The Heart of the World (Satis Shroff)
“Will the passengers please fasten their seat belts,” said a soft voice over the intercom. And I slid one end of the belt into the heavy metallic slot, sat back, and peered through the window of the Royal Nepal jet.
The runway was clear and there was an Airbus 310, three Russian-made helicopters and a Dornier- aircraft near the control tower of Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport. Some people waved from the tower. It was one of those early-morning mountain flights that are run ‘provided-the-weather-is-good’ as they say in tourist-brochures.
My seat was right near the port wing and I could get a fairly good view of the engines coming noisily to life. The jet taxied lazily down the southern end of the runway, swerved around and sped towards the north gathering momentum till I could finally feel a hollow in my stomach. We were airborne.
It was a steep climb and the blue mountain front was looming close. You could even spot the trees growing on the mountainside. But in a moment we left it behind. I was thrilled at the picturesque panorama of Kathmandu Valley with its pretty brown terracotta houses and prominent pagodas, which receded beneath as the jet banked almost languidly in an easterly direction.
The first mountain that caught my eyes, was the conical snowbound Langtang Peak, which was gleaming in the early morning sunlight. By the time Dorje Lakpa loomed on my window, the aircraft had attained its ceiling height of 30,000 feet. Dorje Lakhpa in Tibetan means “thunderbolt hand”. Nearby was another splendid peak, the 19,550 ft. Choba Bamare, reigning in splendid isolation. Choba Bamare rose in the distance and seemed to fizzle out towards the east.
I sat tight in my seat, oblivious of the 50-odd passengers in the aircraft’s cabin, lost in a world of snowy fantasy, and marvelling at the thought that we were less than fourteen miles away from those Himalayan giants, and feeling snug inside the pressurised cabin. Over the monotonous whirr of the Yeti’s engines, the captains voice boomed through the intercom: “Attention ladies and gentlemen, the big peak to your left is Gauri Shanker.”
The 23,442 feet Gauri Shanker, which is part of the Rowaling Himal Chain, was bathed in a ghostly mantle of snow and dominated the scene. This was indeed the Mount Olympus of the Orient, I said to myself. Gauri Shanker, the legendary abode of the Hindu God Shiva and his consort Parvati.
The Melungstse massif appeared to be blanketed with snow and looked smooth and even: like a tent covered with snow, except that a depression existed between Melungtse and its sister peak Chobutse.
Chugmago, Pigferago and Numbur impressed me with their virgin and silvery summits–looking placid and serene.
My thoughts drifted to the ageless Himalayas and their eternal silence. But my Himalayan reverie came to a momentary stop, when a tall and petite air-hostess came offering orange juice at a cruising height of 30,000 feet. It was a toast to the Himalayas.
From the 26,750 ft. Cho Oyo onwards, the Khumbu Range began to show their undisputed supremacy, since this range boasted of the mightiest of the mighty among mountains. As the jet flew past the 25,990 ft. Gyachungkang Peak, I was pleasantly surprised to find the steward come over to my window, point out small dotted structures against a rugged mountainside and say, “There’s Namche Bazaar.” I was amazed. Namche of the mountaineer’s delight, and the home of the Sherpas. Namche, the village that has become a byword in mountaineering and trekking circles throughout the world–lay below us.
The jet lost height gracefully to give the passengers a closer view, and the snows looked hauntingly beautiful from the port side windows. The warm sunlight filtered through smack on my face. Its warmth was reassuring.
The 23,443 ft. Pumori Peak seemed to be soaring in the distance, and that was when I began to ogle at the familiar 25,850 ft. Nuptse peak. Then suddenly, like a revelation, I spotted the giant amongst them all: the grey, imposing triangular massif that was Mount Everest to the outside world, Sagarmatha to the Nepalese and Chomolungma–“the Goddess Mother of the Earth” to the Tibetans. There were flecks of snow to be seen along the ridge of the highest peak in the world. A trail of vapour was emanating from its limestone summit.
Far below the magnificent Ama Dablam peak struck me as trying to reach for the sky. But I had eyes only for the mysterious, grey and foreboding Everest massif. I recalled Mallory’s words: “There was no complication for the eye. The highest of the world’s mountains had to make but a single gesture of magnificence to be lord of all, vast in unchallenged and isolated supremacy.
The peaks Lhotse, Chamlang and Makalu continued to fascinate me. I felt thrilled to my marrow as the knowledge that we were flying over the highest mountains in the world sank into my head. I noticed that the Himalayas occurred as narrow ranges, prominently longitudinal and that the highest Himalayan chains below us were not massive elevations but narrow ridges.
Towards the north, as far as the eye could see, was the barren Tibetan Plateau: rightly dubbed the Roof of the World. I was astonished to note that beyond the Everest massif’s central chain there were no Himalayan ranges. It was the limit–the last frontier. The bleak Tibetan Plateau seemed to blend with the horizon towards the north.
I could not help feeling nostalgic as the jet turned for the homeward flight. I peered at the blue Mahabharat Mountains below and the Siwalik Hills a little further south–and the extensive, fertile Terai, which blended with the azure sky. While the major ‘snows’ were still visible on the starboard , it was fascinating to see the hanging-valleys, aretes, cwms and magnificent glaciers directly beneath the port windows. It reminded me of a trip I had made to the Swiss alpine town of Grindelwald, where the tongue of the glacier licks almost the town. Occasionally, as the jetliner sped by, the mountain-tarns would catch the sun’s rays on their crystalline surface, thereby imparting blinding flashes of reflected light.
It must have snowed the previous night, since the neighbouring hills, which were normally beyond the zone of perpetual snow, were also covered in varying degrees with fluffy blankets of virgin snow. One couldn’t help being overwhelmed by the ecstatic and exotic beauty of these high snowbound wilderness areas that we were over-flying.
Continental music began to seep into the pressurised cabin and the lithe and beautifully swarthy air-hostess came down the aisle gracefully handing the passengers miniature khurkis (curved Gurkha knives) as souvenirs, with the usual compliment of sweets.
I could feel the captain easing off the throttles and saw the spoilers on the top surface of the port wind rising up slowly, in a row inducing a drag and causing the jet to slow as it touched town at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport.
* * *
THE HOLY COWS OF KATHMANDU
Kathmandu without its gay and colourful vegetable dealers and the holy cows, those constant characters, that have featured in almost all paintings, sketches, photographs and books on Nepal will soon be a thing of the past.
The ecological minded mayor of Kathmandu rounded up 88 stray cows and has auctioned them outside Kathmandu Valley. The auction yielded 64,460 rupees to the Kathmandu municipality. The holy cows of Kathmandu have been declared as public nuisances and obstruction to the traffic in the city.
Till recently, the cows of Kathmandu walked at a leisurely gait with that notable air of nonchalance which all Nepalese high-brow cows possess because they’re revered and worshipped by the Hindus.
