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Fear and hardship for the last community inside Chitwan, Nepal’s tiger central

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Residents of Nepal’s Madi Valley have for the last half century lived almost entirely surrounded by Chitwan National Park, famous for its tigers, leopards and rhinos.While the wildlife are a major tourist draw for the park, for the community they’re a constant source of fear, with attacks on people, livestock and crops far higher here than elsewhere in Nepal.The fate of the community epitomizes the tricky balance Nepal has tried to strike between conservation efforts and community welfare, complicated by cultural and political factors and the broader history of relocation in the Chitwan region.
Though many residents have moved away from Madi, the poorest have been left behind, with no choice but to eke out a precarious existence as intruders on their own land.

MADI, Nepal — Surya Prasad Paudel, a lean 42-year-old with an aquiline nose, sunken eyes and gray facial hair, stands waveringly in front of his mud house with the sunlight bathing the straw thatched roof a golden hue.

On his phone, he scrolls through images of his recently slaughtered goats, prey to a leopard (Panthera pardus) that struck in the dark of the night. “We hear tigers growl right next to our house almost every night,” Paudel says, still scrolling through the stark photos. He says he wants to claim compensation, but the process for doing so is a jumble of red tape, leaving him and many others in a state of confusion and helplessness.

Farmer Surya Prasad Paudel stands in front of his house in Madi, Chitwan. Image by Abhaya Raj Joshi

Paudel and his family live in Nepal’s Madi Valley, a settlement of 38,295 people spread across an area twice the size of Paris. To its south rises the hill of Someshwor, on the other side of which lies India.

The settlement, comprising Indigenous Tharu, Bote and Darai peoples, as well as hill migrants, is encircled on its three other sides by Chitwan National Park. The valley is part of a vital transboundary corridor for animals such as endangered tigers (Panthera tigris), facilitating their movement between Chitwan and India’s Valmiki Tiger Reserve.

This also makes Madi the epicenter of human-wildlife interactions in Nepal, says Rishi Subedi from the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), a semigovernmental body, are leaving the settlement in droves.

Map shows Madi Valley surrounded by forests on all sides.

Chitwan National Park, established in 1973 and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, is at the forefront of Nepal’s tiger conservation efforts. These efforts have seen the country nearly triple its tiger population between 2010 and 2022. Similarly, on the other side of the border in Valmiki, tiger numbers soared by 75% between 2018 and 2022.

Various studies, including the government-commissioned Status of Tigers and Prey in Nepal (2022), suggest that cases of human-wildlife conflict are most frequent in regions close to transboundary corridors, where bottlenecks in wildlife movement through human-dominated landscapes exacerbate the situation.

Despite a decrease in human fatalities from wildlife encounters since 2014, livestock depredation and crop raiding have increased, putting additional strain on the already vulnerable village economy in Madi. A 2020 study showed that between 2014 and 2019, while human casualties from encounters with wildlife hovered at less than one per year, the number of reported livestock depredation incidents increased from around eight to 25 per year.

Tiger rescue NepalStaffers from the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) tranquilze a ‘problem tiger’ in Chitwan. Image courtesy of NTNC

In 2012, a bull elephant that authorities named Dhurbe killed four people in Madi, triggering a mass protest against the national park. Villagers demanded the culling of the elephant (which has become notorious in Nepal for its deadly and destructive behavior), and vandalized the park authority’s offices in anger.

“We hear tigers growl right next to our house almost every night,” Paudel says, his voice tinged with a mix of fear and helplessness. The reality of living with the famous yet dangerous animals is a constant source of anxiety. “It’s not just tigers. There are other animals too,” he continues. “Sometimes we wake up to find a leopard on our porch.” The fear is palpable, with villagers scared to use the outdoor toilets at night. In many homes, the toilets are in a separate building a short distance from the main house, requiring a precarious journey in the darkness.

A challenging life in Madi

The history of the settlement is intrinsically linked with the transformation of Chitwan from a resettlement area to a protected national park. In the 1970s, the eradication of malaria in the Terai Plains of southern Nepal triggered a mass migration from the hills, with people flocking to the fertile plains where Indigenous communities already lived, including in Madi Valley. Incentivized under various government schemes, this migration, while beneficial for agricultural productivity, led to significant deforestation.

Thus Chitwan, once a hunting ground for the country’s rulers until the 1970s, was declared a national park to preserve its rich biodiversity, especially its tigers and one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis), displacing many villages over time. The most recent significant displacement occurred in the late 1990s with the evacuation of Padampur, another enclave inside the boundaries of the protected area.

However, Madi remained untouched by these evictions. The village’s large population and fertile land made it politically and economically impractical to displace its residents. Similarly, its hosting of religious monuments linked to the Hindu epic the Mahabharata also heightened its importance among devotees.

Madi also became a politically important area for various parties. Nepal’s current prime minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal contested the 2017 general elections from the electoral district of Chitwan-3, which includes Madi. The history of Dahal’s Maoist party, which waged a 10-year-long insurgency against the state, is also linked with the area. On June 6, 2005, a landmine planted by insurgents blew up a passenger bus, killing 38 people in the Badarmude area of Madi. Ever since, Dahal has issued numerous apologies to the families of the victims; his opponents accuse him of not wanting to risk agitating them again by bringing up resettlement.

