Magazine article Geographical

Paradise Regained; in the Remote Far West of Nepal, Bardia National Park Is a Haven for Rare Wildlife, Indigenous Culture and Biodiversity. but after Years of Civil War, the Survival of This Delicate Ecosystem Has Been in the Balance. Now, Local Stakeholders Believe the Park Has the Potential to Become One of the Premier Ecotourism Destinations in Asia

Magazine article Geographical

Paradise Regained; in the Remote Far West of Nepal, Bardia National Park Is a Haven for Rare Wildlife, Indigenous Culture and Biodiversity. but after Years of Civil War, the Survival of This Delicate Ecosystem Has Been in the Balance. Now, Local Stakeholders Believe the Park Has the Potential to Become One of the Premier Ecotourism Destinations in Asia

Article excerpt

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Diving through the rickety wooden gates that flank the entrance to Bardia National Park, it feels as if I'm entering a long-forgotten Eden. Verdant grasses billow in the breeze, and above, the skies shake as langur monkeys bound from tree to tree. Despite the unabashed splendour, there is complete silence and not a tourist in sight.

Bardia has been blessed with a unique proposition. Deep within its 968 square kilometres of riparian forest await Nepal's healthiest population of wild elephants, roaming greater one-horned rhinoceros, gharials (a relative of the crocodile) and critically threatened royal Bengal tigers. There are also more than 102 recorded tree species and gatherings of giant hornbills, sarus cranes and black storks. Yet despite this, Bardia long ago fell off the tourist map.

Originally annexed from Nepal to India by the East India Company in 1815, Bardia and the Far Western Region have had a long and tumultuous history. Indeed, the area, which stretches from Nepalganj to the state capital, Dipayal, is still called Naya Muluk, meaning 'new country'.

Established as the Royal Karnali Wildlife Reserve in 1976 to protect a variety of ecosystems, as well as one of Asia's most vulnerable tiger populations, Bardia was originally the jewel of western Nepal. In 1982, 1,500 households of the indigenous Tharu people were resettled outside the park, allowing the vegetation and wildlife to flourish. Sheltered by the mighty spine of Himalayan peaks to the north, and cradled by the twists and turns of the Karnali River to the west and south, the reserve became a haven for numerous species that were under threat elsewhere.

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Following the relocation of 83 rhinoceros from Chitwan during the late 1980s by the National Trust for Nature Conservation--and a boundary extension to include the Babai River Valley--Bardia achieved national park status in 1988. Receiving a royal decree from the King of Nepal, the stage was set for the country's premier area of biodiversity to blossom and breathe. But that was before Nepal's decade-long descent into civil turmoil.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the park was overrun by Maoist insurgents, who installed makeshift camps on the banks of the Karnali River, from which they waged their anti-monarchist campaign. Poaching became rife, and the effect on the indigenous wildlife was near catastrophic. The resident population of 55,000 spotted deer, for example, was reduced to just 10,000. Bardia, in turn, became a paradise lost.

PEACE PREVAILS

The park's initial salvation came in the form of a UN-brokered peace deal. But in the wake of this deal came local environmentalists, government interventions and a series of innovative park-management strategies. Animal numbers have started to rise, and local stakeholders have begun to take an interest in Bardia's regeneration.

'Ninety five per cent of the nature guides, elephant mahouts and regular stewards within the camps are local people from Bardia--so they all form a part in the web of inter-relationships between tourism, business and the natural environment,' says Marcus Cotton, chief executive of Tiger Mountain Nepal, a patron of a number of Bardia's sustainability initiatives. 'I'm an optimist--but the cynic in me notes that if there was no prospect for tourism, more local young men would move away, seeking work in the regional towns, thus reducing pressure on the park for resources and as a poaching base.'

Subash Gurung, a Bardia field guide, is one such stakeholder keen to make a positive impact. Having relocated from Chitwan National Park, he's hopeful that Bardia is on the verge of a long-overdue regeneration. Over the past 12 months, he has seen a dramatic increase in animal sightings and a renewed focus on environmental protectionism from the local Tharu communities. …

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