During my summer holidays I happened to be in Kathmandu seeping in the symphony of colour, noise and sights of Kathmandu perched smack in the middle of Indrachowk.
The noise emitted by the haggling vendors and customers, the high pitched bells of the temples mingling with the honks of scooters, and the sound of bamboo flutes, and the occasional moo of a languidly straying cow who love the vegetable market. This was the sound that I had missed in Freiburg. The smell of burning sandalwood incense sticks, steaming momos, mangoes, gauvas and lotus, marigold and magnolias permeated the air. Add to this cacaphony the unruffled tourists and you get a picture of the pulsating life in this Himalayan bazaar.
In the meantime, another cow, this time a white one with pink ears but hopelessly bent horns, tried to go through a bevy of giggling saffron-wrapped college girls.
The flying vegetable market in Kathmandu is a shanty affair with make-shift transitory shops because the policeman keeps on telling them to park their vegetables elsewhere. Kathmandu has its supermarkets and discount-shops, but most of the Nepalese don’t want to miss the charms of Asal Tole, where there are no fixed priced and where one can haggle and chat with the vegetable vendors in Nepali and Newari.
A steel-blue Ford cruised by noiselessly like a ghost of a battleship. The indigenous push-cart dubbed gurkha-jeep rumbled by, pushed by brawny Tamang porters. Nearby, a small Japoo-child in his birthday suit prodded a big brown cow with a puny stick.
Right near where I was perched was a local Jyapoo (Newari farmer) selling yellow bananas. The bananas looked ripe and the Jyapoo looked prosperous. The good man was busy haggling with his customer: a fat, supercilious Rana lady, and that was when a cow appeared and started munching the bananas without as much as a moo.
Half a comb of bananas later, the Jyapoo finally saw the cool cow. What he did next was utterly remarkable. He performed what might be best described as a VTO. He took of from the ground like a British Harrier jet and then thundered at the calm cow. She galloped off like a horse. But that wasn’t the end of it.
The frightened cow bolted like an unguided missile through the commuters, pedestrians and what-have-yous in the alleys of Kathmandu in its fright. A cyclist was knocked down and quite a number of Hindus and Buddhists got edgy because of the onrushing cow. Our Jyapoo was plainly perturbed and looked plain stupid, blinked uncertainly, “Kay garney? Upai chaina! What shall I do? There’s no way out of this mess!”
Cows are regarded as holy and worshipped as mother-cow by the Hindus and give milk, yoghurt, butter, holy urine and dung. According to a legend, a Nepalese king ordered cows to be set free in the streets of Kathmandu by families in mourning to share the pain of the death of a young prince. And since then children in Kathmandu Valley disguise themselves as grotesque cows and motley figures and dance to make the queen laugh. The queen in the legend is long dead but the cow-festival ‘Gaijatra’ remains.
As you walk the streets of Kathmandu, along Asan Tole, Indrachowk and Basantapur near the Freak Street, which is actually called Jhoche Tole, you see the old Newari women with golden pierced ears and children watching you with a curiosity from the artistically carved wooden windows. You cannot help feel being watched, because the doors of Kathmandu have the all-seeing eyes of the primordeal Buddha painted on them.
Below every house leading into the streets, you see shops selling almost everything: from textiles, electronic goods, pots and pans, and outsized gagros (copper vases for ritual ceremonies and festivals). The carpets are eye-catching despite that fact that the colourful ethnic dragons, snow lions and mandalas are disappearing to suit European living rooms in pastel-colours ordered per fax. There are souvenirs on display such as: curved Gurkha khukris, statues of temples, tantric gods in ecstatic poses, gargoyles, thankas (icons), Buddhas and animals in bronze and messing. The entire temples and altars seem to be on-sale. And the gods seem to be moving out.
And out in the distance beyond the forest of Nagarjun: the silence of the Himalayas, revered and worshipped by the Hindus and Buddhists.
* * *
“Give me a glass of water,” said the London-trained Nepalese physician, as he came into the room, where a group of Nepalese people with Mongolian and Caucasian features were gathered, either pitying or wondering what the strange illness could be.
With the glass of water in his hand, the swarthy, thick-set, bespectacled doctor approached the thin, emaciated girl, who’d retreated to a corner of the apartment like a cornered cat, and was having fits. A brown froth oozed out of her thin mouth.
As soon as she caught sight of the stranger with the water, she let out a chilling scream that seemed to echo in the Himalayas.
The physician turned to the girl’s father and said, “I’m sorry Mr. Rana, I cannot do anything for your daughter. She has hydrophobia,” And with that he packed his black medical bag and left.
Mr. Rana was stunned. The shock of the doctor’s poker face, and dry diagnosis hit him with such a vehemence that he reeled mentally.
“But there must be some hope or solution for Sudha, my daughter,” he uttered.
He told his wife what the doctor has said, adding that their daughter had no hope of surviving the dog-bite, for Maya Devi spoke only Nepali and no English.
The doctor had spoken in English, as all educated Nepalese did, even among each other.
Sudha was dying and there was no help at hand. Even modern medicine, with all its antibiotics, cortisones, antiferons wouldn’t be able to help their child.
“Oh, Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva! Please don’t let us down”, cried Maya Devi, summoning the Hindu Trinity, with a mixture of fear and worry. And she decided to send for the local shaman, a jhakri, and dispatched a female relative of hers with the nickname ‘Bhunti’, which means a fat person, not that she was pregnant or had a pot belly, but because she had a hollow back, with the result that she went through life preceded by her belly.
Mr.Rana had faith in allopathic medicine and didn’t trust the traditional medicine or that which passed for traditional medicine, especially the jhakris, dhamis, bijuwas, lamas and others who took to what he called “phuk-phak” methods, which literally meant “blowing-and-throwing.”
He preferred the old western school-medicine for himself and his family. That was because his brother and grandfather were physicians, having studied at the Grant Medical College in Bombay in the days of the British Raj.
It had almost become a family tradition, and he was contemplating to send his eldest son to this college, despite the astronomical sums that the medical colleges demanded in India in general. They called these criminal sums open-donations, and was a rather done thing.
His wife, being a traditional Tamang tribes-woman, didn’t think much of modern medicine and went back to the traditional healers that she knew through her parents and grandparents for they’d lived in the foothills of the Himalayas and had heard only hair-raising stories of the practitioners of modern medicine. Whereas a local shaman was happy with a dozen eggs or a small goat, you had to pay in currency notes to the modern doctor. And currency notes were scarce in the hills of Nepal, where people bartered with natural products.
Maya Devi had seen a sick neighbour receiving a glucose injection with an outsized hypodermic syringe, and that had scared the wits out of her. She didn’t know what the thing was, but it certainly looked frightening. The patient, a diabetic, had died soon after.
After that experience she’d decided that she’d definitely not go to a modern doctor.