Sabina Rai with her son at their home in Madi, Chitwan. Image by Abhaya Raj Joshi

Despite being spared from eviction, the villagers of Madi face numerous challenges and restrictions imposed by park authorities. At 10 o’clock every night, park officials barricade the only point of entry into or out of the settlement, ostensibly to protect both the park and the villagers. Getting to the next town means navigating a 10-kilometer (6-mile) stretch of bumpy road. Until recently, this curfew meant that villagers faced significant difficulties accessing medical care at night, as road use was heavily restricted.

“These days the soldiers allow us to pass in case of emergencies,” says Sabina Rai from the community of Madi-11.

Access to basic amenities has also been a longstanding issue for Madi. For years, the area didn’t have access to grid electricity, as park authorities didn’t allow power lines and pylons inside the park boundaries. It was only after significant effort and negotiation that they agreed to allow underground cables to bring electricity and internet connectivity to Madi. Even then, however, the power supply remains unreliable, often flickering out during critical times.

The park’s listing as a World Heritage Site has also complicated issues. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has repeatedly expressed concerns over the road connecting Madi to the Hulaki Highway and the town of Thori near the Indian border. A monitoring team recommended that the restrictions on this road be maintained to protect the integrity and the “outstanding universal value of the national park.” They said the road shouldn’t be used for freight or passenger vehicles beyond Madi, further isolating the community and limiting its economic opportunities.

In addition to this, during the rainy season, countless streams bear down on the enclave from the slopes of Someshwor, the hill at the Indian border. These trigger flash floods, worsening the already limited access that residents have to the outside, and effectively cutting off the valley during the monsoon.

Moving far away

These compounding difficulties have driven many locals to leave. “With so many problems associated with Madi and it getting negative press, many local people have sold off their land to outsiders at dirt-cheap prices,” says Tara Kumari Kaji Mahato, the mayor of Madi. Those with the financial means have already left, seeking better opportunities and safety elsewhere.

The buyers of their land tend to be businesspeople from Kathmandu and other major cities, who see potential in developing hotels and resorts for ecotourism, capitalizing on the area’s natural beauty and wildlife. According to data from Madi municipal authorities, in the last two decades, the population of the area has dwindled by almost 40%.

Because Madi falls in the buffer zone of the national park, residents need to seek permission from the park authority to open a business, be it small or big, and must carry out an environmental impact assessment, which requires navigating through red tape.

It’s the poorest of Madi’s residents, some of whom Mongabay spoke with, who are hit hardest. They have no choice but to remain and continue their precarious existence. They venture into the forest to meet basic needs such as collecting firewood, despite the legal prohibitions and the dangers posed by wildlife.

“Legally, they aren’t allowed to go into the jungle. But they have no other option but to go there,” says Rishi Subedi from the National Trust for Nature Conservation.

To mitigate this risk, the NTNC, through the U.K.-government-funded Darwin Initiative, provides stoves and gas to poor households as an alternative to firewood. Yet this solution is fraught with its own challenges. Many poor households can’t afford the routine cost of buying new gas canisters, or the occasional cost of maintaining and repairing the stoves. According to the 2021 census, nearly half of the 10,000 households in the valley use fuelwood as a primary source of energy to cook food, perpetuating the cycle of risk and legal conflict.

Dirgha Narayan Paudel at his house in Madi, Chitwan. Image by Abhaya Raj Joshi

“We feel abandoned,” says Paudel’s father, Dirgha Narayan, reflecting the sentiment of many villagers who say the government and conservation authorities have abandoned them. They say they’re ready to be resettled elsewhere if adequate compensation and support are provided.

However, Mahato, the Madi mayor, points out that the government has already invested significantly in local infrastructure, such as education and health care, making relocation a complex and costly proposition.

Karan Bahadur Shah, a professor of conservation at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, says there need to be more balanced solutions.

“If highways can pass through other national parks such as Bardiya with early warning systems and speed limits, why not Chitwan?” he says. “We need to have measures that work for both wildlife and people. A blanket ban isn’t just for the people.”

At night, as the sun sets over the hills, the forest comes alive with the sounds of wildlife. The villagers huddle inside their homes, the flickering light of their unreliable electricity casting long shadows. “There’s no simple fix to the issue,” Mahato says. “We need to adopt long-term measures to help people to live with the animals.”

Banner image: Tigers photographed by a camera trap in Nepal. Image courtesy of DNPWC/NTNC/Panthera/WWF/ZSL

Abhaya Raj Joshi is a staff writer for Nepal at Mongabay. Find him on @arj272.

Citation:

Dahal, S., Thanet, D. R., & Gautam, D. (2020). Assessment of human-tiger conflict and its community based mitigation efforts in Madi Valley of Chitwan district, Nepal. Journal of Forest and Natural Resource Management, 2(1), 37–49. doi:10.3126/jfnrm.v2i1.40219

Also read:

As Nepal’s tigers thrive, Indigenous knowledge may be key in preventing attacks

Afforestation, Animals, Biodiversity, Conservation, Elephants, human-elephant conflict, Human-wildlife Conflict, India-parks, Livestock, Mammals, Tigers

Asia, India, Nepal, South Asia

Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Nepal

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Publish date : 2024-06-02 13:53:29

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