REDD+ in Chitwan: Finding balance for biodiversity protection in national parks

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Pashapat Chaudhary, corral supervisor at NTNC’s Biodiversity Conservation Center 
Photo: Shahrukh Kamran, GIZ/ICIMOD

The National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) has been working in Nepal since 1982. For over two decades, the autonomous non-profit organization has implemented more than 200 projects on nature conservation, ecotourism, sustainable development, and biodiversity, as well as cultural heritage protection in Nepal. Much of this work has focused within the national parks in Chitwan and Parsa. Both are part of the Government of Nepal’s and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)’s Terai Arc Landscape (TAL), an area composed of 14 protected ecosystems along the India-Nepal border. Their buffer zones are hotspots for the local tourism industry and are considered important corridors for animals such as tigers, rhinos, and elephants. The diverse demands concerning the use of land in these buffer zones have led to a loss of forest and increase of grassland.

In order to find a balance between these two land use forms, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is supporting NTNC in the planning, drafting, and testing of REDD+ Biodiversity Monitoring Protocols. These are integrated in NTNC’s scientific work and determine forest and grassland cover as well as biodiversity status in the surroundings of the two national parks. This will give NTNC the tools to assess advantages and disadvantages of the current forest-grassland rationing, for example, for existing populations of big mammals and to adapt their management plans accordingly. In their efforts to protect the local biodiversity, NTNC’s Biodiversity Conservation Center is also implementing initiatives to conserve threatened species like the rhino, the tiger, and the elephant. Shahrukh Kamran from the REDD+ team recently spoke to Pashapat Chaudhary, corral supervisor at NTNC’s Biodiversity Conservation Center, to take a closer look at their work. Below are some excerpts from the conversation:

Could you please introduce yourself?

My name is Pashapat Chaudhary and I am 53 years old. My parents were farmers in Rautahat district. My mother died when I was very young. I did not go to school and started to help my father in the fields when I was eight. I was 14 years old when I started working with NTNC. My father supported me wishing a better life for me. He and my stepmother taught me to be honest and professional, and to be good to the people around me. I met my wife, Sauraha, when I was 25. I love her cooking and how she has taken care of our son. He has a minor disability, but that has not hindered his ability to take care of the family land. 

What do you most like about your work at NTNC?

I love my job. Working with elephants in the area is a passion of mine. I am still frightened whenever I venture into the forest. You make mistakes or get killed only when you stop fearing the jungle. Over the years, I have learned to guide these powerful animals (elephants). As I never attended school, I learnt everything I know today by myself. We are taking good care of the animals here, not like in some of the private or even government controlled spots. Even though they are captive, the elephants here can still enjoy freedom. We don’t use chains, so they can roam around. Nevertheless, there are times when we have to chain them, like during peak heat season, or when mothers feed their calves. For tourists, they are a big attraction, and we finance the elephants’ care with the revenue collected. We once had foreigners questioning why elephants are being handled by humans. Usually, locals do not ask such questions as they know the elephants’ history in commerce, religion, sports, and battle. It is sometimes really hard to handle these creatures when they get aggressive (when males are in musth, for example), and no one has found a solution for improved taming strategies. 

How do you interact with elephants? 

Elephants are highly social animals and they bond with their caretakers, the mahouts, who usually spend more time with these animals than with their own families. A limited amount of pressure is a must in controlling elephants. We cannot put a leash on or bridle an elephant. The only way to control it is to put a pressure on certain pressure points for signaling. Sometimes people mistakenly interpret this as mistreating the elephants. 

What do you think are the benefits of working with animals like elephants?

People have said that there is no need to use this animal for tourism. Well they must understand that besides tourism, there are conservational benefits as well. You can make paper and fertilizer out of elephant dung, and can also use it to make fire. And in the jungles, elephants are the safest means of transport. During the monsoon, certain areas are also not accessible by car. When working around tigers, crocodiles, rhinos, and wild elephants, it is always safer to have an elephant with you. 

What do you know about REDD+ and the importance of forests?

To be honest, I was not really aware of REDD+ before our interactions. But from the things you have told me and what I have learned over the years from colleagues and NTNC’s researchers, I think REDD+ might be able to benefit the forests, wildlife, and humans. As far as I can tell, the forests are better off today than they were when I was young. There is less interference by people now, and the wildlife population is more or less stable in protected areas. What we really need is more support for controlled monsoon flooding and sustainable agroforestry.