Her grandpa, who had been a village shaman, had treated and cured the whole village, sometime or other, ever since she knew him. And what’s more, he was her grandpa and that meant a lot to her and she had confidence in him, because he’d never do any harm or inflict injury, as was expected of true shamans.
She remembered once asking him how he’d become a shaman, and he’d told her that he’d been picked up in his childhood by the ban-jhakri, a wild, wise man who lived in the jungle in a cave, and who became his guru and had taught him the secrets of the healing plants and profession. Her grandpa had long hair, like that of the Hindu God Shiva of the Snows: unkempt but braided, and it gave him an extraordinary appearance as he’d sit near his house altar, where he had his ritual objects. To her he was Shiva reincarnated.
Maya Devi’s husband, an educated civil servant of His Majesty’s government, sneered at times about her faith in the jari-buti, as the medicinal roots-and-stems were called.
After what seemed like ages, Bhunti turned up with a lean man, who had Mongolian features. He was thought to be a ‘knowing’ practitioner of his blow-and-throw trade. He was half Tamang and half Bhotay, as people of Tibetan origin are called, and looked as though he, himself, was suffering from consumption. He was untidily dressed, had blood-shot eyes and stuck his thin black hair under his monkey-cap, and had a pair of drooping moustaches. He was left alone and Bhunti catered to his needs and demands.
First of all, he demanded rice grains to be brought for the blowing part of the ceremony, and then alcohol, since he belonged to the matwali-jat, which means the ‘caste-that-drinks-alcohol.’
In the high-caste, ritual purity-pollution thinking Hindu society, it is regarded as a direct affront when one is offered alcohol. But since this was an emergency situation, a matter of life and death in the family, there were no protests. Neither from her otherwise orthodox Hindu husband, not from the relatives and neighbours.
Meanwhile, after gulping some of the raksi (alcohol) as though he was drinking lemon juice, he began the treatment by raising his voice and reciting a mantra and counting the rice grains on a copper plate. After each chant he drew a deep breath and blew his breath thrice in quick succession.
His first intention was to find out whether the child, who was letting out screams intermittently, was seized by a witch in the neighbourhood or a distant demon (bhut), for only then could he apparently begin treatment. After more swigs of the Gurkha raksi, his mantras became unintelligible and he seemed to withdraw within himself.
After a great deal of time, he began shaking and said in staccato bursts, “It’s the demon from the othay-khola”. A rivulet in the vicinity of the town. ‘Othay’ means a ‘lip’ in Nepali.
The diagnosis having been completed, a blood-sacrifice had to be made to appease the concerned river-demon along with a prayer to the Mahaguru: Shiva. It had to be a little red rooster.
Bhunti organised a red rooster in no time, and the jhakri prepared his ritual.
Although Mr. Rana showed respect this time for the traditional methods despite his distrust, he just couldn’t help feeling irritated by this particular species of his sort, especially his preference for alcohol at a critical moment in someone’s life.
“Perhaps he’s just an alcoholic and practised traditional medicine as a quack, a dabbler who could in effect do nothing,” he thought. There was nothing he could do at the moment. He had to try it out with this quack too. It was faith healing at its best. Either you believed in someone or not. Take it or leave it. There was no choice. And when you’re in a desperate situation, you had to take all the chances that were available to soothe your conscience.”
Meanwhile, the thin girl had started seeing double, because her optic nerve was affected, and her brain stem was assaulted by the rabies-virus and she had problems with her swallowing reflex.
Her mother had tried to give her water not knowing the medical implications and her daughter had a spasm of panicky angst and screamed again.
“Oh God, my poor Sudha, what’s become of you?” cried Maya Devi as she held her daughter wrapped in a brown blanket. It was pathetic to see a pretty daughter, a girl who was only eight years old, with beautiful black hair and an olive complexion turn virtually into a skeleton, so that even the teeth seemed to jut out, the body growing thin, dehydrating and the psyche a chaos, for she was no longer able to take in the world as it had been.
There was a mighty struggle going on in her nervous system, and it registered through her brown and frothy saliva and her screams of angst and terror, which had seized her. She was evidently losing the fight.
A neighbour suggested that the patient should be immediately transported to Kathmandu for “further treatment.” Another thought it would be better to try out a local dhami, a traditional healer, and yet another an ayurvedic practitioner from the town, who wore spectacles and a turban and was from the Punjab. A well-meaning Lepcha neighbour said, “Ranaji, you should call a Lepcha Bongthing who is a mediator between humans and the Spirits. If that doesn’t help we could engage a Limbu Yeba exorcist.
Mr.Rana had often seen the Limbu Yeba males going about wearing their ridiculous creased white skirts and turbans, with long feathers, cauri and rudraksha garlands.
“Why not try homeopathy?” said another.
In this lost and helpless state there was nothing to do but to try everything, like a drowning person clinging to the last straw, and so began an odysee of ‘treatments’ carried out in the hope of saving a child whose body and mind were rebelling and running out of control.
Mrs. Rana’s thought wandered to the day when her daughter Sudha had returned with a neighbour’s daughter after the bhai-tika ceremony from a distant part of the town. Bhai-tika, the festival during which the sisters proffered various honours on their brothers after a ritual puja, whereby the brothers are blessed with prosperity and protection against the adversities of human existence and unseen evils. And who could think that evil would strike on such an auspicious day?
As is the custom in Nepal, the people have their chicken, dogs, yaks and goats outside the courtyard. The dog, which was a bitch, had let out a few snarls and barks to warn passers-by that they were trespassing her marked territory. The children had been scared by the angry barks and had emitted shrieks of fear, and the bitch had made for the two scared children in a frenzy and had bitten them on their legs after a short pursuit.
The two girls had returned home crying and told their parents about the fierce dog that had bitten them. However, the parents who were entertaining guests in the afternoon hadn’t thought anything worse about the consequences of a dog-bite and Mr. Rana had only used the zinc oxide and eucalyptus salve that you find in every household. He had faith it would heal the wound, as in the past against other bites and wounds.
And that had been a terrible mistake.
Whereas the other girl Chitra was immediately sent to a local doctor, who gave her anti-rabies injections, Mr. Rana’s daughter was treated with only a smear salve.
“That ought to do the trick,” Mr. Rana had thought. “Why spend more money unnecessarily on the doctor? Injections were expensive. And after all, if the salve had the same effect, why not save the money for another purpose?”
Only last Monday the Nepalese Brahmin from Dhankuta had visited them and had predicted something inauspicious in the near future in the family. But in order to counteract that he had suggested making an amulet for his two daughters, with vedic mantras inscribed in them, which were thought to have preventive and protective effects against the bad planets (grahas) that had changed their constellations. The Brahmin was a jotisi, a learned Benaras-returned astrologer, with the ability to interpret and analyse the astrological data of Hindus, for every Hindu possessed a long scroll (janai-patra), which bears all the lucky and unlucky, the auspicious and inauspicious days in one’s lifetime, noted according to the constellation of one’s zodiac sign, and starting from the date of one’s birth.
