At what cost?One early morning, last winter, Malika Chaudhary, a ninth-grader studying at Adarsha Bidhya Aasharm in Bhandara VDC
“The rhino appeared on the road all of a sudden, from the nearby fields. We hurled our bicycle to the ground, as the rhino made a beeline for us, and we ran towards a large concrete irrigation pipe nearby and crawled into it,” says Malika. “The rhino walked in circles around the pipe, sniffing and snorting, as we trembled in fear. But it soon gave up and went away.”
Malika, a resident of Dhamaura village, says she had seen rhinos in the fields around her village before, but she had never encountered one that close. This rhino had entered her village in search of easy pickings, apparently seasonal barley, oats and wheat, which are believed to be favoured by the animal.
Stories of encounters like Malika’s are not uncommon in the villages lying in and around the buffer zones of the Royal Chitwan National Park. In fact, just last week, a large rhino from the park forayed into Hetauda Bazaar, killing one person and injuring seven others.
That story of a rhino’s taking people’s lives would have been an all-too familiar tale for Laxmi Bishwokarma of Phulaure Village, Bhandara VDC. She can never forget how December 16, 2000, changed her life. Hiralal Bishwokarma, her husband, was killed that night by a rhino when he was returning home, leaving the sole burden of bringing up the 12 members of their family on Laxmi’s shoulders. Since that fateful night, Laxmi Bishwokarma has had to do double duty as the matriarch and sole breadwinner of the family, working the fields with the help of her children. Through years of farm labour, she was able to send her son and grandchildren to school and get her daughters married off. “If only that rhino hadn’t come across my husband,” says Laxmi, who is 60 years old now, the wrinkles and lines in her face proof of a hard-lived life. “Things might have been easier. The rhino didn’t only kill my husband, but also killed the dream for a better future our family had harboured.”
In most of the villages surrounding the Chitwan National Park, someone somewhere encounters some wild animal—a rhino, bear, wild boar, or even a tiger or a leopard—every day. According to officials at Chitwan National Park, 10 families sought compensation for the loss of human life in 2012, 15 in 2013, five in 2014 and five so far this year. Similarly, it issued compensations to 23 people injured in wildlife attacks each year for the past three years, and five individuals have already filed for compensation this year. Many cases, say the villagers in Bhandara and other VDCs, hardly get reported.
The villagers are not just worried about confrontations with wild animals. The people living in the buffer zones are compelled to forfeit their crops to the foraging animals every year. The rhinos, deer and wild boars come for the corn, wheat and barley; the elephants are lured by the banana plants; and the tigers and leopards come to pick off the cattle. In the past few years, around 500 people annually have sought compensation for the loss of crop and cattle to wildlife incursions. Sometimes, as has happened over the years, the villagers are so incensed by the animals that they do not have the patience to wait for compensation, or retribution. The villagers band into groups, corner the rogue animals that have invaded their village, and spear them to death.
The villagers blame the shrinking habitat areas in the forests, coupled with the increasing population of wild animals, as the primary reason for the human-animal conflict. The buffer zones are home to millions of villagers, whose livelihoods largely depend on agriculture. Many also depend on the community forests and the bordering areas of the national park for firewood, grass, reeds and other resources they use in their daily living. As for the animals, the herbivores have come to rely on the farmers’ fields for easy access to crops like barley, wheat and oats, while the carnivores home in for the cows, buffalos and goats kept by the farmers.
The Chitwan National Park, which has been listed in the world natural heritage site, has helped some parts of the district emerge as major tourist destinations for nature lovers across the world. And some local people in the outlying areas around Sauraha have found jobs in the tourism industry. Moreover, up to 50 percent of the income generated from the national park is also being invested in the development of the buffer zones. But many people who live far away from the tourist sites do not get employed by the industry, nor do they avail of any trickle-down dollars. For them, the wild animals have become merely a burden.
“Chitwan owes much to the national park for its prosperity, and large parts of our future depend on the park and the wildlife. But the cost the local people are paying shouldn’t be overlooked,” says Shesh Nath Adhikari, who represents Chitwan constituency number 2 in the CA.
People living in the buffer zones also acknowledge that the national park and its animals should be protected. But they say the people should be protected too. They say that the government should envision strategies that will work to help both human beings and the wildlife.
The problem is further muddied by how one perceives the value of the forests and the wildlife that they shelter. Kamal Jung Kunwar, a Chitwan National Park warden, says blaming animals alone will not cut it. He says that in a large number of cases, it’s the people themselves who are to be blamed for the loss of human lives.
“Animals are animals, but we are human beings. People should know to stay away from animals and save themselves and their crops from the animals,” says Kunwar, arguing that it’s actually the wildlife that are under threat from humans.
He cites a few incidents where human folly was the reason for the tragic encounters. During one incident in Madi, in western Chitwan, he says, the villagers tried to attack a bear that had mauled a woman who had been cutting grass in the forest.” The bear was a mother of two cubs and so fierce that we, the park officials, could not deal with her, even though our personnel were deployed on elephants. Then the villagers decided to take matters into their own hands and tried to kill her. But the bear, instead, ended up injuring some villagers,” says Kunwar.
Such finger-pointing on both sides of the debate will not help victims like Laxmi Bishwokarma. She thinks the government should come up with better social security schemes for families of those killed by wild animals, treatment facilities for the injured, reimbursements for destroyed crops, and provisions of jobs for the affected families. Many villagers want better electric fences—that keep out animals—connected to a constant power supply. The villagers feel that they have borne with the problems brought about by the wild animals for too many years now. The animal numbers have rebounded. In fact, the numbers for tigers, rhinos, deer and other animals are all back to healthy levels now. “We would like to see the government invest as much in people as they have in animals,” says CA member Adhikari.