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Into the Wild

Features Issue 115 May, 2011
Text by Amar B. Shrestha / Photo: ECS Media

In Nepal’s lush green forests, wildlife enthusiasts will come across a huge variety of animals.

Experts believe that 100 years ago the global tiger population numbered 100,000 and they roamed forests across Southeast Asia. The latest estimates as revealed at the International Tiger Conference in India this March puts the number at 3200. Additionally, of the nine recognized subspecies of the tiger family, three are extinct while one is considered functionally extinct in the wild. However, a tiny ray of hope – India’s tiger population (Royal Bengal Tigers) grew by 295 to 1,706 last year as compared to 1,411 two years earlier (2008). This fact carries weight because India’s Royal Bengals make up more than half the world’s tiger population including the Siberian Tiger, the Malayan Tiger, the Indo-Chinese Tiger, the Sumatran Tiger and the South China Tiger; the last mentioned being almost extinct now. Nepal on its part, is home to 155 adult Royal Bengal Tigers. A small number you might say, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

A report at the aforementioned conference revealed that the number of adult tigers along the Indo-Nepal border has increased over the last four years. The total number of tigers in Indian states sharing a common border with five of Nepal’s national parks in Parsa, Chitwan, Banke, Bardiya and Sukhlaphanta increased to 353 from 297 in the same period. This means that conservation efforts in Nepal are not only important for its own small tiger population but for that of its giant neighbor’s too, and thus, for the whole world. However, that is not the only reason why Nepal is an important center for wildlife conservation. The country has a diverse physiography that ranges from an elevation as low as 67 m above sea level in the lowlands to as high as 8,848m in the Himalayas. This extreme variation within a comparatively short distance has given rise to a fascinating variety of flora and fauna including unique and endangered varieties.

Parks, Reserves and Conservation Areas
Nepal’s wildlife is spread over its ten national parks, three wildlife reserves, one hunting reserve and three conservation areas. It would be pertinent to point out here that about 15,000 sq. km of the country or almost 18% of the total area is falls under the protected areas tag. The national parks comprise of Chitwan National Park, Sagarmatha National Park, Langtang National Park, Bardiya National Park, Rara National Park, Khaptad National Park, Makalu Barun National Park, Shey-Phoksundo National Park, Shivapuri National Park and Banke National Park (established 2010). The wildlife reserves are Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve, Parsa Wildlife Reserve and Kosi Tapu Wildlife Reserve while Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve in Dhaulagiri Zone of West Nepal is Nepal’s only Hunting Reserve. Similarly, the conservation areas are Annapurna Conservation Area, Manaslu Conservation Area and Kanchenjunga Conservation Area. All of them are home to many remarkable animals, some of which are critically endangered. Listed below are the more interesting ones.

The Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris bengalensis):

  According to conservationists, the Terai Arc of India and Nepal (along the border between the two countries) is one of the global tiger family’s four greatest remaining strongholds, the others being the Russian Far East, the northern forests of Myanmar, Bhutan and India and the Tenasserim forests between Thailand and Myanmar. As mentioned before, the tigers in the Terai Arc region (Royal Bengals) are doing quite well currently.

The Royal Bengal is distinguished by its magnificent coat which is yellow to light orange in color, with stripes that vary from dark brown to black. They have white bellies, and the tail is white with black rings. The males measure from 270 to 310 cm in length while the females measure 240 to 265 cm. These big cats’ tails are pretty long, measuring on average from 85 to 110 cm. At the shoulder, they are from 90 to 100 cm high. Male tigers in Nepal weigh around 235 kg each while the females weigh around 140 kg each.

The Greater One Horned Rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis):
Like the tigers, these too are an endangered species. There are only about 2,000 one horned rhinos left in the wild, primarily in India and Nepal. About 408 of them were recorded in the Chitwan National Park in 2008, up from 372 in 2005, according to a National Geographic report (544 was the recorded number in 2000). The same report also stated that there were 31 rhinos in Royal Bardiya National Park and six in the Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve, both in western Nepal. These unique beasts are impressively built with fortified bodies. The males are slightly larger than the females, standing some five to six feet tall and weighing up to 2700 kg each. The rhino’s horn, which is prized for its use in Chinese medicine as well as for its reputed aphrodisiacal properties, has been the reason for the imposing animal’s downfall.

The Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia):

These rare and endangered animals are tremendous leapers able to jump as far as 15 meters. They live at altitudes of 3,000 and 5,500 meters. Weighing between 27 and 54 kg each, the body length varies from 75 to 130 cm, with a tail of nearly the same length which comes in handy for balance and as blankets against the severe mountain chill. They have thick fur, and dark grey/black rosettes with similar but smaller spots on their heads and larger ones on their legs and tail. Their ears are small and rounded while their wide feet have fur on their undersides for better traction.