In the Nepal of yore, this scroll of paper was an important document, and it still is, in the Middle Mountains of Nepal where the Chettris and Brahmins live.
Mr.Rana though a Chettri from birth, didn’t think much of the jotisis and other wandering brahmins. As far as he was concerned, they were slimy, garrulous, cunning fellows who went from house to Hindu house talking fancy Sanskrit with the married women who were unfailingly always at home, and departing with a handsome dakshina (offering) in the form of: rice, currency notes and coins, and sometimes even a whole cow. The Hindu religion allowed it, and the priests and astrologers made the best of this belief.
The doctor’s words had struck Mr. Rana like a guillotine. It was a death sentence.
A dark, monsoon-like cloud hung over the family. A feeling of mourning, depression and helplessness spread, even though the daughter was breathing, shrieking and struggling with death. Their daughter had developed a hoarse throat and her whole frail body was shaking.
Mr. Rana had heard that it took at least 15 injections to treat the rabies virus. In these days it was even possible to do it with three shots, but what was the use of knowledge? Or when a medical therapy is refused due to the ignorance on the part of the parents who have the money, and therefore the power to decide whether a member of the family should be medically treated or not, through traditional or western healing methods.
The way Mr. Rana saw it, it had been a blatant misuse of power. And he had a terribly guilty conscience regarding his daughter. It had been a fatal decision. One part of his mind accused him and the other seemed to rationalise and shift the blame to the uselessness of medicine, even though man had set foot on the moon and the skies were studded with satellites belonging to the western world.
And Sudha died that night.
* * *
On This Spot a Lotus Bloomed
Nepalese men and women work in the fields. They use the traditional bullocks and buffaloes that are seen in the villages of Southeast Asia.
They dig the fields manually. The women work beside the men, with babies strapped to their backs. Long wooden hoes are being used to dig and break the soil, whole families pitching in to do the job. And far out in the distance, the all-seeing-eyes of the compassionate Swayambhu observes the land from the towers on which his eyes are painted.
As you start for the temple, you’re first greeted by two Tibetan lions, set in stone, amid wonderful wooded surroundings. Behind the lions you see three colossal statues of the Buddha, serene and daubed in flaming red and gold. All around you there are naked trees in poses of suspended animation.
The ground crackles as you step on the fallen brown and russet leaves. Shrill bird cries ring through the air. It is roosting time, you say to yourself. The trees are silhouetted against the evening sky and the shadows are lengthening. Your eyes discern the prayers carved in the granite slabs as you ascend the seemingly endless stairs.
A bearded tourist and a bevy of girls giggle nearby, talking in French and eating peanuts. They pass some peanuts to the swarm of monkeys who are a regular feature of Swayambhu. The Rhesus monkeys are creeping, jumping, fooling and fighting with each other.
“How happy they are”, remarks a tourist with a laugh, as the monkeys climb the spire of the stupa. The overhanging eaves of the stupa, gilded with gold, are loosely chained together. The wind blowing from across the silvery Himalayas makes them rustle. You are dumbfounded by the majestic temple.
Three lamas go by: “Om mane padme hum” stirs in the air.
You take a cue from them and go about spinning the 211 copper prayer wheels that girdle the dome. Then you peer at the all-seeing-eyes painted on the four sides of the stupa and look where they look: at the myriad pale yellow, white, blue and crimson lights of the Kathmandu Valley below. You feel that you have indeed reached the top of the world.
It is chilly, and an icy gust of wind blows your hair. The clatter of the prayer-wheels is constant. The stony stairs are set at an extremely steep angle, but there are railings to help you up or down. A Tibetan, probably a Khampa from Eastern Tibet, mumbles his prayers as he comes down from the temple. He is wrapped in heavy mauve woollens. A shaggy Tibetan Apso, a tiny dog, like a Pekingese, with bells round his collar jingles past.
You go on. A few paces up, a monkey stealthily passes by as though he were a big-game hunter. You are again confronted by meditating Buddhas: the Dhyanibuddha Akshobya who rides an elephant and a lion, Ratnasambhava who rides a horse, Amitabha who rides the peacock and Amoghasiddhi who rides the heavenly bird garuda.
The going is hard but the ascent is redeemed because of the breathtaking beauty of the place. More Rhesus monkeys dart around you. One of them takes a joy ride along the railings like a kid, skids off and vanishes. You can’t help laughing. You abruptly come across two statues of horses: short and stubby. You’re weary but you press on and come across small elephant statues, with live monkeys playing pranks on their backs. The monkeys give you a quizzical stare. These are all part of the Buddhist pantheon. Now you begin to understand why the tourists call this temple complex also “the monkey temple”. The monkeys are protected by law(as is the yeti)and have freedom there since over 2000 years. They live on the offerings brought by the Hindus and Buddhists, and peanuts and popcorn offered by the tourists.
Your climb is over. The sky is dark, blue, and is fast changing into Prussian blue, and Venus has already appeared, but you have eyes only for the gigantic white dome and stupa of the Self-Existent One. The stupa is of great sanctity for all Hindus and Buddhists. It is hemispherical and you are struck by its enormous size. The earliest inscription on Swayambhunath dates back to the year 1129, but the stupa is thought to be much older.
You make your way to a Buddhist monk and he tells you a legend about Swayambhu…
“Once upon a time the Nepal Valley was a great lake. It was on this spot, where you now stand that a lotus bloomed and became the heart of the world”.
* * *
Live and Let Live : Wildlife versus Humans in Beautiful Nepal
The loss of wildlife habitat in the states of Nepal, India and Pakistan caused by widespread and indiscriminate destruction of forests in the foothills of the Himalayas and the Karakoram has led to an ecological crisis, resulting in floods and landslides after the torrential monsoons. When the forests recede the humans venture further into the habitats of the wild animals to cut and gather firewood.
Take Chitwan, the jungle in Nepal’s Terai for instance. Till 1961 organised poachers wantonly decimated the wild Rhinoceros unicornis in the jungle in order to sell the rhino-horn for a profit due to its healing properties in traditional Chinese Medicine. In February 1993 for instance, four rhinos were found dead in the Chitwan Park and the poachers had removed their hoofs and horns. In Nawalparasi there had been similar cases of rhinos being shot for their horns and hoofs a few weeks earlier.
To assist the helpless wardens a battalion of 8oo Royal Gurkhas had been deployed. According to the then director of the wildlife department Tirtha Man Maskey, “There are 400 rhinos in Chitwan with a reproduction rate of 2% according to research statistics.” A few days earlier 12 persons were arrested with 44 pieces of rhino hoofs and two pieces of horns. And in the Shukla Phanta three Rhino-cubs were found dead. The average life span of a rhino is 60 years. To combat the increased poaching a security committee involving the Chitwan chief district officer, forest officer, security officer along with the representatives of the various units had been formed. The point was: will poaching be stopped in the long run or only as long as the Royal Gurkhas prowl and patrol the National Park? Moreover, the Gurkhas were deployed to stop the Maoists insurgents in the past, and the poachers faced hardly any resistance and started decimating the wild animals. That also scared the tourists, and they were advised from their respective foreign departments to avoid Nepal.
