Venturing beyond the city smoke

February 3, 2016

Author: Matt Kinsella

Our volunteer, Matt Kinsella, has spent the last few weekends travelling out of Kathmandu to explore some of Nepal’s stunning countryside.

Chitwan National Park

Chitwan National Park sits in the low-lying Terai region of Nepal, close to the Indian border.   It is thought to be home to more than 120 Bengal Tigers, around 45 wild elephants, sloth bears, leopards and over 500 different bird species.  Its ecosystem is under pressure from population growth in the Terai, the demands of tourism, and pollution from industry upstream, which already threatens both the endangered Gangetic Dolphin and the Gharial Crocodile (which survives mainly because of a breeding programme).

However, there have been notable successes in conservation and management. The park was set aside as a rhino sanctuary in 1963, when the Asian one-horned rhino was facing extinction.  Since then, poaching of rhino horns has been eliminated in the park due to a permanent presence by Nepal’s military, and numbers have steadily increased to around 500 – though beyond the Park’s boundaries, the rhino remains vulnerable to wider threats of poaching and habitat loss.

Meanwhile, agencies and NGOs such as the National Trust for Nature Conservation have tried to help manage the potential conflict between development in the communities neighbouring the park, the pressures of tourism, and the need for environmental management and conservation.  They work to encourage sustainable tourism, provide community infrastructure to nearby villages, promote alternative energy, help to train local guides (who in my experience were superb) and deliver conservation education programmes.  WWF Nepal also work in the region to help conserve biodiversity, ensure sustainable use of natural resources, reduce pollution and secure sustainable livelihoods for local people.

The line between lands tame and feral

Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park stands on the northern edge of the Kathmandu valley, covering 159 km2 of hills and mostly broad-leafed forest, dotted with clusters of pine. Though close to Kathmandu itself, the park is home to surprising biodiversity: leopards, wild cats, civets, Himalayan black bears, pangolin, mongoose, deer, boar, snakes and numerous bird species. For the casual visitor however, the fauna are usually well hidden amongst the trees. The park was established in 2002, in part to protect the water catchment for Kathmandu itself, with the area providing water to agricultural users, hydropower schemes and urban consumers downstream.

Various trails wind through the park, and ascending one of the many stone staircases to the ridge line (at around 2,200m) affords views through the trees of the high Himalayas to the north. Meanwhile, turning south opens up a panoramic vista of Kathmandu itself – about fifteen kilometres away and some 800m below – and my home for the last two and half months. Up here, the sounds of the city drift and rise, as though from another world – distant traffic, horns honking, a lorry labouring uphill, faint strains of music, even the occasional human voice carried up by the breeze. The smog and air pollution that shrouds the city is also evident – a thick layer of haze, contained on all sides by the hills that enclose the valley like a bowl. It is this smog which meant Nepal was ranked 177 out of 178 countries for air quality in a 2014 study, while causing numerous health problems for urban residents. Though Nepal’s image as a place of crisp mountain air and snow-capped Himalayan peaks remains true in the rural and remote areas, in the capital it is a different story.

Kathmandu is expanding fast – already home to more than 2.5 million people, and increasing at around 4% per year, it is one of South Asia’s fastest growing cities. Development has struggled to keep pace with this rapid expansion, leading to urban sprawl, substandard construction and loss of open spaces. The city has become less livable than it once was and the poor quality of some of the building stock has increased the vulnerability of residents to natural disasters. As I look down from the ridgeline, it is staggering to think that the April 2015 quake moved the ground beneath the entire city, together with its millions of residents, several metres southwards in under a minute. With experts warning that another major earthquake is likely in the future, and urban expansion continuing apace, the need to address the city’s infrastructure, governance and urban planning issues is pressing. But the scale of the challenge – and the power that still resides in the faultline below – are enormous.

Likewise, from this vantage point, the urgency of protecting places like Shivapuri is apparent – a clear straight horizontal line running across the hillside shows where the park’s boundary lies. Above the line is thick green forest, and home to numerous species; below it, the trees have almost all been cleared to make way for human cultivation and buildings. That line – the line between lands tame and feral – highlights the pressures faced by the earth’s trees and wild places. Without deliberate efforts to conserve nature and ‘rewild‘ our world, such places will soon give way to human activity. It is heartening to see that Nepal takes the protection of its National Parks seriously – I pass a military post with several well-armed soldiers at the entrance, exactly as I did when I visited Chitwan a week or so previously. Their remit is largely to protect this beautiful area, to deter human interference, and to ensure Shivapuri stays wild. To my mind, it is one of the better ways a nation might deploy its soldiers.