Nepal, the home of the tallest mountain in the world Mount Everest. Besides being known for the beautiful Himalayan Mountain range, there is an abundance of beautiful wildlife in this country. This blog is going to do an inside scoop into the beautiful wildlife of Nepal.
Use the headings below for a little bit of guidance to animals you may be interested in, otherwise read the blog in its entirety!
The one-horned rhinoceros
The Asian elephant is the largest of all mammals in Nepal today. Its shoulder height varies from 2.5 to 3m, and a male elephant can weigh up to 5,000 kg! Elephants have an excellent memory and a long lifespan – similar to that of humans. Elephants are very sociable and they live in groups of related animals, led by a mature female. Members of the same group communicate with each other using sound, scent and touch.
Elephants are capable of producing infrasonic sounds (low-pitched sounds that fall below the hearing range of humans) that are especially useful for communicating over long distances, since the lower-pitched the sound is, the further the sound waves can travel. The trunk, which is an elongated nose with nostrils situated at the very end, is a delicate tool. It can be used for a wide array of tasks, from moving heavy tree trunks to picking up objects as small as a peanut. The Asian elephant has a single “finger” on the upper lip of the trunk.
Elephants are an important part of Nepalese culture and Nepal has a long history of domestication of wild elephants for various purposes. Hindu religious books are replete with stories about elephants.
The use of domesticated Asian elephants in Nepal can be traced from as far back as the times of King Man Dev of Lichhavi Dynasty. According to historian Baburam Acharya the kings of Makwanpur captured wild elephants from the Bhabar forests and sold them to the Mughal rulers of India. Jung Bahadur Rana, the first Rana Prime Minister, is said to have captured three wild elephants in 1851 AD using the daunting technique of kheda . During the Rana regime, domesticated elephants were considered indispensable beasts of burden and the Rana rulers commissioned Hattisars (Camp for domesticated elephants and elephant handlers) for big game hunting. There were 32 permanent as well as temporary Hattisars during that time in Nepal.
Elephants are described as all terrain and all weather vehicles. They are also the symbol of strength and status. In the earlier days trained elephants were kept as a means of transport or for big game hunting. Rulers of Asian countries capitalized on the versatility of trained elephants and used them in war, timber trade, transportation of goods, and for religious ceremonies.
The one-horned rhinoceros
The greater one-horned rhinoceros also known as the Indian rhinoceros, is a grey giant, second only to an elephant in size. An adult rhino usually weighs between 2-2.5 metric tonnes. Rhinos usually lead a solitary life, but they may also graze and wallow together. Calves follow their mothers for 1-3 years. Females are sexually mature between 5 and 7 years old, while males mature at about 10 years of age.
The greater one-horned rhinoceros is commonly found only in South Asia and South East Asia. Historically, the rhinos were distributed in the floodplain and forest tracts in Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus river valley. Today, however, no more than 2,000 remain in the wild, with only two populations containing more than 100 rhinos: Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India (1,200) and Chitwan National Park (CNP), Nepal (600). Despite joint efforts between Bhutan and India, the survival of a small population of rhinos living along the Indo-Bhutan border in Manas still remains doubtful.
In Nepal, the rhino population was estimated at ca. 1,000 in the Chitwan valley until 1950. The area was well protected by the then Rana rulers for sport hunting. It was also secure from outsiders since malaria was rampant. Only a few indigenous communities like the Tharus , who are immune to the disease, lived there. Their impact on the natural environment was negligible.
After the collapse of the Rana regime in 1950 and the eradication of malaria during the mid-1950s, Chitwan opened to outsiders. Thousands of people cam down from the mid-hills and large swathes of wildlife habitat was cleared for human settlements, agriculture and other development activities. This not only destroyed the forest but also affected the wildlife population because of poaching. This affected mainly large mammals including rhinos and as a result, the rhino population dropped to less than 100 during the late 1960s (Adhikari et. al, 1999).
Recognizing the need to halt the decline of rapidly diminishing rhino population, Government of Nepal established the “Gainda Gasti “, an armed Rhino Patrol Unit in 1961, and declared the remaining prime rhino habitats, about 544 sq km along Rapti, Narayani and Reu rivers, as the Chitwan National Park (CNP) in 1973. The park was later extended to encompass a total area of 932 sq km and was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1984 for its high biological diversity.