There are less than 11,000 rhinoceroses left in the world, and four species are threatened with extinction. The Taiwanese are known to be stockpiling rhino horns as an investment. According to a World Wildlife Fund(WWF)estimate already 10 tonnes are already stored in Taiwan. In 1970 the price of a kilo African rhino horn was $30 and today more than $2,000. The Asian rhino horn, which is smaller than the African one, is worth $50,000 a kilo because the Taiwanese think it’s more potent. Even though commercial trade in rhino horn and its by-products are prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Zimbabwe and South Africa would like to export them and use the money to support effective anti-poaching programmes. It’s a case of legal trade to stop illegal poaching.
But poaching is also a trade. The legal market might “jeopardise rhinos elsewhere” according to Joanna Pitmann, who thinks “Taiwanese traders see gold in stocks of rhino horn.” To think that 30 years ago there were 100,000 black rhinos in southern Africa. Now there are only 3,500, the better part of which are in Zimbabwe, which is notorious for its high poaching-rate. According to Joanna Pitmann: “An average of three rhinos are lost in Zimbabwe every week.”
There seems to be a lucrative market and desperate souls are out to smuggle as many rhino horns and hoofs as possible. But aside from poaching there are also other problems. Thanks to the electrification of the many lodges along the Chitwan Park border the rhinos, tigers, leopards, and other denizens of the Royal forest nowadays have started getting used to techno-sound, hip-hop, lambada, Bollywood melodies, and rock n’ roll music blaring for the delights of the jungle tourists. The noise pollution created by the industry catering to tourism, in what should be a tranquil and serene National Park, is a nuisance indeed for the denizens of forest.
Nepal’s Endangered Rhinos: Once a royal hunting reserve, the lowland valley of sal forest and riverine grassland has come to be known as the Royal Chitwan National Park, and is Nepal’s number one Park. Take a trip down to Chitwan and you will get what I mean.
The wildlife you will get to see ranges from tigers, leopards, gaurs, sloth bears, sambars, chitals, hog deer, barking deer to the noted Gangetic dolphins which are seen cavorting in the waters of the Narayani River. And if you have a crush for ornithology, you will find exotic avi-fauna. Chitwan without the great one-horned rhinoceros would be unimaginable, since the area is internationally known as the wallowing grounds of 300 to 350 rhinos, which incidentally is the second largest population in the world.
Back in 1975 the rhino population of Chitwan was between 200 to 250.If you are planning to make a trip to Chitwan, I would advise you to make it between January and May, because that’s when the rhinoceros concentration down there is the greatest. The lush, green grass provides high quality grazing to the rhinos. In May they begin to shun the tall grass species which are unpalatable, and that is when they make for the paddy fields of the local hamlets to pull nocturnal raids much to the consternation of the local Tharu and other Nepalese farmers. During the day you will find them wading in the shallow rivers and feeding on the aquatic plants.
Do the rhinos have a specific breeding season? Actually there’s no evidence. The habitat in Chitwan is such that it provides a year-round food supply, and the conditions of living are most favourable to them. During the mating season, you are likely to hear “pant squeaks” when a male is hot on the trail of a female rhino. The females emit squeaks of low intensity when the pursue the males. The highest frequency of such squeaks is heard in the month of March. The males can be seen making furrows on the earth or sand as the case may be, by dragging their stubby hind legs along on the toes, while urinating. This was a phenomenon which had been baffling a biologist from Cambridge named Andrew Laurie whom I met, and who was doing research on the ecology of the Nepalese rhinos. He’d been recording the rhino behaviour every month and felt that their urinating and furrow-making during the monsoon may have been due to the “bad conditions for track preservation” He said, “The furrows are made by male rhinos after unsuccessful attempts to mate cows or after encounters with humans”.
The rhino has a long period of pregnancy and the young ones take an equally long time to mature, and all this overrules the advantage of a regular breeding season. When a rhino cow has completed her period of gestation, she heads for a secluded spot. The cow disappears into the thick forest for several days before the birth. Andrew Laurie had evidence for a possible oestrus periodicity of between 34 and 44 days, which he obtained in the months of June and July. Laurie said, “I saw a bull grazing and moving with a cow and her two year old calf from the 14th to 16th June. On 15th June he mounted the cow and remained mounted for one hour, stationary in the elephant grass”.
One whole hour: it was unbelievable.
Laurie went on to say, “I didn’t see the bull again with the cow and her calf until the 19th of July, when he attacked her. It was amazing. He succeeded in turning her right over on her back by lifting from the side with his head between her front legs. And all this while the calf grunted from a distance in the tall grass.”
He said the cow and the bull evaded each other until the 27th of July when the cow started to follow the male around sniffing at his penis, urinating herself and uttering “squeak blows”.
There is a possible peak births during July and August, which would tie in with a peak of mating activity in March and a 16 1/2 month gestation period. But Andrew was of the opinion that mating behaviour and births have been recorded throughout the year, and it was hard to detect a peak. “I’ve christened a healthy calf with the named Lickety Split,” he said with a chuckle because it seemed to dash about in the Chitwan foliage. The movements of the rhinos tend to be linked with food availability. They can be observed during the March-April feeding on the short grasses in the river banks in the blazing and forested plains located below the foothills of the Himalayas.
When grasses are scarce, they try aquatic plants, sedges and other coarse plants rather reluctantly. And when the grasses are burnt by the villagers of Chitwan, they immediately rush to these places to eat the charred stalks, which they relish. They return about two weeks to the same place to eat the new shoots. It’s quite intriguing to watch a rhino eat short grass. It uses its lips to bite off or pull up the shoots. The chewing is continual and often, the animal blinks and then bites off new grass with its lips again. You will discover that some roots and grass drop out by the side of the rhino’s mouth, but the animal normally has a gargantuan appetite and eats even the dead, russet and yellowed leaves on the ground.
And peaceful coexistence is not exactly what the villagers in the vicinity of the Royal Park believe in, at least as far as the rhinos are concerned. The Nepalese villagers have been briefed about the importance of the National Parks for the country, but not the animals. From as early as April in Katar and in the eastern parts of the Chitwan Park, the ungainly, cool and determined rhinos begin visiting the farmlands and feeding on the first rice and maize crops because they are so supple and delicious to them. Some of the rhinos tend to be neurotic and go about eating bananas, weeds and ripe wheat. And some even indulge in coprophagy. Keeping off the wildlife from the crops is indeed an eternal problem that the Nepalese farmers in the Terai face.
