There are many wild areas of Nepal that urgently require protection. Milke Danda in the eastern hills is one such place, a place of rare beauty, repository of the rhododendron.
Milke Danda is a 25-km-long north-to-south ridge that divides the Arun and Tamur river valleys, an elongated mountain in the Mahabharat belt which stands like an eastern counter-point to the Khaptad plateau of far west Nepal. Khaptad is the only national park in the Nepali midhills, and increasingly there is a demand for Milke Danda to be protected as well.
Milke Danda is known to the locals and a few aficionado trekkers for its unique cloud forest and its incredible variety of rhododendron species. The area is easily accessible, as the southern limit of the ridge is Tsute Deurali (2460m), barely three kilometres from Basantapur, which is the roadhead extension of the Dharan-Dhankuta highway. In one long swing, the ridge extends all the way up to Milke Bhanjyang (2970m), which merges further on with the lower flanks of Jaljale Himal.
The diversity of the rhododendron genus is most dramatic on the hump of Tinjure (2870m), where up to 25 species are found. The trees flower simultaneously and the profusion of colours makes it seem as if the whole Milke Danda is abloom. Only the fall colours of New England can match the sight in terms of dramatic effect, except that there it is dying leaves that provide the attraction, whereas in Milke Danda it is living colour—all the shades of pink, purple, scarlet and white. The period for viewing Milke Danda rhododendrons is all of April and into early May.
The cool temperate forests of these parts offer botanists and plant lovers alike a sumptuous Garden of Eden where they are likely to wander about in amazement for days on end. Unique species harboured and protected by Milke Danda include the Himalayan musk rose, giant bramble, large thickets of Pipthanthusnepaleusis , the creamy white flowering Elsholtzia fruiticosa, as well as Mahonia sp., Castanopsis tribuloides and Spiranthus sinensis.
Beyond rhododendrons and other wildflowers and plants, the appeal of Milke Danda lies in its jungle which remains dense (and the inner parts, still virgin) unlike so many other parts of the midhills that have been denuded. A wide panorama spanning (east to west) Kanchenjunga, Kumbhakama Himal, Makalu and the Khumbu Himal adds another dimension to Milke Danda’s attractions. A proper end point to the trip to the ridge is the lake of Gupha Pokhari (2840 m.) at its northern extremity.
One reason the Milke Danda ridge has been preserved better than others is that there are few settlements on it. However, human encroachment is getting to be a problem, mainly because the porter trail from Basantpur to Taplejung follows the ridgeline. There are eleven trail stops on the route up Milke Bhanjyang alone, with an increasing number of households establishing themselves here. They arrive with the intention of servicing the porter trade with teashops and lodges, but before long are homesteading and clearing forests for firewood, lumber and farming.
The upsurge in new construction is also the result of this region coming to the notice of trekking groups travelling from the airstrip at Tumlingtar to Basantpur via Chainpur and Gupha Pokhari. This walk is especially popular with elderly and retired tourists, as it is less taxing than high Himalayan treks.
Unfortunately, while some of the trekking groups might use kerosene for the sahibs’ kitchen, the porters all use rhododendron firewood for cooking and warmth. There is no one here to protect the rhododendron trees, which at this height take decades to mature.
Besides such fellings by outsiders, local woodcutters have been clear-felling the rhododendron forest to supply wood to the two larger settlements on the trail, Gupha Pokhari and Mangalbare Chauki. The trailside having been exhausted, tree cutting is extending deeper into the jungle.
Cattle grazing poses another threat to the vegetation of Milke Danda. The rapid increase in population, with the corresponding increase in cattle herds, is proving more than the forest can sustain. The old craft of khukuri-making is also contributing in its own way to the loss of trees, for the wood of the Rhododendron arboreum is valued for making khukuri handles.
Recently, probably due to better bridges on rivers further north, mules and dzos have begun to replace porters on the trail to Basantapur. This means fewer porters on the trail, since ten animals can carry more loads than 20 porters. This development, as well as the recent introduction of helicopters for cargo operations in East Nepal based in Dhankuta, means that firewood consumption will be somewhat reduced. Perhaps with some protection measures, the forest of Milke Danda can make a recovery.
Milleville on Milke
Among specialists, there is growing understanding of the need to declare Milke Danda a protected area—a national park or conservation area. Should this be done, Nepal would have a protected area devoted specifically to the rhododendron.
Wildlife is not Milke Danda’s strong point in terms of touristic attraction as it houses the ‘regular’ Mahabharat species rather than exotic High Himalayan ones. (However, migratory birds are known to pass through the area in winter.)
Rene de Milleville, a Frenchman who has studied Nepali rhododendrons for over 15 years, is the person who has to be credited for drawing attention to Milke Danda. Having watched the ridge’s decline over the years, there is a note of urgency in de Milleville’s voice as he pleads for a national park to be established promptly.