After the successful effort of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), the declining rhino population began to gradually increase. The CNP demonstrated that the population can rebound vigorously when sufficient habitat and protection are provided. It is an example of a population that was almost on the verge of extinction that has recovered while still maintaining a high genetic diversity.
Rhinos inhabit the alluvial flood-plain vegetation of sub-tropical climates where water and green grass is available all year. Many rhinos now live within blocks of the suitable rhino habitat in CNP. Rhinos occurred in highest densities along the flood plain grasslands and riverine forests bordering the Rapti, Narayani, Reu, and Dhungre rivers, suggesting that floodplain grasslands dominated by 4-6 m tall Saccharum spontanium are the single most critical habitat.
Royal Bengal tiger
Tigers are the most charismatic and well known largest of all the Asian big cats. Tigers have narrow black, brown or gray stripes on their heads, bodies and limbs. Tigers can be differentiated easily since the pattern of stripes is unique to each individual.
An adult tiger can measure nearly 3 meters from the nose to the tip of the tail, and can weigh more than 250 kg. Adult tigers are mainly solitary preying mainly on deer and wild pig. However, sometimes 2 tigers with neighbouring territories may have a friendly interaction with each other. Depending on prey abundance, their territories can range from 10–400km2 (females) and 30–1,000km2 (males). Tiger cubs follow their mother until the age of two. Even though the willingness to catch a moving prey is instinctive in tigers, a long learning process is needed to acquire the skills necessary to catch a wary and fast prey animal. Tigers are never replaced on their range until they die.
Tiger populations are under threat from prey depletion, tiger poaching and habitat degradation and fragmentation. These threats arise from a variety of factors linked to local rural uses from variety of factors linked to local rural uses as well as economic development projects. Essential challenge now lies in setting appropriate priorities in responding to these threats. In Nepal, fragmentation and loss of natural habitat and poaching are the major impediment to effective conservation.
Tigers are facing a serious danger of becoming extinct in the wild. There were once nine subspecies of tigers: Bengal, Siberian, Indochinese, South Chinese, Sumatran, Malayan, Caspian, Javan and Bali. Out of the nine subspecies, the last three have already been extinct and the rest are endangered. Historic tiger range ran from Turkey, Tibetan plateau, Manchuria and the Sea of Okhotsk in South and Southeast Asia.
Since 1998, tigers have lost 40 percent of their habitat. At present they occupy only about seven percent of their former range and are confined only in South and Southeast Asia, China and the Russian Far East. They are now found in Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand, Vietnam.
Tigers were once distributed throughout the lowland Terai and the adjoining foothills of the country. After the collapse of the Rana regime in 1950s and the eradication of malaria during the mid-1950s, Chitwan opened to outsiders. Thousands of people can down from the mid-hills and large swathes of wildlife habitat were cleared for human settlements, agriculture and other development activities. Uncontrolled hunting of wild animals occurred until the mammalian species including tiger and rhino were nearly exterminated from the area. Swamp deer, one of tiger’s major prey species, disappeared from Chitwan by early 1970s. Significant decrease in tiger population was noticed during 1960s and 1970s.
In 1964, the late King Mahendra declared the southern part of Chitwan valley as Mahendra Mriga Kunj. Later in 1973, National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 2029 was enacted and Chitwan National Park was declared. Parallel to the establishment of CNP, the Tiger Ecology Project was initiated in the early 1970’s as a joint venture of the government of Nepal , the Smithsonian Institution, and World Wildlife Fund to conduct research on the tiger and its prey species.
Based on recommendation of these studies, the park boundaries were extended in 1977 to present size of 932 sq km. Furthermore as an extension to CNP, the Parsa Wildlife Reserve was gazetted in 1976 as an extension of CNP as an approach to maintain the continuity of habitats based on the ecosystem management approach. Beside these, other significant works of the period were Operation Tiger and Tiger Conservation Project. Research and Monitoring Unit has been established to monitor tigers and their prey species in TAL.
Together with the loss of their habitat, tiger numbers have also been tremendously reduced. In the early 1900s, there were around 100,000 tigers throughout their range. Today, just in one century, the estimated tiger population in the wild has been declined to as few as 3,200 globally whereas in Nepal alone there are 198 tigers as per the survey conducted in the year 2013 marking an increment in the population by 63% from the last survey in 2009.