Rhino greetings: How do rhinos greet each other? They do it like the Inuit. A young rhino approaches another slowly with its nose stretched forward. The noses come in contact gently, and often a sparring bout ensues with one’s horn circling the other’s snout. But unlike the Inuits, the horns of the rhinos sometimes clash with a great noise. A nuzzling of the side of one’s face with the other’s mouth may take place, with a view to biting each other. And sometimes, you may be able to watch a rhino down in Chitwan bob its head up and down or even grazing and sweeping its head speedily from side to side. However, the approaching rhino, after touching the newcomer’s nose or nuzzling him will graze with him peacefully. The adult cows and bulls behave differently. They avoid contacts. But when they do come in contact, they hold their heads high and snort again and again, and even bare their teeth.
And what do adult males do when they come face to face with each other? They either ignore each other or threaten each other. The meeting is characterised by head-on approaches at times, followed by loud shouts, squirts of urine and touching of horns, low on the ground. And one of them may even turn and flee honking. Sometimes, a fight may develop in which the tusks are used a lot.
Andrew said, “During a fight one November, one male lost half its horn and both rhinos were deeply gashed. One of the animals returned six miles to the south of the Rapti River the next night. He walked very slowly, dragging a back leg and fed for no less than two hours.” Eating after a good fight seems to do them good. You will find that the rhinos show the most aggressive behaviour in their wallows, where threats and fights are very common, especially during the monsoon season. Despite the existence of many wallows in Chitwan, you will find the rhinos concentrated at a few wallows, and the wallows are changed very often. Most interactions involve rhino cows and calves. The approach of another rhino to the wallow might trigger off an interaction.
Attacks normally take the form of a charge. I remember having read an exciting description of a charging rhino by Peter Fleming in my school days, in which he called the animal a “brute”. Well, if you had a huge rhinoceros charging at you, you wouldn’t be inclined to call it friendly or cute either I suppose.
The best thing to do under such conditions would be to clamber up a thick tree. But the tourists in Chitwan are mostly on elephant-back and hence such situations hardly arise. When a rhino charges, the head is held low, mouth open, tusks bared and the charge is accompanied by a loud roar. The rhinos stop facing each other at a distance of one to two feet. The charge is ritually repeated. Or one of the animals might turn and disappear into the jungle: a loser. Each attack results in the loser having to divert to another place in the wallow, or even away from the wallow all together. A banishment and the winner takes it all.
Approaching rhinos sometimes turn and go on quite oblivious of the snorts. Others don’t even bother to take notice and walk right in. Even between the same rhinos in similar situation, the results of encounters are different on different occasions, and not stereotyped, according to Laurie.
“One cow and calf” he said,” always occupied the same position in a wallow no matter which rhinos were present. They never took part in aggressive interaction rituals.” But the normally playful rhino-calves are involved in the interactions.” In one case,” said Andrew, “a two month old calf attacked an adult female after she had chased off his mother. The cow in turned chased him in the opposite direction, but the spirited calf charged twice again. The cow stopped in front of him each time with her tusks bared, roaring loudly. Eventually the calf’s grunts were answered by soft squeaks blown from his mother, who had returned to fetch him.”
Interestingly enough, dung-piles are used by all members of the rhino population. And when a rhino comes across fresh dung, it serves as a signal for him to defecate. Calves invariably defecate after their mothers. And the dung-piles are developed in areas frequented by rhinos especially along paths and near wallows, and they are often 20 feet in diameter. A most remarkable thing about rhinos is that they defecate after an encounter with either another rhino, elephant or humans. So if a rhino defecates after he or she sees you don’t feel insulted. It’s the done thing in the world of the rhinoceros. One would not like to pass judgement, but the rhinos of Chitwan seem to have an entirely different opinion about us humans.
Besides the defecation, urination is also another important communication signal for the rhinos. A rhino squirts urine during or after encounters with fellow rhinos, elephants or humans, especially while walking away. It also urinates while on leaving a forest or grassland, a ditch, a field or road edge. The rhinos, while urinating, are known to scrape and drag their feet. The marking behaviour of the rhinos form a sort of communication system between individuals. The olfactory signals are recognised by other fellow rhinos.
The dung-heap for instance stimulates the rhino to defecate, and the furrows created by them after defecation and urination serve as visual and scent marks. And what’s remarkable is that the only permanent association among the rhinos happens to be the cow and her calves. The adult males are solitary, egoistic and do not tolerate the presence of other rhinos. Physical contact is very important in the cow-calf relationship, and wallowing cows and calves often lie touching each other. The small and chubby calves are very playful and spend long periods rubbing their heads and flanks along their mother’s huge body.
Mating among the rhinos takes place when the calf is about two years old. The calf is driven away usually by the male at the time of courtship. Both male and female follow each other’s tracks in Chitwan or for that matter in Kaziranga or elsewhere, when they have lost contact and greet each other by touching noses. The behaviour patterns change as the animal matures from a baby to a calf, and from a sub-adult to a full grown, breeding adult. Forty years go, most of the rhinos in Chitwan lived in the ideal, wild environment with very few people and extremely low amount of cultivation.
The only deadly enemies were the stately princes and maharajas from Kathmandu or their royal guests from Great Britain, who took pride in wantonly shooting animals after driving them and trapping them through the use of hundreds of villagers who encircled them with endless white sheets of cloth, and the beating of drums, tin-cans to create a great clamour and frightening noise in the otherwise serene jungle in the Terai.
Royal Hunts: The royal shikaris sat on perches called machans or on the backs of tamed elephants and shot the animals, birds and reptiles. Not because they had hunger as is in nature among the denizens of the jungle, but because it was chic and was supposed to be a sport ever since the gun was invented. The idea was not to stalk an animal alone in the ratio of one against one, with the undercover of the jungle as part of the game, and to kill a wild animal to feed the starving wife and children. Agriculture and transportation problems were already solved and hunting and killing helpless animals living in the jungles and forests came in vogue, to be documented for posterity in front of ‘fierce’ animals, not realising that the fiercest and wildest animal was the human himself armed with a gun and lethal cartridges.
In one big game expedition alone, the Nepalese Royalty Jung Bahadur Rana shot 21 elephants, 31 tigers, 7stags, 1 rhinoceros, 1 boa constrictor, 11 wild buffaloes, 10 boars, 1 crocodile, 4 bears, 20 deer, 6 pheasants and 3 leopards. Three successive generations of British monarchs have done game-hunting in the Nepalese Terai jungle. In 1886 when King Edward VII visited Nawalpur he is said to have bagged 23 tigers, 1 leopard and 1 bear. His son King George V shot “in one day in Chitwan” 10 tigers, 1 rhino and 1 bear. That was in 1911.
