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Branching out in Nepal

Updated: Nov 29, 2018

We arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal on the 20th May 2018 to start our two-week journey across the country. Kathmandu was a hive of activity; the narrow streets were filled with small shops and numerous motorbikes flying past only centimeters away from us.

Walking through the busy streets of Thamel, Kathmandu

The plan was to visit three sites, two of which were dry sub-tropical forests and the other was a temperate forest area. The sub-tropical regions are in the lowlands at the southern border with India whereas the temperate forest regions were further north at higher altitudes.

The three Sites:

1. Chitwan including the 10,000 lakes reserve in the community corridor

We left Kathmandu for our first sub-tropical region: the area around Chitwan National Park. We travelled with Dr Kanchan Thapa and Dipesh Joshi from the WWF Nepal Office. Kathmandu is relatively high up in the hills, so we needed to drive through the deep valleys and gorges to get to the lowlands.

Before we reached the boundary of the National Park, we stopped in the buffer zone in an area called the 20,000 lakes. WWF had been doing work there to remove invasive water plants in the small lakes. The buffer zone had large patches of forests but were fragmented due the human homes and farmland.

One of the 20,000 lakes WWF-Nepal protects

Chitwan National Park was a pristine area, there was no human impact apart from tourism and a short local community road along the boundary. This was where we encountered our first large animal sightings. Small groups of chital deer were camouflaged in the thick undergrowth, a monitor lizard created a roadblock and a wild peacock rushed in front of our vehicle.

Monitor lizard road block

Our accommodation for night was situated on a river bank opposite the park boundaries. When we returned from the park there was a one horned rhino grazing on the river banks. The following morning there were chital deer and macaques foraging at the forest edge. These species only seemed present on the park side of the river, the side the accommodation was on was very human dominated with houses and cropland.

Chital deer and macaques foraging on the river bank

2. Lete (Annapurna Conservation Area).

Before visiting another potential site, we visited the Institute of Forestry, Tribhuvan University in Pokhara where we met Professor Santosh Rayamahji who would be travelling with us. We were hosted by the Dean of the university and gave a presentation to the faculty to explain our research. Also, had a tour of the campus and met some very friendly students.

Travelling from the lowlands around Chitwan through Pokhara to the high altitudes of Lete, we travelled through the transitioning forest types. This involved traversing very thin mountain roads along the bottom of extremely steep valleys. Once at Lete, we explored the surrounding natural areas. We hiked through the temperate forest patches which had minimal disturbance before encounter a small agricultural village. The wife of the village Head invited us into her home for tea and we spoke about the project. She explained that her village was very receptive to helping out the project however they could.

Emerging from the forest into a small agricultural village

The following day, we hiked through pasture land and much more degraded forests that livestock had been grazing. Dan was lucky enough to pick up a leech on our hike. It soon became apparent that the size of the valley we had walked around the past few days was not going to be suitable for our study design as it wasn’t large enough for our camera traps and the terrain was extremely mountainous with many impassable cliff faces.

Mountains surrounding Lete

3. Bardia/Banke and surrounding areas.

From the high altitudes of Lete we returned to the lowlands, albeit further west. While travelling towards Bardia and Banke National Parks, we picked up a local WWF community officer. She took us to what looked like a highly degraded forest. However, this forest was once barren land, entirely deforested as far as the eye could see with just one remaining tree. There had been a massive effort to reforest the area, with the last standing tree now standing amongst a forest. This site could be a prime example of a conservation intervention.

(Formally) The last remaining tree

We visited Banke National Park and were invited to meet the head warden to explain our project. Two former students of the Institute of Forestry were rangers at the park and agreed to show us around the park. The terrain was hillier than we expected after driving around the lowlands. The Churia Hills run through the spine of the park. There were limited wildlife encounters on this short trip, but a few tiger pugmarks in dried river bed gave us confidence that there was a rich diversity of species.

Next was a visit to the neighbouring Bardia National Park, which was established in 1988 is one of Nepal’s oldest parks. Also, an area for one of the greatest densities of tigers in Nepal. The park was very similar to Chitwan, a pristine area of abundant nature. We came across two monkey species, two deer species, otters and a rhino crossing the river.

One horned rhino crossing a river in Bardia National Park

On the outskirts of the parks, houses and crop land had spread up to the park boundary fences. There were still large patches of forest within the buffer zone that the communities looked after. We met a small group from the community who showed us around the buffer zone as well as the non-protected areas further away. These areas had smaller forests patches further apart than that in the buffer zone. This was a very promising area for research as the human pressure gradient from the park to the non-protected areas was apparent and large enough for our camera traps.

We flew back to Kathmandu on the last day to meet with all our collaborators. This was a very positive meeting as we had seen some very good sites for potential research but also ruled out a site. We drafted an action plan of what needed to be completed before we return in the new year.

Landscape outside of protected areas

The Biome health Project covers four countries each of which has a characteristic biome. Earlier in the year, the team travelled to Kenya to scope out potential research sites in the savanna biome of the Maasai Mara (see Emily’s blog: To Scope or Not to Scope). Nepal was chosen as it is home to several WWF priority biomes and priority species, namely tiger, snow leopard and one-horned rhino. The country has also gone through a massive increase in the human population over the last century. With more people in the country, the forests have become smaller to accommodate the extra people. Since the 1930s an estimated 48.6% of forest has been lost. The forests that do remain are important to local people for fire wood, fodder for animals and building materials. This amount of deforestation and fragmentation gives a clear gradient from disturbed to natural. Although it may appear to be a high proportion of forest loss, Nepal has almost 24% of its land cover categorised as protected.

The trip had been a resounding success, after visiting many potential sites, some of which we never planned. We met many interesting people trying to conserve the rich biodiversity that Nepal offers. The in-country collaborators were very helpful in sorting out the scoping trip and getting involved in the project. The Biome Health team are very excited at the prospect of starting this new project and what awaits us at Bardia National Park on our return.

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