National parks are crucial for the local economy as well as to meet the COP 15 targets.
--BY RAJENDRA PRASAD ADHIKARY
Recent international conferences in Egypt and Montreal focused on addressing the climate crisis and protecting biodiversity. The outcomes of these conferences, including plans for global emission reduction and protecting 30% of terrestrial and marine areas as natural habitats for diverse species by 2030, are seen as positive steps towards sustainability. The global community now recognises that industrialization and the use of fossil fuels have led to environmental deterioration and loss of biodiversity, which contributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and threatened the survival of human civilisation.
The post-pandemic era has brought to light the realisation that our Earth is not just a source of resources for global economic growth, but a home for all varied species to live in harmony. The mutual provision of ecosystem services within the capacity of all plants, animals, and microbes results in an active, well-balanced, and healthy terrestrial and marine ecosystem of the Earth. Fresh oxygen, carbon dioxide, and potable water are all the outcomes of the natural processes that take place in terrestrial and marine ecosystems.
A sound terrestrial ecosystem provides nutrient-rich soil for agriculture and food production, while healthy seafood production, atmospheric carbon sequestration, and reduced global temperatures require a well-balanced aquatic and marine ecosystem. Additionally, various species of birds, butterflies, and bees play a vital role in food production by transporting plant pollen from one place to another, which is essential in feeding the ever-growing population of the Earth.
In the global context of preserving biodiversity, as envisioned in Montreal conference COP 15, Nepal is ahead of many of its partner countries in making our planet a sustainable place to live in, both for present and future generations. With nearly 45% of the country covered in natural forests and protected areas, Nepal has a rich history of wildlife preservation and jungle area protection. Before declaring national parks as protected natural areas in 1960, Nepal had a difficult time with the rampant hunting and killing of wild animals.
The country is home to many unique and peculiar wild species including striped Bengal tigers, one-horned rhinos, snow leopards, and herds of wild elephants. It was once a popular hunting destination for local kings and rulers, as well as high authorities of the East India Company and the British Empire. King George V and Prime Minister Mohan Shamser were said to have spent 10 days in a wildlife camp killing tigers and leopards.
There are records of King Edward VII of England bagging 23 tigers during his lavish hunting expedition organised in the jungles of western Nepal in February 1876. King Mahendra was also very fond of hunting wild animals and there are photographs of him and Queen Elizabeth on an elephant ride in Chitwan jungle expedition in 1961 during her visit.
Despite past hostilities and hunting of wild animals, the modern world demands well-preserved biodiversity, where animals and their habitats are protected across the globe, with particular safeguards for endangered species. Nepal, in addition to community-protected forests, has now set aside 12 national parks, one wildlife reserve, and six protected areas, accounting for a significant 23.39% of its territory for local diverse species, including endangered animals, to thrive within their natural habitats.
Nepal's community-level participation in preserving forests and increasing wildlife populations has been classified in a higher level category by international organisations working in the field of biodiversity conservation and endangered species protection. The success of doubling the tiger population within a stipulated time and receiving international awards for regular conservation activities is an example of how the indigenous knowledge of local people was successfully utilised in understanding the behaviours of wild species and promoting their survival in their local environment.
The native communities and ethnic groups, including Tharus, Majhi, Chepang and others, have long been the guardians of wildlife. They possess traditional knowledge of identifying invasive species that are harmful to native wildlife and removing them. They are aware of the migratory birds' behaviours in hatching their offspring, can estimate the predator and prey animals ratio to accommodate within a jungle area, and have knowledge of harnessing forest resources without depleting them. However, these native communities possessing indigenous knowledge in wild species have been excluded from mainstream conservation efforts, resulting in their displacement from their traditional homes where national parks and conservation areas have been established.
These communities residing in the periphery of protected areas of the national parks are greatly impacted by the presence of wild animals as well as the actions of forest authorities. Their ripe farm products are often consumed by wild animals, and they are killed or injured in animal encounters. They are penalised for harvesting forest resources for their livelihood, and they are often arrested for poaching when they kill wild animals in self-defence. This disruption of coexistence between indigenous people and wildlife began with the establishment of Chitwan National Park in 1973, where nearly 60,000 native Tharu people were displaced, and their resettlement has not been fully completed. They are living in constant fear of animals and forest guards within the buffer zone.
These protected national parks and protected forests that have received international recognition for thriving wildlife have not been able to provide adequate forest resources to sustain the livelihoods of the indigenous people, nor have they contributed significantly to the country's GDP.
According to the data of Central Bureau of Statistics published in 2021, the contribution of national parks to the country's economy is low, at only 27.3% of the total GDP when combined with forest and agriculture. While tourism is a major source of foreign currency and job creation for the youth, entrepreneurs in this sector have not been able to expand green tourism and eco-home stays in these areas. Nepal has great potential for nature-based tourism showcasing wildlife, and local youth initiatives could drive robust economic growth by linking tourism with local markets.
This would generate revenue for the government and sustainable jobs for both the native and park-displaced people. To achieve this, Nepal's tourism sector should expand its destination beyond the present scope by developing reliable commercial services in areas where tourists of varied interests can come from all over the world. The inclusion of indigenous knowledge in nature tourism can generate inclusive economic growth at the local level, promoting a culture of humane animal coexistence with a win-win situation.
The slogan "Green forest is the wealth of Nepal" can be realised even by poor, marginalised, and park-displaced people when they and the endangered animals they share the land with remain interdependent for their livelihood support at the local level and compliance with the green development agenda at the international level as targeted by the Montreal conference COP-15.
(Adhikari is an engineer and served Nepal government in various high level capacities.)