In 1921, the Duke of Windsor, when he was the Prince of Wales, visited Bhikhana in the Nawalpur district and took part in a shikar (hunt)and was presented the following animals and birds by the Maharaja Chandra Shumsher Rana as a present for the London Zoological Gardens:1 baby elephant,2 rhinos,2 leopards,2 Himalayan black bears,2 leopard cats,1 black leopard,1 tiger,1 Tibetan fox,1 mountain fox,2 sambhurs,1 thar,1 unicorn sheep,3 musk deer,1 four-horned sheep,1 one-horned Tibetan shawl goat,2 Tibetan mastiff puppies,1 monitor and 1 python.For the ornithological collection there were: 4 Nepalese kalij, 1 white crested kalig-pheasant, 4 cheer-pheasants, 2 koklass-pheasants, 4 chukor-patridges, 4 swamp-patridges, 2 green-pigeons, 10 bronze-winged doves, 3 Great Indian Adjutants (L. dubius), 1 hawk, 1 peafowl (P. cristatus). That was just the list of the animals presented by the Nepalese Maharaja.
In the course of the shikar, the Prince of Wales shot 17 tigers, 10 rhinos, 2 leopards, 1 bear, 7 jungle-fowls, 2 partridges, 15 snipes, 1 peacock and a hamadryas (Naja bungarus).
How long did it take to shoot all these animals?” you might ask.
Just eight days.
Today, the animals in the jungles of Chitwan, as elsewhere in the world, have to coexist with more people in the areas due to the increase in human population and migration of people from the mountains of Nepal under the resettlement programme of the Nepalese government. Much of the mixed forest and grassland areas which are good rhino habitat have been destroyed, giving way to settlements and cultivated fields.
The Nepalese population in 1974 was 12 million and in 1996 it is almost 18 million. Now it is 27 million. The humans multiply despite the so-called family-planning programmes that are publicised in Radio Nepal and Nepal Television, in the Gorkhapatra and The Rising Nepal. The movements of the rhinos and other animals in their original home grounds of the Terai (lowlands) have been restricted, so that they move after dark: stealthily, warily, over areas which used to be previously grassland and dense jungle. Nevertheless, there’s one thing that gladdens all conservationists and animal lovers alike, is that the Nepalese rhinos are opportunists and surprisingly adaptable, utilising a wide range of food.
With proper wildlife management, the rhinos of Chitwan have increased in number. And rhinoceroses have also been translocated from the Chitwan Valley to the Royal Bardiya Wildlife Reserve. In order to reintroduce a part of the endangered species in another part of the country and to provide them with an alternate habitat, and as an insurance against any unforseen catastrophe that could infect the rhino population in any particular area. The translocation might also help reduce the conflicts between the need for protecting the endangered species(and their gene pool)and the Nepalese villagers living in the periphery of the Nationalal Parks.It took 16 hours to bring the rhinos from Chitwan to Bardiya, and was a major success. The WWF(USA) gave a helping hand to the Nepalese, and tranquillising equipment and other support were provided by the Smithsonian Institute.
But there’s no need to be complacent, since the rhinos may succumb if disease broke out among them, for despite their thick armour, they are just as fragile as humans inside, as far as immunity is concerned. The most appropriate measure would be to move the villages from the Park area and to compensate the Nepalese villagers adequately through organisations like the WWF, World Bank or whatever, so that the wildlife may not have to encroach upon paddy fields at night. After all it is the human beings who have been encroaching upon the territory of the ‘wild’ animals, and not the other way round. The rhinos move in relation to the food, and when there is a stiff competition for food from wildlife, domesticated animals and the local people, migration to another territory is inevitable. The National Parks and Wildlife Office and the KMTNC need to be more vigilant in preventing human encroachment and poaching for furs and aphrodisiacs at the cost of rare animals which are a natural heritage, worth preserving.
On the one hand you have the government and conservationists passing laws that the Chitwan jungle be declared a National Park, so the dollar-paying tourists can stay in so-called jungle-lodges and go on photo-safaris on the backs of elephants through the thick elephant grass and drink campari or bourbon-on-the-rocks. And on the other hand, you have the farmers and villagers of the Chitwan area, who are endangered by the wild animals of the National Parks, because the wild animals (elephants, rhinos, tigers, leopards) not only come at night looking for fodder (rice, bananas, maize) and easy prey in the form of domestic animals, but also enjoy the protection of the National Park Rangers and, therefore, of the government.
The Chitwan Park covers 93,200 hectares and comprises also the flood plains of the Rapti, Reu and Narayani Rivers. The confrontation between the wildlife and humans in the jungle areas is pre-programmed. In 1974 there were approximately 400 rhinoceros and 70 tigers in Chitwan Park. According to a recent report published in July 31, 2006 the population of the endangered one-horned rhino in Chitwan has dropped from more than 500 six years ago to around 370. Three one-horned rhinos were killed and one wounded by poachers in around Chitwan National Park in south-western Nepal in the last week of July 2006.
It can only be hoped that the Nepal Terai Ecology Project’s attempts to make solar-powered electrical fences to keep the rhinoceros out of the farm lands will be a help, though prowling big cats don’t make much of such man-made hinderances.
Wildlife versus Humans: The KMTNC has in the past also initiated a grassland Ecology and Human Use project in collaboration with the International Institute of Environment and Development (USA). An American biologist named John Lemkhul made an in-depth study of the grassland ecosystem in Nepal, and the project proposed to develop a management scheme for the thatch grass that is vital for local human needs.
A Nepali grassland expert Keshav Rajbhandari from the Department of Botany also took part as a consultant. The study revealed that the Chitwan Park was providing over 15 million rupees indirectly to the village economy by permitting the local villagers to cut grass in the park for two weeks every year. It was found that 90,000 Nepalese enter the park during the two week season. The cutters are legally allowed to cut khar, kharai, bayo and smiti. The villagers walked up to 3km to get to the park and up to four members of a family helped to cut the grass. Even the Nepalese villagers need an entry permit to cut grass.
But at night, when the wild animals start plundering the crops, the farmers become angry, and try to drive them away. Moreover, there have been tragic episodes enough to fill volumes, whereby the village children and women have been attacked by the wild animals. The Rising Nepal and the Gorkhapatra, two Kathmandu-based governmental English and Nepali dailies, bring out such tragic news often enough. The humans living in the vicinity of the National Parks, that goes not only for Chitwan but also Langtang, Bardia, Rara, Sagarmatha (Everest) National Parks, are tempted to go to the Parks with their lush green grass and vegetation to gather firewood and fodder for their domestic animals. This phenomenon is also evident in the Darjeeling area, despite the forest-officers on duty. Where there’s poverty and an acute dearth of firewood, there’s always a way out of the desperate situation, mostly through illegal means.
It’s not uncommon to read in the pages of The Rising Nepal about the call to “Propagate the Nature Conservation Message” and about the heavy responsibilities of the wardens in the preservation and effective management of Nepal’s national parks and wildlife reserves. And in the same daily you have the story of how wild elephants terrorised and destroyed some thatched houses and saplings in Morang district, and how a village assembly member named Khadga Bahadur Ale was crushed to death while travelling from Letang to Kane through a forest.Or the story of a four year old girl named Sita Devi Paudel of a village in Dhikurpokhari who had been suffering from diarrhoea and was carried away by a tiger around 8:30pm and the next day only some part of the girl’s body were found in the nearby jungle.
