The tarai used to evoke the image of steaming jungles and tall grasslands teeming with South Asia’s “mega fauna” — rhinoceros, tiger, barasingha, elephants. Today, the image is one of fields and flatlands as far as the eye can see, punctuated by lone trees that speak for what only a few decades ago was one of the richest areas in the world.
My first train ride, at the age of 12, was on the narrow gauge track from Amelekhganj in the inner tarai to Birgunj at the border. The slow-moving train meandered through the rolling sal forests of the char kosey jhadi, the 10 to 12 mile belt of unbroken jungle south of the low hills. The train chugged past stately trees laden with vines and teeming with chattering langur monkeys, and in the dark of the forests, one knew, lay the domain of the tiger and the rhino. Little did I know then that the trigger of the tarai’s destruction and fragmentation was about to be pulled down. Highways, canals and settlements would spell the end of a whole kind of wilderness.
PLAYGROUND OF MAHARAJAS
The tarai is the moist, alluvial sub-tropical belt just south of the Himalayan mid-hills. Untrammelled by human intervention, it once consisted of a continuous carpet of malaria-infested forests and grasslands extending from the Indus river in present-day Pakistan all the way east and south to the Brahmaputra and beyond, to touch the borders of present-day Myanmar. The tarai had amazingly abundant flora and fauna even during the Miocene era, 20 million years ago, and it is their evolution that led to the present forms of plants and animals.
The tarai’s profusion of wildlife made it the hunting ground of emperors, rajas, maharajas and latter-day viceroys. Babar, the Mughal emperor, is known to have hunted rhinos in the floodplain of the Indus in the 15th Century. Even as late as the 1850s, tens and thousands of deer and antelopes roamed the Punjab, and large herds of gaur and wild buffaloes were reported right along the tarai Bhabhar forests from Nepal through Bhutan and Assam.
Nepal’s Rana prime ministers used to invite royalty from India and Great Britain for mammoth shikars which employed 350 elephants or more. A hunt arranged for King George V in 1911 ended with the killing of 39 tigers, 18 rhinos, 4 sloth bears and numerous deer. A 68-day Chitwan safari in 1938 by Lord Linlithgow, Viceroy of British India, shot 120 tigers, 38 rhinos, 15 bears and 11 crocodiles. The Maharaja of Coach Bihar boasted of killing 207 rhinos. Zahir Shah, King of Afghanisthan and Queen Elizabeth II have also hunted in the tarai.
Despite the shocking figures, these hunting binges did not really endanger the tarai species. The reason is that the shikars were organized only occasionally; at the same time, habitat destruction and poaching were strictly discouraged. A British naturalist wrote in 1880 that Nepal’s rulers deliberately protected the malaria-infested forests and forbade human settlement in order to maintain the jungle barrier as a deterrent to British territorial designs.
It is nothing less than ironical that the destruction of the tarai forests began around mid-century — with the fall of the Rana raj in Nepal and the eclipse of the British Raj in India. The big hunts stopped, but giant clearing operations began.
DECADES OF DESTRUCTION
The 1950s and 1960s constitute the “Decades of Destruction” of the tarai’s wild places. In Nepal, malaria was banished by the United States Operation Mission (predecessor to today’s USAID) with a programme begun in 1954. What followed was legal and illegal human settlement, commercial logging, darns and canals, roads, and extension of agriculture and establishment of tea plantations. Destruction of forests accelerated.
Besides loss of habitat, rampant poaching and hunting (which no longer remained the prerogative of a privileged few) also played a part. By the end of the 1960s, the tarai population of tigers, rhinos and many species of ungulates such as the gaur, barasingha and the blackbuck were on the brink of extinction.
The plight of South Asia’s large and small fauna drew international attention during the General Assembly of the International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), held in New Delhi in 1969. Politicians, planners and administrators were shocked to learn about the decline of South Asian — particularly tarai — wildlife. The IUCN meeting provided the impetus for Operation Tiger, which was launched by the World Wildlife Fund. The tiger was chosen because it sits at the apex of the food chain and needs lots of territory. Any effort to save the tiger would automatically require preservation of a large habitat. A domino effect would benefit the general flora and fauna.
The 1970s brought in the era of protection. As a direct result of efforts to save the tiger, there emerged in the Nepali and Indian tarai green pockets — national parks, wildlife reserves and sanctuaries. Legislation converted the very areas where rajas and emperors once hunted into sanctuaries for threatened wildlife. International conventions were introduced to ban trade in endangered species. People were relocated to provide more room for wildlife. The successful introduction of national parks and reserves was backed by mechanisms to combat poaching and grazing, including the deployment of armed guards.
