Nepal reckons with the dark side of its rhino conservation success

  • A recent film glorifying rangers in Chitwan National Park, and a Buzzfeed investigation highlighting human rights abuses by those same rangers, have prompted debate over Nepal’s conservation practices.
  • The country has achieved remarkable success in protecting species like the greater one-horned rhino, and conservationists say efforts to engage with and support communities around Chitwan have greatly increased since the 1990s.
  • Rights activists say local people suffer due to a prevailing attitude that disregards the rights of historically marginalized people and denies them a genuine role in policymaking.

Park rangers at Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, home to the iconic greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), receive a tip-off from one of their informants. Within a few hours, they’re ready to raid homes near the park. They enter without knocking and detain people in their sleep. The rangers, who don the traditional Nepali topi (cap), aggressively pursue anyone they deem a rhino poacher. If anyone objects, rangers threaten to send them behind bars for 15 years. During one such operation, a man dies in their custody.

For moviegoers in Nepal, the plot seems to have come straight out of a new movie. “Khaag” (“The Horn of the Rhino”), tells the tale of Kamal Jung Kunwar, one of Chitwan’s most famous rangers, who has been credited for the rapid decline in poaching of rhinos. But as a recent Buzzfeed investigation shows, the intimidation and violence on display in the movie is an everyday reality for people who live around the World Heritage Site in central Nepal.

The Buzzfeed report examines the death of Shikharam Chaudhary, a member of the Tharu indigenous community, after he was allegedly tortured by park rangers. It also highlights how sweeping legal powers bestowed upon park rangers, who are supported by conservation organizations such as WWF, affect the lives of people living around protected areas.

Meanwhile the film, based on Kunwar’s memoirs and funded in part by his foundation, glowingly portrays him as an astute ranger who uses any means necessary, including physical violence, to catch and imprison poachers.

The trailer for the film “Khaag” is largely a montage of Kunwar, in his distinctive topi, beating up rhino poaching suspects. Activists say the violence depicted in the movie reflects real conditions faced by people living near Chitwan National Park.

The movie and the Buzzfeed report serve as a reminder that some 20,000 people were evicted when the park was set up in 1973. They’ve also prompted debate over the “dark side” of Nepal’s success in conserving threatened species like the greater one-horned rhino.

Poaching remains rampant in most rhino range countries, and demand for the animal’s horn has pushed species like the black rhino to the brink of extinction. Nepal, too, looked to be going down this path. In the 1960s, the country’s rhino population was hunted down to fewer than 100 animals. Poaching spiked again in the late 1990s, reaching a peak of 22 animals killed per year between 2001 and 2003.

In 2003, Kunwar was appointed head of Chitwan’s anti-poaching unit. Between 2004 and 2005, just eight rhinos were killed. From 2006 to 2008, the period in which Chaudhary died, only one rhino was killed by poachers. In 2007, Kunwar was briefly appointed acting chief warden of the park, a position he took over in full from 2013 to 2016. Poaching rates have remained low, with just three rhinos killed by poachers since 2012. There are now more than 600 rhinos living in Nepal. Kunwar doesn’t shy away from taking credit for this success: An infographic in the end credits of “Khaag” notes that whenever Kunwar was around, poaching was under control.

In neighboring India, by contrast, more than 150 rhinos have been killed for their horns since 2006; in South Africa, more than 760 white rhinos were poached.

For a small nation that directly borders China, the world’s largest market for illicit wildlife products, such success is remarkable, and speaks to a deep commitment to wildlife conservation at all levels of government.

But some argue the success in Nepal comes at an unacceptable human cost. They view both extreme cases like Chaudhary’s death and the more everyday acts of harassment and exclusion illustrated in “Khaag” and the Buzzfeed report as representative of a prevailing attitude that disregards and undermines the rights of local people, especially historically marginalized indigenous communities who were affected by state policies even before the park was established.

A female greater one-horned rhino with young in Chitwan National Park. Image by Bernard Dupont via Flickr CC BY-SA.

Militarized conservation

Following the eradication of malaria in the plains of Nepal in the late 1950s, the government sponsored a massive resettlement program that reduced the indigenous population to a minority and deforested vast tracts of land to make them available for newly arrived farmers.

A shift from the migration policy in the 1960s to a conservation policy in the 1970s didn’t improve the situation of the indigenous peoples.

Under Nepal’s conservation model, the poor and marginalized who live around protected areas get the least benefit, says journalist Shradha Ghale, who has written extensively on the issue. “The main beneficiaries are those who are bent on fencing off these areas against the poor,” she says.  “They are the government, which gets donor funding for a particular brand of conservation and invitations to conservation junkets abroad; the army, which gets a huge chunk of the national parks budget and unrestricted access to ‘protected areas,’ and the tourism industry, through which wealthy Nepalis and Westerners can buy a whole range of experiences in nature.”

Some critics also contend that the establishment of Chitwan National Park served as a pretext to deploy the army to prevent migration from India to the newly opened agricultural areas.

But Kunwar, who was one of those accused in Chaudhary’s death, says that efforts have been made to bring the community on board for conservation work. He says that if the government had not deployed the army and given sweeping powers to rangers, Nepal could not have been successful in its conservation of rhinos. “We see that Nepal is not doing well in so many indicators such as poverty, corruption and trafficking of persons. But in the case of conservation, we are leading by example, and we should be proud of that,” he told Mongabay. “When it comes to conservation, Nepal is a ‘hero’ and this means we all are heroes.”