Bharal or Himalayan Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur):

These animals are very sure footed and are found grazing at altitudes of over 4260 meters. They are actually neither blue nor a sheep but a cross between a sheep and a goat, although larger than either. They have rounded horns that are smooth and curve backwards. Moving about in large herds, they have the ability to scramble up and around the roughest hilly terrain. They are frequently preyed upon by the snow leopard.

The Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus):
The wild population of gharials (a slender snout nosed crocodile species) has shrunk to a few hundred living only in India and Nepal. Its name is derived from the Hindi word ghara, a clay pot similar in appearance to the bulbous growth on the mature male’s nose. Having a light olive tan coloring and oblique dark blotches on the body and the tail, they can be five to six meters long. They have webbed feet and are sexually dimorphic (males and females being different) thus making them unique among crocodiles. They eat only fish and require a specialized habitat of swiftly flowing rivers with sandy banks where the females lay their eggs. They spend most of their time submerged in water. They are found in various rivers of Nepal with the Chitwan National Park having a breeding program for this endangered species.

Danfe (Lopophorus impejanus):
Designated as the country’s national bird, the Danfe (also known as Impeyan Monal) is an exotic pheasant species. Adult males are characterized by multicolored body plumage and metallic green crests. The back and sides of their necks have reddish copper color and they display a white back and rump when in flight. When dancing, they display a splendid variety of colors by spreading their wings and tail feathers. The females, meanwhile, are dull colored (brown) and have a white patch on the fore neck and a white strip on the tail. The Danfe can be found on the high regions of the Himalayan range.

Himalayan Griffon Vulture (Gyps himalayensis):
Having a huge wingspan of 102-114 inches, the adults are 41-43 inches long and weigh from 8 to 12 kg each. They have pale plumage overall with bald white heads, a white neck ruff, yellow bill and short tail feathers. Larger than the European Griffon Vulture, they are found in the Himalayas and in the Central Asian mountains. They breed on mountain crags, laying a single egg at a time. A scavenger, they feed mostly on animal carcasses.

Deer, Nilgai and Arna:

The Suklaphanta Reserve (near Mahendranagar in Southwest Nepal) supports the largest herd of swamp deer (local name: baraha singhe) in the country. Other deer like chital and hog deer are found in plenty all over the country. The largest antelope of the sub continent, the Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) are found in parts of southern Nepal. Arna (Bubalus arnee), the fierce ancestor of domestic buffaloes, number about 150 in the country and are only found in the Kosi Tapu Reserve in East Nepal.  Gaur Bison (Bos gaurus), the world’s biggest wild cattle, are found in the Churiya hills.

Butterflies and birds:
Nepal has about 650 species of butterflies (about 4.2% of the global butterfly population) but more than butterflies, it is for bird watching that Nepal is particularly renowned, with almost 870 species recorded around the country. Especially interesting specimens are the Eurasian Griffon, the Black Kite and the Lammergeyer, a magnificent eagle having a 3 meter wing span. The Sarus Crane and the Demoiselle Crane (karyang kurung) are popular migratory birds that can be seen during the 2nd week of October. Including the Lesser Adjutant Storshoi and the slender billed White-Rumped Vulture, there are around 20 globally endangered bird species in the country. However, the Barn Owl, which is in imminent danger in many countries due to indiscriminate use of harmful chemicals, is comparatively safe here, as is the Eurasian Large Owl.

And, in conclusion
There is cause to believe that Nepal’s wildlife as a whole can only thrive and grow further due to the sustained efforts of many national and international bodies, which augurs well for the country’s rich biodiversity. There is no doubt that Nepal’s wildlife is varied and exotic. Rhinos, tigers, sloth bear, Himalayan black bear, brown bear, wild boar, common leopard, clouded leopard, snow leopard, red pandas, jharal (Himalayan mountain goat), bharal (blue sheep), arna (wild buffalo), birds of all hues and color,  butterflies - name it and we have it. All this certainly goes a long way towards making Nepal into an exciting destination for all wildlife lovers.

The total number of tigers in Indian states sharing a common border with five of Nepal’s national parks in Parsa, Chitwan, Banke, Bardiya and Sukhlaphanta increased to 353 from 297 in the same period.

The rhino’s horn, which is prized for its use in Chinese medicine as well as for its reputed aphrodisiacal properties, has been the reason for the imposing animal’s downfall.

Ref: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/03/080327-nepal-rhinoceros.html; Nepalnature.com (P) Ltd, and other sources