Snow leopards are found only in the mountains of central Asia and the Himalayas. It is estimated that there are about 4,510-7,350 snow leopards. The total potential snow leopard habitat is about 1,835,000 km 2 in 12 snow leopard range countries. In addition, some 600-700 animals survive in zoos around the world.
In Nepal, snow leopards are distributed along its northern frontier. Of these, the districts of Mustang, Mugu, Dolpo and Humla feature prominently for snow leopard populations. A habitat suitability index model of snow leopard habitat in Nepal ‘s northern frontier suggests an estimated population of 350-500 animals in Nepal, constituting one-tenth of the world’s snow leopard population.
Based on sightings, reports and anecdotal oral history, snow leopard presence has been suggested in 8 mountain protected areas of Nepal. They are Annapurna Conservation Area, Shey Phuksundo National Park , Kangchenjunga Conservation Area, Manaslu Conservation Area, Makalu Barun National Park , Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve, Sgarmatha National Park and Langtang National Park.
The smoky-gray snow leopard weighs about 35-55 kg (female: 35-40 kg, male: 45-55), measures about 1.8-2.3 m in length from head to tail and stands 60 cm at its shoulder. Snow leopards are characterized by a short, broad muzzle, short fore limbs and long hind limbs that provide agility in steep and rugged terrain. Their body fur is tinged with yellow with prominent dark grayish-black rosettes and spots. The characteristic long tail aids in balancing on cliffs and rugged places. Also, snow leopards wrap their body and face with the tail for comfort and warmth against the cold. Large paws perhaps help them walk better on snow. Mating occurs between January and March. Cubs are born in late spring or early summer, and may spend their first few weeks in rock crevices which serve as hidden den sites. Cubs become independent of their mothers at 18-22 months of age.
Despite Nepal ‘s continual effort to save the snow leopard, its long-term viability is threatened by the conflict from livestock depredation and retaliatory killings, poaching, and loss of habitat because of high density of livestock in grazing areas.
The snow leopard-human conflict is one of the main threats to its survival because it is known to kill sheep, goats, horses, and yak calves. Degradation of snow leopard habitat continues due to year-round grazing pressure following the closure of the Tibetan border some 30 years ago.
As snow leopards are opportunistic predators, they often kill livestock because of high encounter rates and ineffective guarding by herders. Poaching is primarily associated with the trade in snow leopard pelts, bones, and body parts that are used in oriental medicine. As an illicit trans-border market exists between northern frontiers of Nepal and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, poaching has become lucrative.
Action Performance and Opportunities
Of all protected areas in Nepal, Annapurana Conservation Area, Shey Phuksundo National Park and Kangchenjunga Conservation Area have initiated several grass-root measures in conservation. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) of National Trust for Nature Conservation has instituted 8 local snow leopard conservation committees (SLCCs) since 1993.
Likewise, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and WWF Nepal have supported several workshops on survey methods and field techniques in Shey Phuksundo and Kangchenjunga since 1999. In addition, WWF has produced a “Snow Leopard Manual: Field Study Techniques for the Kingdom of Nepal “, which is a comprehensive and valuable field guide.
In Shey Phuksundo, there are 5 snow leopard conservation committees comprising herders, women and village leaders and elders. Similar efforts are being made in Kangchenjunga Conservation Area (KCA) through the WWF Nepal. Last year, the KCA survey and monitoring team destroyed 200 large mammal traps and snares, confiscated 2 muzzle-loading guns, and several musk deer skins. The team has a strong presence of local communities of Taplejung, who can perform field surveys independently. Therefore, such activities not only gather much needed information on the snow leopard and its prey, but improve human resource development and deter poaching activities.
Several national and international conservation organizations and development agencies are now involved in the conservation of the snow leopard. They include Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, Department of Forest, National Trust for Nature Conservation, WWF Nepal, International Snow Leopard Trust, UNDP/ GEF, USAID and many others.
Clearly, Nepal is home to some of the most incredible animals around the globe. Sadly, these populations are ever declining and it is an unfortunate universal truth that not enough is being done to help save these gorgeous animals.
You might be interested in getting in touch with the following organisations and operators when in Nepal: