“The forests and marshes were refuge for a group
that was driven back or that preferred a life apart.”
~ Müller-Böker on Tharu History, 1999
The last time I was in a room like this was when I was in a village with the Danuwar ethnic community in Sindhupalchok. A large spider had been amusing itself to the view of a new visitor in the house, perplexed. Now in Bardiya, large and unusually fat geckos were partying near my window. I had scuttled to get inside the mosquito net over my bed.
I came to Bardiya’s Dalla Community Homestay for observation, but I’d completely overlooked the fact that it was Bardiya: one of the deepest darkest untouched areas of forest in the world, sheepishly tucked away in the middle of large grain fields and ready to burst anytime someone visits. Miles of it unexplored and the deeper you go, the more unable you are to come out. As we walked through the Shiva Community Forest with the nature guide Sudeep and Nana, the “Ban Heralu” or the Forest Watch, it felt like I was walking through Jurassic Park. Only here, I’d be seeing an endangered ecosystem. Of tigers, leopards, rhinos, elephants, snakes, and birds. Who is leading to conserve this ecosystem?
It is a strange new forest to me. But to Nana, he must have walked through a thousand times and more. Yes, he gets afraid. He used to be indifferent but now he adores the flora and fauna like a gardener: “I love the animals, I feel very close to them”
The Shiva Community Forest and its Dalla Community Homestay are part of the Khata Corridor. There was a time at the Khata Corridor, where species met and multiplied. Slowly, people passed by and in one era, the Tharus settled nearby. Since the 1800s, the hill kings of Nepal have interacted with the Tharus as game hunters. The Tharus helped them in their jungle adventures through their deep knowledge and interdependence with the forest. In more recent developmental decades, the Tharus have fallen to the perils of the caste system and economic disparities in the country. Resilient Tharus developed higher resistance to malaria and continued to thrive alongside the forest no matter what the state did or did not do for them.
Today the Tharus of Dalla Community Homestay have an unusual symbiosis with nature. It’s never either the people or the forest that survives. They both exist in a world perishing under higher temperatures. Their lives have been intertwined throughout the years and now even more so with climate change looming. Nana, the forest keep, describes his relationship with the forest: “I love it. Even though it’s dangerous, it is my home too. It is also like my own garden.”
Nana explained to us that the state conservation efforts and both local and international organizations like the WWF have played a role in helping them become closer to the forests. State funded jobs as forest watch or nature guides helped them continue preserving the forest.
Similarly, Sudeep is one of the youth leaders working to take care of the forests and fight poaching. With his new set of binoculars, he led us through the forest walk and showed us footsteps of rhinos, elephants and one yellow hooded oriole. Nana and Sudeep regularly walk through the forest to track animal behavior and any changes. On our jungle walk they took my colleague and I to a sunny enclave beyond the normal trail looking for the neighborhood python. I jotted in fear and sighed when we did not find it. It must have gone to another spot to bask in the winter sun.
Quietly as we paced along the forest trail, crunching leaves and twigs beneath our feet, I heard the gruff of a wild hog out of sight. We also heard the chittal crying and it was actually a warning call for other chittals. Even with the noise of the passing truck that was carrying stones from the Rapti to a nearby construction site, we could see the langurs playing across tree trops and some chittals crossing our trail 30 meters ahead of us. Some rhino and tiger tracks later, we found the Khar grass that a tiger had sat on, a few days ago. Nana and Sudeep could easily recognize these details and made our walk all the more exciting.
Chhamphi Yogi of House No. 14 told us of a time when there were no travelers in the area around Dalla Community Homestay. In the conflict ridden years of late nineties and 2000s, rhinos were brought to Bardiya from Chitwan. Many perished while some prevailed at the Shiva Community Buffer Zone area. The state and other conversation organizations helped them see that protecting the forests meant visitors from other places. They started building makeshift shelters for the travelers and providing community-based hospitality. Once organizations like Community Homestay Network stepped in, they formalised this act of hospitality into a stable alternative source of income. With reinforced houses that prevent the falling force of an elephant looking for stored grain and ideas for nature walks and safari the communities understood that the forest is rather a modern way of life which is still connected to their spirituality of being in tune with nature through deities like the Ban Devi and ancestral gods in the form of tiger, horse, etc.
The forest and the community flourished together. Chhamphi Yogi shared, “Tigers and rhinos came nearby to breed and raise their cubs. We provided access to ponds for scorching May heats for the animals. And travelers came to watch. Many people cannot live here after their year’s crop yield is used up. They migrate to borderlands and other cities to make a living as daily wage laborers. With some relief from homestay income, they can spend it for household expenses and even education.”
What would the locals do if it weren’t for the external interventions about saving the forests or about diversifying their income? Would they preserve the forest or encroach it? It is difficult to search for that past. However, we can make the best of what we have now. Here lie the strongest advocates for the planet. We must hear their voices because they don’t just care about themselves, but are so tied to the land, the rivers and the jungle.
Bardiya saw many tiger-attacks and deaths this year. Similarly, elephants came into croplands for food. Cheetahs attacked the poultry and pig pens in the Dalla Community and other hamlets. While Bardiya has been commended for its conservation efforts for tigers and elephants, it has gotten infamous for its animal-human conflict. The locals wish that there were more fencing to protect their farms and systematic state plans and security for compensation. Indeed, the animals have multiplied but their source of food is depleting and they are coming to human households looking for prey. Especially since the traveler numbers were low due to the pandemic, they were able to venture into communities and farms.
A new symbiosis is happening. Between travelers and the locals. While the locals have enmeshed themselves into the jungle, travelers have a choice. Either they can be mere onlookers and take away a quick lesson on saving the planet. Or they can come live with the locals and transform themselves and later continue to become the advocates for the planet. And just like how the communities learned to thrive with the jungle and not just prey on each other, us humans can thrive with the locals and have a symbiotic relationship with them so that the jungles remain intact and even expand. Because us travelers can contribute a little and directly help the jungles thrive with the help of the locals.
So when the animals come out to drink water from the ponds set out by humans, the travelers wish only to take a peek and leave with a beautiful memory of, a once lost, touch of nature. So that instead of making carpets or bags out of their skin, we only make fond memories of the golden and black fur scuffling through the prairie-like Khar grassland. Where we are hidden far away playing hide and seek with the fiercest beast. But also in awe of our mere co-existence in this ticking-time bomb of our world that is melting and over pouring at the same time. Yogi asserts: “We conserved the jungle. Our sons and their children will give continuity. Despite the conflict, we (animals and humans) need to unite so that there is sustainability. They live for us and we live for them. No matter what.”
Richa Neupane, the writer of the article, is leading the Impact and Sustainability Department at the Royal Mountain Group and Royal Mountain Travel.