Meanwhile, there was another story about wild elephants on the rampage from the Sunsari district, where they’d destroyed the thatched huts of 12 families in the Baraha Chetra villege. And in the hamlet of Bishnu Paduka four cows and two domestic swines had been killed and some goats injured by the wild elephants. Another caption tells the story of how the man-eater leopard which had attacked many children in the Kaski district was killed by a single bullet fired by Ram Bahadur Tamang, a resident of Chapakot village in Lalitpur district. The leopard was 4.5 feet long, and had been terrorising the children belonging to the hamlets of Hemaja, Dhita, Kaskikot, Dhikurpokhari, Bhadauremagi and Sarankot.
The story reminded me of the German TV film entitled “Danger in the Rapti” by Max Rehbein, who’s protagonist was Hemanta Mishra, a Nepalese wildlife expert, who likes to hear Beatles songs, in the role of a swashbuckling local Jungle Jim, in which he shot a man-eater and smoked a cigarette with the thankful village headman, for want of a peace-pipe. Hemanta Mishra used to work in the wildlife office in the early 1970s and ran the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, and was awarded the J. Paul Getty Prize for Natural Protection. He worked for the UNO later in New York.
Another story deals with a leopard which killed ten children, aged 3 to 13, in the hamlets of Dhimal, Bhadaure, Tamagi and Sarankot. A small 3 year old girl named Maya Adhikari of Malang village in the Sarankot district was snatched away from her mother as she was being washed in front of her house at 7pm on a Sunday. No wonder that the local people living in the vicinity of the National Parks feel insecure and few villagers venture out of their homes after sunset. The tigers turn into man-eaters only when then become old, are injured or have lost their habitat. The question is: Do the tigers encroach into the habitats of the Nepalese villagers or is it the other way around? To date there are 13 national protected areas comprising more than 9% of the total land area in Nepal. According to the Save the Tiger Fund report, the situation of the tiger in Chitwan is optimistic and their numbers are increasing and their habitats are improving. The number of elephants are also on the rise and provided that poaching is curbed, the numbers of rhinos will definitely increase in the future in Nepal.
The situation may take a positive trend if the Nepalese farmers plant trees, for only a fourth of the forest wealth of Nepal has remained intact. The reason is that in the year 1967, the then Nepalese government nationalised vast forest areas in the country. And after that the Nepalese farmers didn’t feel obliged and responsible for the forests and started cutting down trees without second thoughts. In order to combat this, the Nepalese government introduced in 1979 the village-forest, the state-forest and the so-called protected-forest.
Old eco-song & dwindling habitats: “Nepal’s wealth is the forest, said our ancestors” runs an eco-melody over Radio Nepal, but the vast tracts of forests have been encroached upon by people looking for agricultural-land. With the Nepalese forests dwindling, there is an increasing pressure in the remaining forests which have been declared National Parks, and are protected by the government.
There’s no denying that there’s a struggle for habitats between the wildlife and the humans in the vicinity of the National Parks of Nepal, as elsewhere in the world. As long as the Nepalese government and its apparatus, the wildlife offices, are active and educate and warn the people and nab the poachers, there might be hope for Nepal’s wildlife. But can more wardens and wildlife management help in a country where the population has been steadily increasing, and where there’s a dearth of arable land, and thus the competition and habitat encroachment on the part of the wildlife as well as humans in the limited living space in Nepal?
The 104 year old misrule in the past under the Rana heredity Prime Ministers, and the defunct Panchayat government, and the later administrative mistakes on the part of different governments, have led to the reduction in the number of flora and fauna in Nepal, not to speak of the forests which were prized for trees like the karma for furniture, sal in the foothills of the Churai chain for construction purposes. And sadly enough, Nepal needs 7.5 million tons of newly planted trees per annum if it is to avoid shortages.
At this stage I shall have to tell the story of a big game hunter-turned-conservationist. He came to Nepal in 1960,when there were a lot of tigers and no tourists. The tigers were shot till they became almost rare.
Today there are a little more than 60 tigers at Chitwan Park. Some In the year 1999 the number of tourists who visited Nepal were registered as 492,000 but due to the decade of armed conflict between the government troops and the Maoists some 13,000 Nepalese, mostly civilians, died. The tourists were advised not to go to Nepal and the number of visitors sank to 277,000 in 2005. The tourists were obliged to pay a “tax” to the Maoists.
Although over 15,000 tourists come each year to the Terai, the tiger population has nevertheless increased since then. The British banker named Jim Edwards (Tiger Tops) is supposed to have brought about this wonder. He organised jungle tours, wild water trips and trekking in the Himalayas, complete with climbing equipment: all for dollars naturally, because you cannot live in the Himalayas without money, and he has a beautiful residence in Kathmandu, a luxury apartment in London, and a domicile in posh St. Moritz. And till 1960 he was busy making money by organising big game Safaris. And since a couple of decades it’s been ecology and tourism.
Protected Wildlife: The growth of the population in the Terai area and elsewhere in the Middle mountains of Nepal, which shows an increment of 2.6 per cent does and will exert a lasting pressure upon the wildlife and vegetation of Nepal in the long run. And these are the questions that will pose serious problems for the country in the future. For with the construction of new roads, establishment of new industries and lodges and hotels for the foreign tourists, the country expects an industrial and tourist-boom that might disturb the ecological balance of this beautiful biotope that is Nepal, with its diverse flora, fauna, landscapes and ethno-cultural rarities.
Meanwhile, the protected wildlife of Nepal has been divided into 38 species falling under the three classes of mammals, birds and reptiles. The National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act has put 26 species of mammals, 9 species of birds and three species of reptiles in the wildlife protection list (1993). The protected mammals are: the red monkey, hispid rabbit, wolf, red panda, hyena, lynx, tiger, wild elephant, small boar, stags, yak-nak, “napon”, “salak”, “sonru”, the Himlayan red bear, “lingsang”, “charibagh”, leopard, the snow leopard, the rhinoceros, the musk deer, gaurigai, wild buffalo, “chiru” and “chapeka”.
The birds in the protected list are: the stork, orane, Lopophorus impejanus (Nepal’s national bird), “garmujur”, the great pelican, the white stork, “chir”, the munal pheasant and the “sano swar mujur”(peacock with the small voice). The list of protected reptiles include: the python,”sungohari” and the gharial.
After the establishments of National Parks in Nepal a number of projects were started: the Nepal Terai Ecology Project, the Snow Leopard Project, the Barun Valley Project, the Annapurna Project, International Workshops on the National Parks, Rhino translocation to India, the Nepal National Conservation Strategy, the Gharial Conservation project to name a few.