Human migration to Nepal’s tiger capital adds to conservation challenges

Human migration to Nepal’s tiger capital adds to conservation challenges

  • Chitwan district in central Nepal is home to the eponymous national park that’s come to symbolize the country’s success in growing its tiger population.
  • But the district’s human population is also growing, at a rate far higher than the national average, driven by migrants seeking better health services and other urban amenities.
  • Conservationists have raised concerns that the growing human presence in the area will pose additional challenges to conservation efforts and put a strain on natural resources such as forests, rivers and land.
  • Some warn of an increase in human-tiger conflict, especially involving migrants who don’t share the same traditional knowledge that Indigenous residents have of coexisting alongside the big cats.

KATHMANDU — The B.P. Koirala Memorial Cancer Hospital in Nepal’s central Bharatpur city, Chitwan District, bustles as patients, most of them from the country’s northern hilly areas, line up for their turn. Doctors in white coats dart from one room to another, while nurses in scrubs attend to patients.

The facility is one of the more than a dozen specialized hospitals, both private and public, that have sprung up in Chitwan, better known to the outside world for Chitwan National Park — a UNESCO World Heritage Site, important biodiversity hotspot, and home to the one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) and the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris).

Chitwan, which continues to lure Nepalis from across the country to its fertile plains, is fast becoming a top destination for those seeking better access to health services. The district now has one of the highest population growth rates in the country thanks to rapid urbanization, according to recently released census figures. This has left conservationists concerned about the prospect of increased human pressure on the forests and wildlife of the region.

Tourists on an elephant safari view rhinos in Chitwan National Park. Tourism has become a crucial source of revenue for the surrounding communities. Public domain image.

“That rising population in Chitwan definitely adds to challenges in conserving forests and biodiversity,” said Jhamak Bahadur Karki, former chief warden of the national park and a faculty member at Kathmandu Forestry College.

According to the 2021 census, Chitwan’s population that year grew by 2.07%, higher than the national average of 0.92% and among the top five districts. It’s population today stands at some 720,000. Another census, this time of tigers, conducted the same year shows that Chitwan National Park is home to 128 tigers, up from 93 in 2018.

The influx of migrants to Chitwan is reminiscent of the 1950s, when a campaign to eradicate malaria in the plains was followed by a government-sponsored program that saw large numbers of migrants resettled here. That program saw the Indigenous population reduced to a minority, and vast tracts of land deforested to make room for the newly arrived farmers. This continued until the government adopted its current conservation policy in the 1970s. However, the plains of Nepal, including Chitwan, still continue to attract people.

firewood cookstove in Nepal
Around 50% of Nepalis still use fuelwood to cook, according to the results from the latest national census. Image by Abhaya Raj Joshi

The census also showed that 50% of the households across Nepal still burn firewood to cook their meals. The proportion is lower in Chitwan, at 18%, but migrants from the hills are used to cooking with firewood, which has to come from the forests, said conservationist Hem Sagar Baral. This could increase the deforestation rate in Chitwan, he added.

Similarly, cases of human-tiger conflict could increase in and around Chitwan, home to the biggest tiger population in Nepal, as people from the hills don’t have the traditional knowledge of living with tigers. Indigenous communities such as the Tharus, Botes and Musahars have lived in tiger habitat for centuries and are aware of the perils. They have a traditional bond with the animals, and knowledge about their behavior that the migrant communities don’t necessarily share.

A tiger in Chitwan National Park, Nepal.
A tiger in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Image by AceVisionNepal77 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Conservationist Babu Ram Lamichhane said he believes it takes time for migrants to understand what living with tigers is like. “There are certain areas where tigers roam, and people who have been living in the area for a long time know about it,” he said. “Also, they know about the measures they need to take to keep themselves safe. But new entrants don’t know that.”

Migrants are also less likely to be aware of how to protect their livestock from tigers. When a tiger kills their livestock, they might want to seek revenge, Baral said. “There is a potential that migrants could be involved in illegal wildlife trade,” he added.

With the increase in population, issues such as disposal of solid waste, sewage and large-scale extraction of groundwater could pose even more challenges to conservation, researchers say. “The rivers are the lifeline of Chitwan National Park, and their pollution could result in negative impacts for wild animals,” Baral told Mongabay.

Also, the fertile farmlands around Chitwan, where people cultivate a host of food crops, make excellent habitats for farmland birds such as buntings, cranes, sparrows, parakeets and pigeons. “The farmlands are slowly giving way to concrete buildings to house the growing population,” Baral said. Previous research has also shown that concretization poses a direct threat to farmland birds in Nepal’s plains.

Although various local governments in the hills are providing incentives such as cash rewards and seed money to start businesses, in an effort to entice residents to remain in their villages, research shows that people decide where to live based on factors such as the availability of economic opportunities and access to health care.

“Different measures such as the development of new towns in the hills and construction of north-south highways could help ease the flow of people from the hills to the plains,” Karki said. “But that won’t completely stop migration.”

people bicycle
Local people go about their daily lives in Chitwan. Image by Abhaya Raj Joshi

Placing restrictions on the free movement of people would be unconstitutional and therefore can’t be a solution to the problem. “But there are a lot of things that the government can do to ensure that different safeguards are in place to protect and build upon conservation gains in Chitwan,” said conservationist Kumar Paudel. “We all know that the environmental impact assessment process in Nepal is flawed and needs to be fixed. Similarly, we need to strictly enforce environmental protection measures at a landscape level.”

Lamichhane said that although there’s a notion that an increase in human or tiger populations, or both, will inevitably result in more cases of conflict, that may not necessarily be true. Tigers and humans have always shared the landscape in Nepal. “The key is to make the migrant population aware about conservation,” he said.

Meanwhile, at the bus station in Bharatpur, more buses continue to pour in with people seeking medical attention. They will have to stay the night in Bharatpur to wake up early and stand in long lines to see a doctor at the earliest.

Abhaya Raj Joshi is a staff writer for Nepal at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @arj272.

Banner Image: People crossing the Rapti river following a jeep safari at Chitwan National Park. Image by Abhaya Raj Joshi

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