By Yoko Watanabe
Ms. Phool Kumari Urawon, in front of her poultry farm
KOSHI TAPPU WILDLIFE RESERVE, Nepal, May 2013 – The elephants were trampling the human habitat and the humans were poaching in the elephant habitat.
That’s what life was like in this populous region of southeastern Nepal before a project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) began providing alternatives. Elephants regularly sortied out of the boundaries of the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve to gorge on sugar cane and other crops, sometimes inadvertently trampling homes and even people that got in their way.
Urawon and other indigenous peoples, meanwhile, were regularly sallying into the refuge to fish for food and cut trees for cooking fuel.
Things have changed. Thanks to a GEF-funded project now nearing completion, locals get their fish from man-made ponds; bio-gas provides a more enviro-friendly form of cooking fuel; and an electric fence keeps the elephants within the boundaries of the reserve. All this – and people can go to bed without worrying about being trampled by elephants.
“We no longer need to go to the wildlife reserve for fishing and fuel woods,” says Ms. Phool Kumari Urawon, an indigenous women living in the buffer zone just outside Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve in southeastern Nepal. "We also have increased income from farming, as the wild elephants are no longer destroying our farms in the night. We feel safe and we are finally having a good night sleep."
The communities adjacent to the wildlife reserve, particularly those that are home to indigenous peoples and ethnically marginalized communities, are now equipped with fish ponds and other food-raising and farming opportunities. No longer are they compelled to poach wild fish and cut down increasingly scarce trees inside the boundaries of the reserve.
In front of the fish pond owned by Ms. Goma Baral (left), who noted her income has doubled through fish farming
Villagers have installed bio-gas facilities for cooking, and some have been able to acquire improved cooking stoves, all of which significantly decreases demand for fuel woods from the reserve. A low-voltage, solar-powered electric fence along the reserve's boundary keeps elephants and other wildlife off the farms.
These measures – all supported by the GEF-financed project – have significantly reduced the sometimes deadly conflicts between people and wildlife conflicts, and have helped conserve critical wetlands in Nepal.
The GEF Wetland Conservation Project, managed by the United Nations Development Programme, has been working with the government and communities to strengthen management of wetlands around the country for the past four years.
“Wetland conservation has been a major gap for the country that is known more for its Himalayan mountains and iconic species, such as tigers and rhinos conservation." says Ms. Shalu Adhikari, Gender, Community, and Monitoring Officer of the project.
Nepal has identified more than 160 wetland sites, and close to half of them report degradation ranging from decline of forest and grassland and declining water levels due to human activity.
The GEF/UNDP project has helped develop a new National Wetland Policy that sets up a multi-ministerial framework for conservation and sustainable use of the wetlands. The project has also trained government officials and communities on wetland conservation.
The GEF selected Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve and Ghodaghodi Lake Complex, two of Nepal’s sites on the Annotated Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, as demonstration sites to enhance wetlands conservation with communities, particularly among the Indigenous Peoples and marginalized communities, people who are mostly landless and dependent on wetlands for natural resources.
Situated at the Nepal-Indian border and about 150 km southwest of Kangchenjunga, world’s third highest mountain, Koshi Tappu is one of the smallest reserves in Nepal, with an area of 17500 ha. But it hosts 494 bird species – more than half of all bird species found in Nepal – including the Bengal Florican,Watercock, and Dusky Eagle-Owl. The relatively flat, subtropical expanse encompasses a floodplain of the Sapta Kosi River, with mud flats, reed beds, and freshwater marches. It is home to wild elephants and the last surviving wild buffalo in Nepal.
Highly populated farming communities and bustling border cities of Nepal and India surround the reserve. Human demand for the natural resources available in the park was very high, while the wild animals from the park frequently roamed around the farms and villages, leading to severe people-wildlife conflicts over many years.
Individuals, particularly women, from more than 300 households in the indigenous and marginalized communities, have been empowered with increased income through improved farming practices, alternative energy sources, and income from a joint-venture company that produces woven mats and other handicrafts from invasive plant species (e.g. water hyacinth) within the park. These products are marketed and sold in high-end handicraft outlets in the capital, Katmandu.
A solar-powered electric fence at the eastern boundary of the park, approximately 15 km long, is managed and maintained by the Community Forest User Groups. The communities have mobilized human and additional financial resources to maintain the fence, while professional reserve rangers provide some technical support.
“Based on reduced conflict and disturbance through these activities, the reserve’s ecosystem has been restored and wildlife population has increased,” Mr. Viveka Jha, Field Manager of the project, says proudly. Jha heads a small team of motivated social mobilization experts that has supported the project activities in the communities. The project has adopted five indicator species to regularly monitor the ecosystem health of the reserve, which includes the wild buffalo. The population of wild buffalo has increased by about 20 percent – to 259 animals – since the project’s inception.
While the project will reach its planned closing date in the next few months, the prospects are bright for sustaining project’s positive impact over the long term, thanks to strong social mobilization and empowerment at the field level, supported by related policies and increased government finance towards wetland conservation.
Yoko Watanabe is a GEF Program Manager and Senior Biodiversity Specialist.