Building An Arc- page 2 | Science | Smithsonian

Building An Arc

Despite poachers, insurgents and political upheaval, India and Nepal's bold approach to saving wildlife in the Terai Arc just may succeed.

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The next morning we found out. We drove to the border of the tiger reserve and hiked in, and soon we spotted the tracks of a tiger that had followed the very trail we were on for about 100 yards before it padded overland to the river below. This tiger would make an easy mark for a poacher, but it was quite fearlessly there, sharing this valley with the villagers. Before the Negis began their work, poaching was rampant in this area. It seems their attention to the villagers has indeed made a difference, and we think the lesson is clear: if tigers are to survive in this landscape, it will happen one village at a time.

The next morning we found out. We drove to the border of the tiger reserve and hiked in, and soon we spotted the tracks of a tiger that had followed the very trail we were on for about 100 yards before it padded overland to the river below. This tiger would make an easy mark for a poacher, but it was quite fearlessly there, sharing this valley with the villagers. Before the Negis began their work, poaching was rampant in this area. It seems their attention to the villagers has indeed made a difference, and we think the lesson is clear: if tigers are to survive in this landscape, it will happen one village at a time.

Most of the forest between Corbett and the Royal Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve in Nepal is managed to produce timber, with its teak and eucalyptus trees planted in straight lines. But the area is also rich in the big rocks favored for construction materials. Johnsingh pointed to men hauling boulders in a dry riverbed. From there the boulders were pitched onto trucks and driven to railway heads, where workers crushed them with sledgehammers. This backbreaking work is done by the very poor, who camp in squalor where they toil and survive by gathering firewood and poaching in the surrounding forests. Boulder mining was banned in some Indian parks, whereupon the miners promptly moved their operations outside the protected areas. Johnsingh believes that a better solution would be to permit boulder mining along developed stretches of riverbed and prohibit it where wildlife needs passageways.

Emerging from the forest about 20 miles from the Nepal border, we inched in our four-wheel-drive vehicle along a two-lane highway crowded with pedestrians and an impossible assortment of cattle carts, bicycles and motorcycles, overflowing pedicabs, taxis, cars large and small, buses, trucks and tractor-pulled trailers. This is a prosperous area, thanks to dams that provide power to villages and water for irrigated agriculture. No tiger could navigate this maze, but Johnsingh has identified a potential forest corridor to the north through which it could make its way.

Entering Nepal, Johnsingh hands us over to Mahendra Shrestha, director of the Save the Tiger Fund. We had been uneasy about going into Nepal. The conflict with the Maoists has killed some 13,000 people here since 1996, most of them in the very countryside to which we were headed. In summer 2005, five of Shrestha's field assistants were killed when their jeep ran over a land mine likely planted by the Maoists. But in September 2005, the insurgents had begun a unilateral, four-month-long cease-fire, and our trip had been timed to coincide with it.

We spent the night in Mahendranagar, a small town at the edge of Shuklaphanta. A battalion of about 600 soldiers is stationed inside and around the park. In the 1970s, when poaching of rhinos and tigers was rampant, the Royal Nepalese Army took over security in Nepal's national parks and wildlife reserves. Since the insurgency began, the army has devoted more effort to quelling it and defending itself than to patrolling for poachers. Soldiers were moved from forest outposts to fortified bases, giving both Maoists and poachers greater freedom in the forests.

Shuklaphanta contains 40 square miles of grassland surrounded by a forest of sal trees. Some of the tallest grasses in the world, standing more than 20 feet high, thrive here. Driving along a rutted dirt road, we saw wild boar, spotted deer and even a small herd of hog deer—the rarest deer of the Terai Arc. But we had come to find out how tigers, leopards, elephants and rhinos, so attractive to poachers, were faring with the army preoccupied with the Maoists.

A glimpse of two elephants, one rhino track and one tiger track next to a water hole bolstered our spirits. In fact, the park's warden, Tika Ram Adhikari, told us that camera traps had recently documented 17 adult tigers here, for a total estimated population of 30, which means they're as dense in this area as in any place they live.

Adhikari's usual ebullience evaporated at a water hole littered with dead and dying fish. Cans of pesticide—used to stun and kill fish so they float to the surface—lay on the shore alongside fishing nets. Poachers had dropped the tools of their trade and vanished upon our arrival. At another nearby water hole, a distraught Adhikari pointed out a set of tiger tracks, normally a cause for cheer but now worrisome. What if the tiger had drunk from the poisoned pond? Even more troubling was the thought that local attitudes toward the park and its wildlife might be shifting.

From Shuklaphanta we continued east along the highway toward Royal Bardia National Park, Nepal's next protected area, stopping often at heavily fortified checkpoints so that armed soldiers could inspect our credentials. The soldiers' behavior was entirely professional; these were not hopped-up teenagers brandishing rifles in our faces. But we stayed alert, aware that there are good and bad guys on both sides of the conflict. For example, the Nepalese Army has been accused of torture and other abuses, and Maoists have been known to invite people to step safely outside before blowing up a building.

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