As a result of these strategies, the number of large mammals such as the tiger, rhinoceros and swamp deer rebounded within the sanctuaries. In Nepal, Gharial crocodiles were bred in captivity and released in the wild. Chitwan’s national park was filled to capacity with rhinos so some had to be translocated westward to the Bardia National Park. Elsewhere, sightings of the Hispid Hare and Pigmy Hog, once identified by the IUCN as among the ten most endangered of species, began to increase.
Success in the tarai, unfortunately, was not without its pitfalls. Attention lavished on parks and reserves short-changed wilderness outside such sanctuaries, which saw continued destruction. The trees of the tarai, which were a source of instant cash for the unscrupulous, fell victim to the axe and power saw, during times of political instability and lax enforcement.
ANIMALS AND PEOPLE
The other side of the coin was that the strict enforcement of exclusive park rules often affected the work and lifestyles of the local population, particularly indigenous people such as the Tharu. Indeed, while resources and manpower were lavished on large mammals, the needs of the local inhabitants for fuel, fodder and firewood was ignored.
The patches of forests that remain are the result of “negotiations” between politicians, developers and planners in the capital cities. Delineation of tarai wilderness into “protected forests”, “reserve forests”, “national parks” and “sanctuaries” was decided in the metropolis and engenders conflicts at the village level. People who have traditionally used forest lands for grazing, firewood and shifting cultivation find their access to the forest barred.
The success in the protected areas has led to increase in the number of large carnivores, which tend to prey on livestocks. The most cattle are lost in the vicinity of the best wildlife sanctuaries. Similarly, the increase in ungulate population is directly proportional to the loss of crops in adjacent farmlands. Studies in Chitwan showed that sometimes the loss to deer and rhinos can be as high as 90 percent of the harvest.
The killing of humans by tigers, rhinos and elephants is regarded as an exceptional aspect of animal behaviour. But when such killings do occur, they becomes the ultimate expression of the conflict between man and nature – and arouse outbursts of emotional reaction not only against the beasts but the forests that shelter them.
ALICE IN TARAI WONDERLAND
Today we find the national parks and protected areas as islands of green in a sea of ever-increasing humanity. Unfortunately, these forests of the Indian and Nepali tarai are not zones of coexistence where people and wildlife live symbiotically as did the indigenous peoples. Instead, these woodlands are areas of conflict between conservation needs and human needs. Rules and regulations drawn up by the western-educated city planners are often based on intellectual or aesthetic values, and the goal is, of course, conservation. Such macro-level legislation is often meaningless for the villager struggling to subsist on the meagre produce of farm and forest.
Much of the legislation which exists for the protection of the tarai forests is either outdated or unworkable. In essence, the rules ignore the day-to-day requirements for food, fuel, fodder and other basic needs. Conservation laws are accepted under duress. The villagers’ only recourse is to avoid being caught by forest guards, or, if caught, to scheme to get away with minimum penalty or harassment.
Many international and national agencies in Kathmandu and Delhi have tried to “save the tarai” with missionary zeal. But these “tarai conservationists” have been like Alice in Wonderland — babes in the woods, truly. For, as Mark Twain put it: ‘The pleasant labour of populating the world goes on with prime efficiency.” The tarai has become the proving ground of such efficiency. The ideals of the urban conservation theoretician are swamped by the separate and harsh reality of wood hunger and food hunger. What was perceived as a nicely defined biological problem, it turned out, had complicated social, economic and political implications.
Tarai conservation must involve the human dimension in wildlife management and protection. There must be direct participation and involvement of the local people. In the long run, no park or sanctuary can survive as an island in the middle of a peopled landscape unless the surrounding humanity accepts it as an economic package for its own benefit. Today’s harrowing tale of African wildlife is proof enough of this. Woodlands must be a source of monetary gain, jobs, markets, even prestige or other sentimental human values. Otherwise, the forests will not last.
How to strike the balance between the short-term needs of the villager and the long term needs of conservation? Between firewood demand and maintaining genetic diversity? By understanding, especially in today’s context, that people, and not deer or bears, elect those who will decide. The people themselves will have to speak for tarai’s wildlife, not the bureaucrat, forest guard, zoologist or environmentalist.
A LOST HERITAGE
The vast, continuous tracts of the tarsi’s wild lands are gone forever. The generation that is middle-aged today will remember what it was really like. For the young, a sense of what was lost will require a visit to a protected sanctuary such as Chitwan, and lots of imagination to multiply it a hundred times over. Our responsibility now is to save the green that exists, both inside and outside the official park boundaries, But to think that we can do this without taking account of reasonable human needs is a mistake.
Hemanta Mishra is the Executive Director of the Kathmandu-based King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation (KMTNC). His PhD in wildlife resource management focused on tigers and their prey species in Chitwan.