Coronavirus shutdown gives Nepal’s nature a respite

By Conservation, Land conservation, Reintroducation, Rescue and rehab No Comments
The Nepali Times| March 24, 2020

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While humans all over the planet are being challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has given nature everywhere a respite.

Carbon emissions have dipped, there is almost no carbon monoxide in the air over large parts of India and China because vehicles are off the roads, NOx and sulphur dioxide concentrations in the air have dropped. The concentration of particulate matter like soot given off by industries and diesel trucks have also decreased, improving air quality over Asia’s most-polluted cities.

Here in Nepal, Mt Everest and Himalayan peaks have got a much-needed respite after the government cancelled all expeditions and treks from the mountains for the spring climbing season. There has been an international uproar last year after photos of a traffic jam on the summit ridge of Mt Everest went viral. Garbage and corpses on the mountain have gotten a lot of media attention.

Original image from The Nepali Times: Chitlang, Makwanpur. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

The sunny spring sky in Kathmandu was brilliantly clear on Tuesday, the first day of a week-long nationwide lockdown. With no traffic, and flights all grounded, there is no noise pollution in the street or the sky.

But the happiest must be wild animals in Nepal’s national parks, including those popular with tourists like Chitwan, Bardia, Langtang and Shivapuri-Nagarjun, where visitors have not been allowed since Sunday.

After the government closed schools and offices last week, Kathmandu’s residents had started arriving at Shivapuri and Chitwan by the busloads for picnics during weekend, prompting park officials to close entry on Monday.

“We had to close the parks because there was an increase in visitor numbers, but with the announcement of the nationwide lockdown from Tuesday, visitors will not be coming anyway,” said chief of Bardia National park Ananath Baral.

On Sunday, there were more than 400 visitors — about four times the daily average — at Shivapuri-Nagarjun, the national park on Kathmandu Valley’s northern and western rim.

Conservationists say the drop in human activity will be a relief to the park’s wildlife, since any extra noise can disturb their habitat and movement. Naturalist Mukesh Chalise recalls how there was an increase in wildlife in Langtang National Park after trekkers stopped coming due to the 2015 earthquake.

“It used to be difficult to see resident fauna and birds, now there are herds and flocks of them out in the open in Langtang,” Chalise says.

Due to its terrain and topographic range, Nepal has some of the richest biodiversity in a country with such a small area. There are 876 species of birds, 185 species of mammals and 651 species of butterflies in Nepal, some of them are only found here and nowhere else. National parks and protected areas cover 27% of Nepal’s area.

There has been a big increase in park visitors in the past few years. Nepal’s national parks and conservation areas registered 510,000 foreign visitors five years ago, and this grew to 701,000 last year.  There is no count of the number of Nepali visitors, and if this is added it would take the numbers to nearly 1.5 million per year.

There has also been little attempt to regulate the entry of sightseeing vehicles into national parks. In Chitwan alone, the national park issued 35 jeep permits every day for jungle safari into the core area. Bardia issued 22 jeep permits per day, with each vehicle carrying 10-14 visitors. Besides this, both Chitwan and Bardia also issue dozens of elephant safari permits.

All this has now come to a halt, and has eliminated human disturbance. Chalise says this will allow wild animals and birds to be left alone for a while which will be good for nature to rebound.

“We had already started seeing rhinos interacting more and more with humans, and acting tame. It is very dangerous for the rhino to lose its fear of humans because this may expose them to poachers,” adds Chalise, who says there should be a permanent ban on human entry into national parks. Tourists should be allowed only into the buffer zone.

Sindhu Dhungana at the Ministry of Forests and Environment, however, says that if local people do not see any advantage of eco-tourism they may not help in conservation, and visitors should be allowed but in a regulated numbers.

“The main criteria should be how much human activity is disturbing wildlife, and if it is serious numbers should be regulated,” Dhungana explains.

Lessening human entry into national parks will also prevent the spread of human diseases like tuberculosis to rhinos and elephants, and also stop viruses from wild animals infecting humans.

Chalise also warns that the nationals parks should be vigilant about increased activity of poachers taking advantage of the national shutdown to hunt wild animals either for meat or tusks, horns and pelts.

For 33 years this forest guard has faced bullets and floods for Kaziranga’s animals

By Antipoaching, Conservation No Comments
The Better India| March 23, 2020

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Having grown up in Assam, a mandatory annual trip to the Kaziranga National Wildlife Park is a shared experience of most Assamese families. I still remember my first trip. I was excited and in awe to see the beautiful deers, the majestic elephants hiding behind the tall grasses and the iconic one-horned rhino.

What I did not realise at the time is how precious and endangered these species are. Kaziranga contains about 71 per cent of the world’s wild population of the one-horned rhino which is also the most commonly poached animal in the state.

Dimbeswar Das received the Earth Heroes award last year for his efforts in protecting the animals for 33 years!

At the helm of the conservation activities is the Frontline Forest Staff in Kaziranga. And you would be surprised to know that a 54-year-old man has dedicated 33 years of his life in ensuring these animal’s safety.