Not that this is a new idea. Tirtha B. Shrestha, the well-known Nepali botanist, recommended that Milke Danda be made a conservation area more than a decade ago in the book Nepal: A Nature’s Paradise . Shrestha supported his recommendation with three points. First, the rhododendron is part of Nepal’s heritage, having been raised to the status of national flower in 1962 (it is also Bhutan’s national flower). Second, the genetic diversity of rhodendrons on Milke Danda cannot be found anywhere else, either in Nepal or adjoining Sikkim and Bhutan. Finally, says Shrestha, the Milke ridge provides rare ecological variation, as it stretches from the tropical climes of the Arun and Tamor valleys all the way up to the alpine stretches of Jaljale Himal and the Tibetan plateau beyond.
Pralad Yonzon, a wildlife biologist, holds a somewhat different view. While agreeing that Milke Danda should be preserved for the sake of the rhododendrons, he believes that it does not have the potential to sustain itself as a national park. “Milke Danda cannot attract tourists on the strength of rhododendrons alone. They bloom once a year and for the rest of the year, a rhododendron forest is no different from any other.”
While granting Milke Danda’s uniqueness as a rhododendron haven, Yonjon believes it would make more sense to establish a national park further east in the Mai River valley with its 297 species of rare birds. However, the outspoken wildlife biologist is also a strong believer in the need to expand protected areas in the middle hills of Nepal, which, after all, make up the largest portion of the Nepali landmass. Preserved areas of Nepal are presently concentrated in the Tarai and the High Himalaya. The rhododendron belt lies in the middle hills, between 2500 m and 3500 m. “If rhododendrons provide the motivation to protect a tract in the middle hills, then I would say go for it,” says Yonzon.
Chandra Prasad Gurung, who helped set up the pioneering Annapurna Area Conservation Project ( ACAP) in central Nepal, feels that Milke Danda should be preserved for the sake of the national heritage that the rhododendron represents. He advocates the ACAP approach, which involves the local people in forest protection, and firmly believes that imposition of rules without local participation will merely generate local antagonism.
Baburam Yadav and Puran Shrestha, longtime wardens in Nepal’s national parks, agree with Gurung. They maintain that sending in army personnel or forest guards to protect the Milke Danda forests would be a sure way to invite alienation. Bishnu Prasai, a lodge-keeper in Basantapur, agrees, stating that the people of the area must see benefit from protecting an area. “Conservation will be more effective if there is a watchdog body within the community itself,” says Prasai.
Pull of the Rhododendron
The government in Kathmandu has sat on the national park idea long enough. No one picked up Shrestha’s suggestions of the early 1980s, and it is already three years since de Milleville’s detailed proposal has been with the Ministry of Forests. Governments have changed, officials have been shifted, and nothing has happened. For his part, de Milleville says he is waiting for Nepali politics to settle down before making a second presentation.
Gurung concurs with the view that political uncertainty is keeping many innovative ideas from proceeding ahead in the conservation field. Manzol Haque of the Department of Forests had initiated moves in tandem with the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation (KMTNC) towards the conservation of Milke Danda, but all that came to a stop after Haque’s exit from government service.
National parks or conservation areas for rhododendrons have been touted for some time in and around the Himalaya. China alone has about 200 species of the 800 species of rhododendron found worldwide but its efforts at starting a preserve have not been successful because of the species being scattered all over the country. While Sikkim is said to have a protected area for rhododendrons, the area is too small and it lacks a real variety of species. In central Nepal, in the Ghorepani area that falls within ACAP, rhododendron forests are under conservation but these trees are of the same species with just a few variations in colour.
With its large variety of rhododendron species, Milke Danda is a natural for a rhododendron national park, the first such protected area to be established after the end of the Panchayat era in Nepal. The fact that the ridge itself is devoid of traditional habitation means that the people-park conflict is not an issue here. Lastly, here would be a large and representative section of the Mahabharat belt of the central Himalaya, properly protected, and a Himalayan heritage that would be a gift for generations to come.
The trekking trade could be expected to take full advantage of this heritage. Tour operators see in the Milke Danda ridge a potential for diversification into a niche market that focuses on Mahabharat trekking, based on the pull of the rhododendron. Prajapati Prasai, a well-known Kathmandu travel operator, says that Milke Danda has the potential for tourism despite some of the drawbacks mentioned by Yonzon.
To begin with, there is no reason why the period of rhododendron bloom, brief though it may be, should not itself be able to bring in significant income which would benefit the tourism trade as well as the local communities. Besides, Milke Danda, especially after it has seen conservation for a few years and with the swift regeneration that is possible in the forests of the Eastern Himalaya, would boast the largest stretch of cloud forests easily accessible for trekkers who are not up to strenuous hiking.
“A national forest for the national flower is an idea whose time has come,” says botanist Shrestha. Using external funds for a national park is not a sustainable activity. Along with local participation, he suggests the involvement of the district forest officers ( DFOs) from the districts adjoining the Milke Danda ridge (Tehrathum, Sankhuwasabha, Dhankuta and Taplejung). “Nepal has the technical knowhow to establish a park and controlled tourism could provide the means to run it.”