Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Barely Surviving: the Karnali River and Forest Corridor

This article was published on Republica - popular Nepali national daily. Link to this article Please note that the views expressed here are personal.

“Let a female tiger in India make love to a male tiger in Nepal,” sang Bhadai Tharu, a local conservationist from Bardia. His song underlines an important fact. Like all other species, tigers too need genetic diversity in order to survive. Inbreeding reduces their chances of survival and with the added complication of climate change, how do we ensure that Indian and Nepali tigers meet?

One way to do it is to create conservation corridors to preserve habitat connectivity, enabling wildlife to move from one place to another. The corridor concept started to gain currency with Nepal’s conservationists during the mid-1990s. Before that, conservation efforts tended to focus on important species such as rhinos and tigers. A fortress-style approach was used, with national parks and protected areas set up to ‘contain’ the wildlife. The corridor concept forms part of the landscape approach to conservation, which works to address the challenges of habitat fragmentation and habitat isolation by looking at the broad interconnectedness of ecological systems. The approach also seeks to promote integrated ecosystem management that takes into account the socio-economic, political, and cultural needs of local communities. The Terai Arc Landscape was the first to be recognized by the government in April 2001. Corridors play a crucial role in the landscape approach as they provide trans-boundary connectivity for wildlife as well.

Although four such trans-boundary corridors already exist and are recognized by the Nepal Government, there is an urgent need for an additional corridor to connect Bardia National Park in Nepal to Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in India. This will be called the Karnali River and Forest corridor. The corridor will follow the western tributary of the Karnali River, which branches out from Chisapani Bazar in Baliya VDC and covers an area of 14,618.5 hectares.

Photo Credit: WWF, Hariyo Ban Program/Pallavi Dhakal

As the name suggests, this will be the first river and forest corridor in Nepal, facilitating the movement of both terrestrial and aquatic animals, notably the threatened Gangetic dolphin and gharial populations. The corridor provides both north-south and east-west connectivity which will be of particular help in the western stretches of the Churia hills. This additional corridor will also shore up protection for the entire Karnali River ecosystem in combination with the Khata corridor which lies to the east.

Both the (existing) Khata corridor and the (proposed) Karnali corridor facilitate the north-south movement of mega species such as rhinos, tigers and elephants. "If we do not intervene immediately, the long term viability of the narrow strip of forest that still exists in the Karnali corridor is put into question," says Dr. Shant Raj Jnawali, Biodiversity Coordinator for the USAID funded Hariyo Ban Program. Dr. Jnawali’s fears are well-placed given the many challenges the area is facing, the most serious of which is the massive encroachment of forest land and river beds in the southernmost section of the corridor near the Nepal-India border. This wholesale encroachment has almost caused the corridor to be split in two.

The ongoing development of infrastructure presents further challenges. The east-west Mahendra  Highway passes  through  the Karnali  corridor  at  Baliya VDC, fragmenting a major patch of forest in the Churia hills and a narrow  strip  of  forest  in the Terai. The ongoing World Bank supported Rani Jamara Kulariya irrigation canal project also bisects the forest corridor.  This physical barrier will have direct impacts on the north-south movement of wildlife. The canal will eventually pass through almost all of the corridor-adjoining VDCs in Kailali district. A hydropower project has been proposed upstream of the corridor on the Karnali River at Chisapani and if ever built, would very seriously affect the ecosystems in both the corridor and Bardia National Park. The proposed Indian funded Hulaki Highway connecting Nepalgunj and Dhangadhi, if constructed, will pass through the lower part of the corridor, fragmenting the habitat further and threatening the very existence of wildlife in the area, let alone their free movement.

Photo Credit: WWF, Hariyo Ban Program/Pallavi Dhakal

"While national development is essential, we need to be careful, because this is a corridor of international importance. Any infrastructure development in this corridor should be designed in such a way that it will have minimum impact," says Santosh Mani Nepal, Director of the Policy and Support Program at WWF Nepal. “WWF Nepal strongly recommends that the government either elevates the part of the Hulaki Highway where it passes through the corridor, or runs it underground,” he continues. “This is essential for the safe movement of wildlife, and for safeguarding the ecological functionality of the corridor.”

An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) seeks to evaluate the effects that a project will have on the surrounding environment; it also recommends steps to be taken to minimize negative effects. One can only wonder about the recommendations made by the EIA carried out for the canal and highway projects. Considering that in Nepal, highways have been routed through national parks and other protected areas, let us hope that the EIA carried out for the Karnali projects are not being used simply to justify project interventions.

The many successful conservation efforts being carried out by different organizations in the Karnali corridor will be unable to address critical ecological issues without strong government support. The corridor must be conserved by strong community engagement, supported with robust policy back-up. The participation of local communities in conservation initiatives is after all imperative.  If only there were more local heroes like Bhadai Tharu to save the Karnali river and forest corridor. He has achieved so much in the neighboring Khata corridor which is well-maintained by local communities. And his passion for tigers continues, despite losing an eye in the tiger attack. “Let us not break the love between the Indian and the Nepali tigers,” he sings, “let us not block their free passage, let them meet and make love.”