Meet Dimbeswar Das who has put himself in danger, fought poachers, bullets for years and continues to work tirelessly even now.

Original image as supplied by The Better India: For 33 Years This Forest Guard Has Faced Bullets & Floods For Kaziranga’s Animals

“I started working in the forest in 1987 when I was only 21-years-old. I don’t know where all the time has passed,” smiles Dimbeswar who was only promoted to the rank of a forest guard last year after serving the animals and the forest for over 30 years!

The Forest guard was given the Earth Heroes Award in November last year by The Royal Bank of Scotland. The award recognises individuals and institutions who put in tremendous efforts in preserving and protecting our ecosystems. His nomination was sent by senior forest officials who deemed him the perfect candidate for this award.

“I cannot believe I got this award and I am very grateful to my superiors for selecting me. The thing about this job is, I love every aspect of it. So, whatever work is given to me, I happily do it,” says Dimbeswar humbly.

Farmer to a Protector of Kaziranga

Dimbeswar grew up in a family of six siblings, with him being the oldest in a village called the Japori Pathar, adjacent to Kaziranga. His father was a farmer and cultivated rice, mustard, and vegetables on a 4-acre land while his mother was a homemaker.

Dimbeswar only studied until the age of 13 after which he started lending a hand in his father’s farm. “We weren’t financially doing too well at the time and being the oldest of six siblings, I had to take up the responsibility,” he recalls.

Dimbeswar’s willingness to take responsibility and responsiveness to the call of duty is something that has helped him throughout his career.

“In 1987, poaching in Kaziranga had become a huge menace and the Forest department needed more people on the ground to protect the animals,” says Dimbeswar.

This was the time when The Assam Forest Protection Force Act, 1986 also came into existence for better protection and security of the forests, the wildlife and the forest produce in Assam’s jungles.

Dimbeswar was soon recruited after a physical test. Another motivation for him to take up the job was because his father had just passed away and he took up the job to support his family. He joined as a ‘casual worker’, which wasn’t a permanent position at the time, along with over 80 other people.

During the training, Dimbeswar learnt how to utilise all his senses and remain vigilant, how to quietly walk around the forest and how to operate a rifle in case of danger. “I learnt how to clean the guns and rifles, how to keep it well oiled and how to load it,” he says.

Once he started his job, his day would begin at 4 am and he would push off for his patrolling duties by 7 am and in intervals would venture out for patrolling at least four times a day.

Dangers Inside the Dense Forests

After working as a casual worker for two years, Dimbeswar officially joined the ranks two years later as a ‘boatman’. The duties of the boatman are the same as that of a casual worker but the dangers in the forest were immense.

Kaziranga is home to the great Indian rhinoceros, a native species found only in India. Being the only spot for these species, The Kaziranga National Park became a hot spot for poachers.

“A lot of these poachers would be local while some of them belonged to the neighbouring states. There have been so many encounters that I have even lost count of them,” he says.

Upon catching them, these poachers are questioned about their activities. “There is a very high demand for the rhino’s horn. We found out that these would be illegally smuggled through Myanmar and sold in the international black market for its medicinal properties,” informs Dimbeswar.

What Dimbeswar is saying is true. Rhinoceros horn is sought after in the Chinese and the Vietnamese black markets for medicinal properties, as jewelry, as gifts and for something as petty as display figures to convey one’s wealth.

Between 2008 to 2013, Dimbeswar informs that poaching in Kaziranga had reached an all-time high. Dimbeswar also adds that during the monsoons when the forest is prone to flooding, it serves an opportunity for poachers because the area is difficult to patrol at that time.

“To deal with that, I along with other officials in the forest started to recruit young boys as informants to keep their ear to the ground. They have been very helpful in managing the poaching problems as they would tell us if any new person has entered Kaziranga’s premises, where they’re from and what they do. That helped us catch a lot of poachers,” he says.

Dimbeswar’s strong resistance against poachers, however, put him and his family in a lot of danger.

“There was one time we had caught a rhino poacher a few years back and had detained him for questioning. Somehow, he managed to escape. Because he recognised my name and my face, not only was I threatened but even my family was subjected to this. To ensure their safety, I had to live away from them for long periods but I utilised that time in my service,” he says.

Over the years, settlements around the forests have increased. This immediately gave rise to instances of man-animal conflict and the frontline staff to manage these situations. Dimbeswar recalls an incident that took place in 2004.

“A mother tiger ventured into the fields of one of the neighbouring villages in search of her cubs. She attacked an elephant and the mahout. We had to manage the situation by ensuring that we don’t hurt the animal while also keeping in mind the safety of the villagers,” he recalls.

Finally, they were able to tranquilize the tiger and after being checked by the vets, she was released into the jungle again.

A Man You Can Count On

Last year, when the forest officials had to send one name from Kaziranga as an entry for the Earth Heroes Award, only one name came to their minds. It was none other than Dimbeswar Das for his contribution to preserving wildlife in the national park for over 30 years of dedicated service.

