Pandemic and restrictions spell hard times for national parks and reserves againConservation areas that were struggling to recover from last year’s losses are forced to close their doors to visitors again.
On a normal day before the pandemic, there would be a long queue of visitors outside the office of the Bardiya National Park at Thakurdwara.
Hundreds of people visited the park every day to enjoy wildlife adventures like jungle drive, jungle walk, boating, camping and fishing. Besides, frequent sightings of tigers have remained a major draw for tourists, both domestic and foreign, to the Park in recent years.
However, this bustling small town has gone silent and not welcomed any visitors to the protected park since the imposition of prohibitory orders in the district in the last week of April.
“It’s all silent now,” Ashim Thapa, information officer of the park, told the Post from Bardiya over the phone. “We don’t have any visitors.”
Bardiya National Park, where tourism activities had remained affected for months, first due to the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and then because of frequent tiger attacks on the locals, had resumed its full-fledged activities for visitors only last month.
The protected area had decided to allow both jungle walk and jungle safari—tourism activities that were hit in the recent months—for its visitors, following demands by local ‘nature guides’.
However, days after the resumption of tourism activities, the park had to suspend all such activities again after the Bardiya district administration enforced prohibitory orders from April 26. On Friday, the administration extended the prohibitory orders until May 25.
The park authorities are worried that the closure during a tourist season will hit their finances.
“As we have stopped tourism activities, our major source of income has dried up. We were already under a financial strain, caused by the first wave of the pandemic, since last year,” said Thapa. “Even when it was open for a few months, the income had remained low. This fiscal year, we could hardly earn around Rs 10 million, which is not enough.”
After months of suspension, the park had only allowed jungle safari and
jungle walk for tourists inside the park in October last year. For jungle safari,
only 60 percent of the seating capacity of the vehicle was allowed, whereas only four persons, including a nature guide, could go on a jungle walk at one time.
With prohibitory orders imposed across the country, the country’s protected areas, which lost substantial amounts of income due to several months of Covid-19 lockdown last year, are again set to lose their incomes.
According to Haribhadra Acharya, spokesperson at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, regular activities at most of the conservation areas, if not all, have been affected due to the Covid-19-induced restrictions.
“Whether the parks or wildlife reserves remain open or closed depends upon the Covid-19 situation in respective districts. However, major parks remain closed,” said Acharya. “The ongoing situation can further hit the parks’ incomes as they were struggling to recover from last year’s losses.”
October-November and then February to May are considered the peak seasons for wildlife tourism.
“The latest restrictions have affected at least a month and a half of the ongoing season. Visitor arrivals were not affected immensely in February and most of March, but now it has come down to zero,” said Acharya. “Last year, we lost the main season to the lockdown. And, this year also, it looks like we will lose the current season, when tourists visit the park until the onset of monsoon.”
Last year’s lockdown and restrictions had resulted in a massive drop in visitor numbers to the parks and wildlife reserves.
According to the department, a total of 500,537 tourists—both domestic and foreign—visited the country’s protected areas in the fiscal year 2019-20 compared to 706,148 in 2018-19.
Eventually, the effect was also evident in revenue collection. In 2019/20, protected areas had collected Rs 448 million, a significant drop from Rs765 million in the previous fiscal year 2018/19.
“Even after the parks reopened, they could not earn much as the foreign tourist arrivals were affected for several months,” said Acharya, adding, “A major portion of the income of the parks comes from foreign visitors although domestic tourists also visit in large numbers.”
In central Nepal, the Chitwan National Park, the country’s one of the most visited protected parks, has also remained closed for weeks now. The prohibitory orders imposed in the district since April 27 have been prolonged until May 26.
The park, which is a leading park in terms of revenue generation, is also worried about the income lost since last year.
“Tourism activities have come almost to a standstill since the start of the pandemic last year,” said Ananath Baral, the chief conservation officer of the Chitwan National Park.
“Last year, we lost a crucial peak season to the first lockdown. This year, when things were gradually improving, we had to close again.”
According to Baral, the park had earned around Rs200 million in the last fiscal year and he is not optimistic about this year also. Before that, the park had collected around Rs296 million.
“This time, we might only earn around 20 to 25 percent of our annual income,” said Baral. “Ecotourism activities are our major sources of income. The money is crucial for carrying out conservation activities inside the park and buffer zone.”
As per the existing laws, half of the income generated by the protected areas go to the buffer zone communities.
The situation was not any better at Bardiya National Park in the last fiscal year and officials are not hopeful about this year either.
Bardiya National Park had seen a drop in its annual revenue from Rs31 million in the fiscal year 2018-19 to Rs24 million in 2019-20.
Since the reopening of the park in October last year, the park has welcomed 6,942 domestic tourists by mid-April. Similarly, the park has received 67 people from South Asian countries and 161 from other countries.
“Looking at Covid-19 situation across the country, it looks the restrictions will continue for a long time and the parks will remain closed,” said Thapa, information
officer with Bardiya National Park. “When our income decreases, this will also affect the communities living in the buffer zones. During such a crisis, supports from conservation partners will also be smaller.”