless. A vast majority of these repatriated migrants have returned to villages throughout Terai.
This, coupled with the loss of income sources and lucrative livelihoods such as tourism, have led to further reliance on natural resources—such as firewood, timber, and grass—due to a constrained supply and a lack of alternative options.
For Shiv Raj Bhatta, Director of Programs at WWF Nepal, the situation poses a dent in Nepal’s path towards doubling wild tiger numbers by 2020 (a feat that the country is leading the world in). Reflecting beyond the “lockdown scenario,” Bhatta stresses the need for urgent responses that consider the long-term effects on both people and nature.
“COVID-19’s impacts on both people and nature are long-ranging which is why economic revival is urgently required to enhance people’s financial, medical, and social resilience. In doing so, we can ensure that Nepal can retain its status as a stronghold for tiger recovery.”
GROUNDS FOR POACHING
While available data does not show a marked increase in poaching incidents compared to past months, experts warn that this documented growth in forest-related criminal activity—against the backdrop of rising global economic uncertainty—may entice poachers into taking advantage of the crisis, further endangering Nepal’s most vulnerable species.
“Despite our preparedness on various fronts, poaching continues to pose a significant risk to our achievements in wildlife conservation,” says Narayan Rupakheti, the warden of Chitwan National Park.
“We must remain vigilant and continue on the ground protection interventions during this time to deter the possibility of such outcomes and ensure the safety of wildlife.”
The immediate impacts of the lockdown are already visible; Poachers killed an elephant and three critically endangered gharials within the first 10 days of the lockdown. Six musk deer were also killed in Sagarmatha National Park, resulting in one of the worst cases of wildlife poaching the region has seen in recent years.
With forest-related crimes on the rise, protection and patrolling measures have been intensified. Frontline staff in protected areas have ramped up the total time and range covered in their daily patrols, according to data obtained from Real Time SMART Patrol systems.
HEALTH RISKS TO FRONTLINE STAFF
Back in Chitwan, Smritee continues to conduct her extended daily patrols—growing more uncertain everyday about the safety of the forest she works to protect, as well as the health of her family.
“We used to meet for certain periods of time but under these circumstances, meeting my family has been difficult, So I guess that has caused stress.” she says.
With Terai emerging as an epicentre for Nepal’s documented COVID-19 cases, Smritee and other frontline staff protecting forests, buffer zones, and critical corridors are facing considerable health risks as they carry on their duties.
The spike in cases also indicates a worsening trend for those working on-the-ground in major tiger-bearing areas. Banke reported 59 new COVID-19 cases last Monday, representing the highest single-day spike for one district in Nepal (as of yet). Various municipalities have also been sealed off from entry throughout Parsa.
As Provincial governments respond to geographically-concentrated spikes in case numbers, further restrictions on movement may be placed in the region, which would pose further challenges to frontline staff.
Meanwhile, Doma Poudel, a 28-year-old Community-Based Anti-Poaching Unit Member (CBAPU) from Miragunj Buffer Zone Community near Chitwan National Park, says the situation has not deterred youth and other community stakeholders in her area from continuing their work while abiding to government measures. With her community-led team, Doma maintains her daily patrols, coordinating with protection authorities on efforts to secure buffer zones from illegal wildlife crimes.
“We are all playing our part here in Chitwan,” she says. “But in other areas that lack resources, these threats could become more of an issue.”
While she’s concerned about the rising threats to both people and nature, Doma remains optimistic about Nepal’s capacity to respond. “If all stakeholders—including community members, youth, government agencies, non-government organizations come together, we can remain united in this effort. By playing out our individual roles, we can minimize the threats and risks in our areas.”
Nepal’s track record in achieving conservation success, despite continuous natural, political, and social disasters in the past, gives Doma confidence in the existing conservation apparatus. But she stresses the global and long-term nature of this crisis, which, she says, the country must prepare for.
This is Part 1 of a two-part series on how conservation efforts have been impacted in the wake of COVID-19. In Part 2, we will delve into how eco-tourism and home stays have been affected in Nepal.