Bastav Borkotoky, a Forester in the Frontline services, has been working closely with Dimbeswar since 2016 when he joined the ranks. He was also one of the people who deliberated and nominated Dimbeswar for the Award. In fact, the 31-year-old accompanied Dimbeswar all the way to Delhi for the Award ceremony.

“Kaziranga was my first posting and when I first joined, everyone knew who Dimbeswar Das was. He knows the forest roads well as if he’s mapped it all in his mind. He has served the forests staying away from his family and has even received threats to his life from poachers,” he informs.

Despite all this, Bastav adds that Dimbeswar Das is one person everyone in the frontline services can count upon. “Be it arriving on a speedboat with a vet for the animals, to distributing food among the staff, to even showing up immediately if someone’s been injured, he is there,” he says.

After working in the forest for 33 years, Dimbeswar really feels like he has forged a bond with the animals there.

“One thing I have learnt after so many years is that animals know your intent. One must just let them be and they won’t harm you unless they themselves feel threatened,” he says.

Always watching animals from a distance, Dimbeswar would always turn up for them when they are in need. “During the floods, a lot of animals need to be rescued. Since I served as a boatman for so many years, I turn up with a vet on the speedboat as soon as possible,” says Dimbeswar.

But, Dimeswar says that had it not been for his family, he wouldn’t have been able to achieve what he has.

“My wife has been a source of support for me since we got married in 1992. I am not someone who takes a lot of vacations or even goes back home frequently, but through it all, she has stood by me,” he says.

Dimbeswar has three children and all of them are married. In fact, he is even a grandfather with four grandchildren. So, in the six years of his service that remains, what is it that he wants to achieve?

“This isn’t an easy job but I have loved every bit of it. I want to plant more trees in and around the forest area so as to prevent it from diminishing so that the animals who live here never lose their home,” he says signing off.



COVID-19 prompts closure of Indonesian parks, and a chance to evaluate

By Antipoaching, Conservation No Comments
Mongabay| March 23, 2020

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JAKARTA: Indonesian authorities have ordered a temporary closure of dozens of national parks and conservation sites to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus that has killed thousands of people worldwide.

Effective March 19, 56 conservation zones nationwide are closed to visitors indefinitely, according to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. In a statement, it said more sites, including zoos, could be added to the list depending on the situation. Affected sites include tourist favorites such as Mount Leuser and Way Kambas in Sumatra, Komodo in East Nusa Tenggara, and Mount Rinjani in West Nusa Tenggara.

“Besides being aimed at preventing COVID-19 from spreading further, this closure is an opportunity for these areas to rest and breathe,” Nanang Prihadi, the director for environmental service use at the environment ministry, told Mongabay in a text message. “For the operators, this [time] can be used to clean up, fix and maintain the facilities and the areas.”

Indonesia has reported 369 positive cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, and 32 deaths as of March 20. Among other measures the government has taken to curb the spread of the disease is a prohibition on flights from countries hit hard by the pandemic, and a suspension of the visa-on-arrival policy.

Original image from Mongabay: A Sumatran rhino with a caretaker at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas National Park. Image by Rahmadi Rahmad/Mongabay Indonesia.

Park authorities say they will maintain their protection and monitoring of the conservation sites even in the absence of visitors.

“[This closure] shouldn’t mean that people will be able to steal from the park as they wish,” Subakir, the head of Way Kambas National Park, told Mongabay in a phone interview. “If anyone tries to encroach, we will capture them.”

Subakir said the rangers and staff at Way Kambas would continue working as normal, including attending to the park’s seven captive Sumatran rhinos and 69 Sumatran elephants. “But I’ve told them to keep their distance from each other and eat nutritious food. And if they feel unwell, they must immediately check with the doctor,” he said.

Subakir said the closure would likely impact the park’s revenues. Tourist receipts at Way Kambas topped 1 billion rupiah ($63,000) in 2019, but could fall to half that amount this year, Subakir said. He added that small local businesses around the park offering accommodation and meals to tourists would also be hit. “Everything related to tourism is going to be automatically disrupted,” he said.

Conservationists, meanwhile, have welcomed the closure order, saying it will reduce the risk of infection among rangers and staff. They also say it’s an opportunity for park operators to evaluate the impacts of tourism to the ecosystem in these areas.

“This can be a chance to understand if these zones have implemented actual ecotourism or merely nature-based tourism which is just a form of mass tourism with the focus on nature,” Darmawan Liswanto, a scientific adviser to the Titian Lestari Foundation, which advocates for environmental sustainability, told Mongabay in a phone interview.

Darmawan said mass tourism activities in some conservation zones have led to problems such as waste accumulation. “When the COVID-19 outbreak is over, I hope they won’t return to nature-based mass tourism as usual,” he said.

He also commended the park agencies’ commitment to protecting the areas amid the shutdown by continuing to carry out patrols, saying “I don’t think poachers are taking a break.”