He says the arrests he made during his tenure made it possible for Nepal to celebrate zero poaching. When asked why protecting the rhinos is important to him, he says the animals are vital for the conservation of the Chure, a hilly range between the plains and the lesser Himalayas. “If the Chure is not protected, millions of people living in the plains are at risk of floods and other disasters.

“For us to protect the rhinos in a country like Nepal, we cannot at the moment imagine conservation work without military support,” he says. He views this support as essential due to the challenges of detecting wildlife crime. “A rhino dies in the middle of the jungle, and only other wild animals are witnesses to the crime. It wasn’t easy for us to locate the culprit.”

Former Chitwan warden Kamal Jung Kunwar, a polarizing figure who has been celebrated for bringing rhino poaching under control and was also charged in the death of an indigenous man. Image by Abhaya Raj Joshi for Mongabay.

Ends and means

But whether the ends justify the means is a question that troubles activists such as Kamal Rai, who has long lobbied for indigenous people’s rights under the Convention on Biodiversity. He says the violence depicted in the movie reflects the real conditions faced by people living in communities near the park, which include a sizable indigenous population. “There may be a handful of locals who are involved in poaching of rhinos, but the entire community has to live under fear from the authorities, who can raid their homes anytime they want,” he says.

“The state considers its functionaries as the main pillar of its conservation efforts and it is yet to accept that the local people also have a role to play in conservation,” say activists Chhabilal Neupane and Chitra Bahadur Majhi in their 2017 book “Samrakshit Chhetra ka Dwanda” (“Conflicts in Protected Areas”).

Neupane and Mahji say one of the main drawbacks of conservation in areas such as Chitwan is that indigenous communities such as Tharus, Botes and Majhis, whose livelihoods are linked with the land, have been denied access to the forest in the name of conservation. “Park authorities restricted indigenous people from fishing, and collecting herbs and firewood from the forest. This not only affected the people’s livelihoods, but also created a situation in which they could not preserve their culture, knowledge and skills which are an important part of their identity,” they say.

On the issue of the indigenous people’s access to local resources, Kunwar has a different take. He says shifting people away from traditional livelihoods is actually good for them. “Is it fair that while we live in the cities, the people at the grassroots continue to fish for their livelihoods? Do they not deserve a better livelihood?”

Although he concedes that money coming into Chitwan through tourism barely reaches the poor, Kunwar says that at least it reaches the top strata of society. “A layer of Nepali society is getting more money than others. But the benefits are trickling down to the people at the grassroots, who are getting employment,” he says. “In the recent years, local people themselves are running ‘homestay’ services and earning money from tourism.”

But with money comes controversy, even for Kunwar. The former warden says his foundation spent around 4.5 million rupees ($41,000) on the movie. Asked how it can portray the real situation if he’s both the author of the book and the producer of the film, Kunwar says, “The main objective of the film is to raise awareness about rhinos. It is part of my personal campaign to save the rhinos.”

A Tharu village near Chitwan. The establishment of the park in 1973 contributed to the impovershment of the Tharu people. Photo by Jean-François Gornet via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Community engagement

While Kunwar remains confident about the benefits reaching local people, many conservationists acknowledge the establishment of Chitwan National Park was a huge economic and cultural blow to local communities. But things started to change in the 1990s, they say.

Ram Kumar Aryal, head of the biodiversity conservation program at the NGO Nepal Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), says that when the park was established in the 1970s, the local people didn’t have a sense of ownership over the conservation program. Things improved after conservationists adopted a community conservation model, he says.

The buffer zone program, set up in 1994, allows communities living around the park to manage the forests on its fringes, granting them access to resources like wood and fodder. Aryal says this program has ensured that people living around Chitwan don’t have to enter the core of the park for forest resources, since firewood and fodder is available in the buffer zone. A major chunk of the park revenue also goes toward the development of buffer zone communities. “These days if you ask anyone whether they want their crop yield or the rhinos, they will definitely say rhinos,” he says.

Some problems do remain, Aryal says. It takes far too long to process claims submitted under a scheme designed to compensate locals for crops damaged by wildlife. Similarly, local communities don’t have easy access to construction materials such as sand and gravel. “These problems need to be addressed to improve the participation of communities in conservation,” Aryal says.

A February 2019 study authored by several researchers affiliated with the NTNC found a similar trend. While locals surveyed as part of the study generally tended to support conservation, agreeing that animals have a right to live in the forest, they responded less positively to questions about whether they themselves directly benefited from conservation, and about the role of buffer zone organizations and national park authorities in reducing and compensating for human-wildlife conflict.

An elephant walks through the streets of Suaraha, the gateway to Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. Photo by Simon Desmarais via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Buzzfeed investigation points to even deeper problems with the community forest model. Local people told journalists they were denied permits to use the forest and river, and hassled or even severely beaten by park guards when entering buffer zones.

Activist Kamal Rai says he believes the movie and the Buzzfeed report only point to the symptoms and not the root cause of the problem with conservation in Nepal. “There are three groups of people in Nepal who have different perspectives on conservation: the policymakers; the scientists and policy implementers; and the local and indigenous community,” he says. “At the root of the problem is that the local and the indigenous communities at the front line of conservation don’t have representation at the policy level. This means that policymakers are influenced by conservationists who want quick results, even at the cost of the welfare of the community.”

But even with so many issues surrounding the country’s conservation efforts, the response within Nepal to the Buzzfeed investigation has been muted. Journalist Ghale says this isn’t surprising, since it’s a matter of the voiceless poor pitted against the powerful organs of the state.

Meanwhile, at the movie theater, the top rows are filled by people in Nepali topis, while the cheap seats in the bottom rows are vacant.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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