Wild frontier: Valmiki-Chitwan-Parsa

Shouldn’t the tigers of a trans-boundary Nepal-Bihar forest area be given dual citizenship, so that they are protected on both sides?

Flying northeast into Kathmandu from the direction of New Delhi, just as the aircraft begins its descent adjacent to the Nepali tarai, a wide stretch of jungle suddenly appears beneath. This is an unexpected swath of green, given that whole stretches of the tarai region have been deforested over the past half-century by logging and human encroachment. This expanse of low, wooded valleys and riverine jungle is unique as the finest stretch of wild lands west of Assam – also a vibrant reminder of the great jungles of the Ganga plains that disappeared long ago. Today, this expanse is habitat to several Southasian 'climax species', most importantly, the one-horned rhinoceros, the tiger, and the gharial and marsh mugger crocodiles.

Perhaps just as distinctive is that this area of jungle falls under three wildlife units in two different countries. The Royal Chitwan National Park and the Parsa Wildlife Reserve are protected areas within Nepal; the Valmiki Tiger Reserve is part of Bihar State in India. This crossborder region thus offers unique possibilities for cooperative protection of one of the few unique, surviving natural habitats in the region. Unfortunately, due to recent political confusion in Nepal and a general lack of interest all around, the possibilities for cooperation are, for the moment, in abeyance.

The Valmiki Reserve is named after the sage Valmiki, who is said to have written his epic Ramayan in a retreat located in these rolling hills. Located in West Champaran District, the reserve extends westward from the town of Valmikinagar, by the Gandak River, to Bhiknathori, a railhead settlement in the ancient trade route from the plains to Nepal's central hills. In the middle is the Someswar range, part of which is known as the Shiwalik range in India and the Churia in Nepal. On both sides of the Someswar undulation, in Chitwan District of Nepal and West Champaran of India, are found the indigenous forest-dwelling Tharu people.

What is today the Royal Chitwan National Park was once part of a much wider area populated only by the Tharu in pockets, extending all the way across this 'doon' valley of Chitwan to the Himalayan foothills. After most of the valley was cleared through lumber extraction and settled by hill folk starting in the early 1960s, it was decided to convert the southernmost region, as yet uncleared, into first a protected area and later a national park. The Parsa Wildlife Reserve extends eastward from the national park and is part of Parsa District, otherwise highly populated by the Bhojpuri-speaking Madhesi community and containing the entrepot town of Birgunj.

The contiguous forests of Chitwan-Parsa-Valmiki (CPV) support a healthy population of what can be considered the Subcontinent's flagship wildlife species, the Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris). In the colonial era and earlier, this wildlife-rich area attracted rajas, nawabs and zamindars who came in for extended hunting expeditions. Later, colonial royalty such as King George V and King Edward VIII (Prince of Wales) also came to hunt big game – which would be conducted spectacularly on elephant-back with sometimes hundreds of additional pachyderms providing support, driving prey towards the hunter.

This area was once continuous woodland, stretching from the Dehradun region of present-day Uttaranchal, 1800 km east to Assam, past the Nepal tarai and the Bhutan duars. Today, it is visible in satellite imagery only in patches. This fragmentation of habitat has presented a crisis for the Subcontinent's tiger population, which make up about half of the world's total. Of the estimated 6000 tigers that survive in the wild today, as many as 200 of them survive in the alluvial grasslands and moist, deciduous forests along the India-Nepal border – in the Bardia and Shukla Phanta reserves of Nepal's western tarai and Chitwan-Parsa-Valmiki at the centre. Besides being larger, the CPV region also has the largest area under forest cover, which affords a more ideal tiger habitat. An estimated 80 tigers reside in the trans-border region, with about 35 thought to be normally resident in Valmiki in India and the rest in Nepal.

The CPV region has become so vital for tiger conservation that the US World Wildlife Fund has identified it as a Tiger Conservation Unit (TCU) that should receive top international priority. A TCU is defined as an area of habitat that either already contains or has the potential to host an 'interacting population' of tigers. CPV is a priority because of what scientists call 'habitat integrity', a situation of low poaching pressure and a relatively abundant tiger population. Scientists assume that such an environment offers the maximum possibility of long-term survival for tigers in the wild.

