Our new Executive Director has had many experiences over the years showing just how deeply local people care about protecting the nature around them. Here are four of her stories.
The Bus Ride into Bardia
“I like living near the elephants and having the chance to see wildlife.”
As I sat on a hot, crowded bus we passed the “Bardia National Park” sign telling us we were entering the park. The previously quiet bus erupted with noisy chatter as everyone started peering out the windows and talking about the wildlife they might see.
The woman sitting next to me pointed out the broken window of the dilapidated bus and said to her baby, “Shhh, don’t cry. Look, maybe we will see elephants.”
As we neared a bridge that crossed over the Bhabai River, everyone started looking for gharial, an endangered crocodile. The driver slowed down and pointed excitedly. “Gharial, gharial!” he said loudly, pulling over a small boy so he could see better out the window. I looked out my window too and caught a quick glimpse of one, lone gharial on the sand bar below.
It was 1995 and I was on one of my first fieldwork visits to research people’s perceptions of protected areas in Nepal. I was travelling to a village on the south side of Bardia National Park to interview people about the park. The clamor and excitement of the bus passengers drove home just how much people appreciated the park.
“People are very happy to be in the park,” I said to the woman next to me. “Yes,” she replied, “I am, too. I like living near the elephants and having the chance to see wildlife.”
“I cannot cut green trees, even if they gave me a lot of money.”
Laxmi told me: “I love the park. I cannot cut green trees. I cannot do it. I cannot understand why other people would. I cannot cut green trees, even to make lumber. Even if they gave me a lot of money, I couldn’t do it.”
I met Laxmi in 1996 during a research trip to Nepal. We were both in our early 20s. I interviewed her on a grassy hillock next to Bardia National Park, which surrounded her village on three sides. A broken-down barbed wire fence separated the park and the village. There was also a trench to keep rhinos and elephants from coming out of the park.
It seemed like the park and the village were worlds apart. I saw the park as an island, but how did Laxmi and her neighbors see it?
For them, the park provided wood to cook their food each day and fodder for their cows and goats. It provided timber to build their houses and leaves to make disposable plates for festivals and weddings. It was also home to wildlife like elephants, rhinos, and tigers.
Laxmi says that our meeting inspired her to act on her desire to make life better for people in her village and for the wildlife. She became very active in projects in her community and founded an NGO called Women’s Conservation Centre.
I learned from Laxmi how deeply some individuals love the natural environment and wildlife for its own sake, despite paying many of the costs of conservation.
Riding the Elephant
“Haati aayo! An elephant has come!“
I was riding on top of an elephant in the dark near Bardia National Park. We passed underneath little platforms built in the trees where men sat chatting and spent the night watching their fields, waiting to scare away any elephants, wild boar, or deer that might come to eat the crops.
The mahout, who sat in front of me and guided the elephant I rode on, jumped at every noise coming from the forest.
I was late coming back from a long day of interviews across the river. He had chosen to take the long way around the park on the village dirt road, rather than through the park, because he was afraid of coming upon wild elephants in the dark. He grunted frequently as we rode along, letting the men in the trees and the people walking home on the road know we were people on a domesticated elephant, not a wild elephant.
We passed a field with a small one-story house in the center of it. Firelight flickered from the house’s windows.
Suddenly, a boy came running from the house and, afraid that our elephant was wild, started yelling, “Haati aayo! An elephant has come!”
At his yell, I jumped, experiencing a taste of the fear that people here lived with every day. The fear that an elephant might eat the entire year’s crop, destroy their house searching for stored food, or even kill them. The mahout quickly let out a cross between a yell and a grunt to reassure them our elephant would do no harm.
It is hard to fathom the population densities in Asia, the houses and crop fields densely packed all the way around the park boundary, the sheer number of people living with wildlife and somehow co-existing, as they have for centuries.
The Women’s Field Trip into the Park
“…the women knew the park roads better than the driver.”
I was talking with a woman in a village near the Bardia National Park headquarters. I asked her how she felt about the park. She said my question reminded her of a ride through the park she had gone on with a group of other local women on a big truck, organized by an NGO.
Her face lit up as she described the ride. It had been their first time entering the park in a vehicle, a novel and exhilarating experience in itself. And she and the other women were with their friends with no work to do – no wood to collect, no thatch to cut. On top of that, they were not on foot so the rhinos, elephants, and tigers weren’t a threat.
A few days later, I spoke with the NGO staff person who had organized the field trip for the women. One of her goals had been to raise women’s awareness about conservation. She thought the women might like a field trip into the park to learn about the wildlife. This was back in the 1990s, when biodiversity projects were not very experienced at working with communities and they were trying out a variety of activities.
The staff person told me the women’s trip had been a failure. She was disappointed because the women knew the park roads better than the driver. The driver was frustrated because the women spent the trip telling him where he should go and which road he should take to get there. She felt the women had learned nothing.
I was surprised to hear her say that the field trip was a failure since the women themselves had described it as a wonderful adventure.
She had wanted to teach women about the park. Instead, she had given the women the opportunity to enjoy their own back yard. Whether or not they learned about wildlife, they made a wonderful memory of the national park.