World heritage

Because of the three regimes and two countries under which Chitwan-Parsa-Valmiki is located, the full extent of the size and scope of this conservation area is not fully appreciated by the administrators on the two sides of the border, nor by the public at large. Taking the TCU as a whole, this is a protected wildlife area of 2311 sq km, which includes 932 sq km of Chitwan, 499 sq km of Parsa, and 880 sq km of Valmiki. Including buffer zones and other areas outside the core wildlife reserves, the total conservation area covers an area as large as 3549 sq km.

Chitwan was declared a national park in 1973, while the Parsa Wildlife Reserve was announced in 1984. Wild elephants are actually the star attraction of the latter reserve; Chitwan is known for the tigers in its sal and other forests, and the rhinoceroses in its riverine grasslands. The habitat had been well protected as a royal hunting reserve from 1846 to 1951 during the Rana regime. In 1963, an area south of the Rapti River was demarcated as a rhinoceros sanctuary, which was later converted to the national park. In 1984, recognising the wealth of its natural habitat, Chitwan was added to the World Heritage List by UNESCO.

Prior to Indian independence in 1947, the Valmiki forest was owned by the Bettiah Raj and the Ramnagar Raj. Interestingly, the rulers of Ramnagar were descended from a raja said to be named Burangi Singh, a satrap of "the mountains of Telhoni or Telahu" in Nepal, according to a historical source. Owing to oppression by the king of Nepal, he is said to have taken refuge in the low hills around Tribeni Ghat, which is the point where the Narayani River (Gandak in Bihar) flows onto the plains. The fleeing raja established himself at Ramnagar, which today falls in a subdivision of West Champaran.

Both Bettiah and Ramnagar states took advantage of the income that the jungle offered. The Valmiki forests were subsequently leased out to companies such as M/s Dearr & Co and Nepal Timber Co, which led to years of commercial exploitation and degradation of the woodlands. The government took over the tracts after Independence in 1947, later establishing the Valmiki Wildlife Sanctuary in two stages, in 1978 and 1990. Between 1974 and 1994, however, Valmiki was heavily exploited by the Bihar State Forest Development Corporation, until the area was declared a Tiger Reserve under the Project Tiger programme originally started by Indira Gandhi as prime minister. Finally, there was a complete ban on the extraction of all forest products. Though not fully implemented, this new policy led to a healthy recovery of the Valmiki forest. In fact, a recent study of the entire tarai region in India found Valmiki's forest cover and species wealth to be far better than elsewhere.

Nationality of the tiger

The Chitwan-Parsa-Valmiki forests together form the territorial area of many tigers. The crossborder movements by the animals increase during the breeding season. During the summer, there is a general move north into Chitwan by the beasts inhabiting the northern side of Valmiki. The Indian paramilitary forces deployed along the border in response to the Maoist rebellion in Nepal have also noticed these movements – they file reports, for example, of a 'Nepali tiger' entering the Valmiki or an 'Indian tiger' moving north into Chitwan. Of course, the international frontier has no meaning for the big cats. They have no citizenship: they simply traverse the habitat that evolution has ordained as their own.

During the 2003 monsoon, a tiger corpse remained trapped for two days in the sluice gate of the Gandak Barrage at Valmikinagar. The Indian press reported that a dead "Nepali tiger" was stuck in the barrage, as if the deceased creature had a passport or identity card. In reality, no one can guess the origin of a tiger in these trans-boundary habitats unless it is radio-collared or in some way marked. Even then, because of the animals' shifting bases, it is impossible to locate the points of origin of borderland tigers. In essence, a tiger can move through the forests of either country, and in any of the three protected areas. The responsibility for its care and protection subsequently rests with the forest wardens and policymakers of both countries.

In the Madi Valley of Chitwan, which hosts a cloistered settlement of Tharus and hill migrants surrounded by jungle, one hears similar references to the nationality of tigers. Between 1980 and 2000, nearly 50 people were said to have been killed in Chitwan; 24 of these deaths took place in the four years prior to 2001 in the Madi region. Most of the 'suspect' tigers were said to have been 'Indian', entering from some degraded tracts on the other side of the border. Conversely, when a tiger killed two villagers at Raghia in India, it was assumed by the Indian authorities that the culprit was 'Nepali'. The real cause of the deaths, of course, was the increasing encroachment into the protected forests by villagers of either nationality – this is the habitat of tigers, after all, for which the only citizenship is the jungle.

Eco-regional cooperation

As yet, no thorough study has been done on habitat status, land use, and the population and movements of tigers in the area south of the Madi Valley within Chitwan, where the Nepali and Indian forests meet. It is assumed that this is an important corridor for tiger movement between the eastern part of the Valmiki reserve and the Chitwan-Parsa forest. During a May 2005 tiger census in Valmiki, several tigers were reported in this eastern sector. Evidence of tigers has also been found near the Someswar Fort, on a summit of the range by the same name, south of Madi. Boulder mining has recently been banned from Valmiki's easternmost edge, which is further expected to improve tiger habitat, with less human disturbance.

As it cuts through the Churia/Shiwalik hills, the meandering Narayani River ('Gandak' as it flows into India) provides a direct link between Chitwan and Valmiki. This corridor sees the downstream movements of tigers, rhinos and ungulates from Chitwan into Valmiki during the monsoon floods. In August, a field assistant with the Wildlife Trust of India even saw a tiger cub floating downriver near the barrage. In 2000, a 'Nepali' rhino was located in the Pandai riverbed of eastern Valmiki. A herd of elephants was also recorded having entered Valmiki from Chitwan and moving southward towards human settlements before being driven back.

A clear protocol has still not been agreed upon as to how to deal with these animals of the contiguous forests of CPV. The across-the-border arrangements have generally been ad hoc. If this TPU is to be maintained in the relatively high quality of its habitat and wildlife, there is a need for the two countries to begin sustained cooperative efforts. This includes control of illegal logging and poaching, and ensuring that the encroachment of human inhabitants in surrounding villages does not degrade the quality of habitat required for the tigers and other animals.

For their parts, poachers and loggers currently use this wild frontier to their advantage, quickly hopping the border after committing forest- or wildlife-related offences. Nepal's Maobaadi reportedly use the Someswar forest tract from the Bhikna Thori railhead into the Madi Valley as an arms and material supply route into the hills of central Nepal. While it is unclear whether this has impacted Nepali conservation efforts, a sharp increase in the number of rhinos killed by poachers is clearly problematic. The national park's protection has always been the jurisdiction of the Royal Nepal Army, which is presently preoccupied with anti-insurgency operations throughout the country, and is said to have a lean presence in Chitwan.

The national park has long been the pride of the Nepali conservation effort, and it has a far better protection system than does its Indian counterpart. But reports of a sharp rise in rhinos killed here in the last year bespeaks of the deteriorating situation in Chitwan, which results in a degradation of the status of the entire crossborder region. Poachers and contraband runners come from both sides of the frontier. Last year, Nepali authorities arrested Indian villagers with leopard skins and tiger bones at Tribeni Ghat on the Gandak; earlier, a Nepali was also caught red-handed with leopard skins by Valmiki authorities. Surveillance of the region by wildlife authorities from both sides – rather than just by the paramilitary forces of one side – would help tremendously in tackling poaching and contraband trafficking.

A meeting of Indian and Nepali wildlife officials on trans-boundary conservation was held between Nepal and India in Kathmandu back in January 1997. Far-reaching resolutions were adopted to promote the establishment of trans-border conservation areas in appropriate regions, maintain appropriate databases, and share relevant information for biodiversity conservation. It was also decided to create complementary anti-poaching mechanisms, conduct joint-training, and to exchange research information on wildlife matters. At a follow-up meeting in New Delhi in 1999, the two sides agreed to develop communication systems in Nepal-India trans-border conservation areas, as well as to protect corridors for the seasonal movements of wildlife. In particular, there were expressed commitments to develop eco-regional cooperation in the CPV area.

Unfortunately, these laudable decisions have yet to be implemented on the ground, particularly in Chitwan-Parsa-Valmiki. Here, trans-boundary cooperation is still in its embryonic stage. Admittedly, Valmiki is on the road to recovery after being included in the Project Tiger scheme, added to the ban on forest resource exploitation. But because the ecological integrity of the entire CPV region is vital, it is important to maintain the high standards of management in the Royal Chitwan National Park, as well as to enhance the 'integrity' of the Parsa Wildlife Reserve. All in all, focus in all three units should be on protection, containing wildlife trade, regular habitat monitoring, and paying attention to the needs of the large carnivores, especially the tiger.

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