Nepal's Wildlife

Features Issue 80 Jul, 2010
Text by Amendra Pokharel / Photo: WCN/Latika Rana

Nepal is a country of abundance, in many ways. Its bountifulness is reflected in things that are small and big, high and low, accessible and remote, all of which are brought into prominence by a copious mix of myth and reality. It is this abundance in its real and mythical forms that constantly lures visitors from around the world. Though a pint-sized nation, small enough to be spurned by the two mammoth countries locking it from all sides, Nepal has been an enviable enigma to its neighbors. They look wide-eyed as the tourists visiting their countries impulsively gravitate towards Nepal, drawn in by Nature’s galore. Tourists finding their way into the country, despite the prospect of their being totally engrossed by the vastness of the two continental blocks on either side, reflects the pull of Nepal’s abundance.

There is enough in Nepal to be observed and experienced for a lifetime. Observing Kathmandu valley’s diverse landscape, where antiquity interrupts modernity at frequent intervals, visitors learn to appreciate accessibility. Trekking far off into the regions where settlements are  few and far between, food is what you get to eat and pleasure is only what comes from within, for the first time, they experience the thrill that remoteness can bring about. Traversing the Kali Gandaki river gorge, they attempt to gauge just how deep depth can be, and standing at the feet of mighty Everest, they look up and struggle to make sense of its height. Such is Nepal. Here you live what you have learned, experience what you have imagined. The country is one of those rare places on earth where God’s generosity blends with its grandeur.

The wildlife of Nepal is one such miracle born out of this blend. This miracle once roamed free in its diverse forms inhabiting areas that spanned from the tropical Terai to the alpine zone of the Himalayas. While the Royal Bengal tigers, wild Asiatic elephants and one-horned rhinos openly foraged the lowlands, the Himalayan bear, wild dogs and snow leopards prowled the elusive mountainous terrains. Between them was a legion of wildlife that included gaur, wild boar, wild buffalo, several species of antelope and deer, wolves, serow, ghoral, blue sheep, brown bear, black bear, yak, marmots, mouse hare and tahr. 

Nepal occupies just 0.1 percent of the land mass of the world. But its territorial deficiency is generously compensated by a natural wealth dispersed across the large swathes of land. There are about over 5160 species of flowering plants, including 352 species of orchids. And the flora plays hosts to 635 species, or 4.2 percent, out of the total butterflies found on the globe. It also sustains 185 species (2.2 %) of fresh water fish, 43 species (1.1%) of amphibians, 100 species (1.5 %) of reptiles, 860 species (8.5 %) of birds and 181 species (4.2%) of mammals.

Prior to 1973, no attempts were made to record the population of the Nepalese wildlife. That the territories of Nepal teemed with wild animals, however, can be established by the number of animals killed in 1939 during the hunting trip organized for the party of Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy of India—120 tigers, 38 rhinos and 27 leopards in one hunting trip. And, trips like that were frequently organized by the rulers for their own pleasure or in order to please and impress their guests.

The abundance in their numbers, perhaps, coaxed rulers of the past into believing that the Nepalese wildlife was a world without an end. Numbering 1000, for example, Nepal once had the largest population of the great one horned rhinoceros. By early 1970s, however, most of the wild animals, including the rhinos, were already listed among the seriously endangered.

The latest census puts the population of the rhinoceros down to 435 from 612 in 2000. A major chunk of this population is found in Chitwan National Park (408), whereas 22 are in Bardia National Park and 5 in Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve. Similarly, dispersed within these three protected areas, the population of tigers hovers around something above 100. With Suklaphanta being a sanctuary to more than 2000 swamp deer, one of the main species that tigers prey on, their number is concentrated in that reserve. The population of wild elephants, as per the survey conducted in 2001 by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), stands at 91 to 127. Bardia National Park takes the lead on the wild elephant population with around 50-60, whereas Chitwan National Park has 25 and Suklaphanta has 11 to 27,  second and third respectively. A few, numbering five to 15 are also found in the forests farther east in the Terai.     

After the Rana regime was toppled in 1950s and malaria was suppressed, Chitwan and other forest lands of the Terai were opened up to outsiders. People from the hill came down in droves after the threat of malaria was reduced, and large swathes of wildlife habitat were cleared for human settlements, agriculture and other development. Degradation of habitat and uncontrolled hunting pushed the wild animals, including most mammalian species, to the verge of extinction. Alarmed by the sudden decline in theirm numbers and realizing that it was closely related to the shrinking habitats, the government began demarcating certain areas as national parks and wildlife reserves.

Today, almost 20 percent of Nepal’s land has been declared as protected areas. This figure speaks to the sense of urgency and importance that the Nepal government has laid on the issue of wildlife protection. Percentage wise, Nepal has set aside more land per total area than many other countries, like the US (of which only 2% is dedicated to parks) and India (which has only 5% of its landmass dedicated to parks and wildlife reserves).

Nepal’s commitment  towards the protection of wildlife is seen as a model to other nations working to conserve and protect their own indigenous wildlife species. The upturn in the population of rhinos,  which at one point stood as low as 60, and the gradual comeback of the tiger population, which was near extinction, are encouraging signs for Nepal and the world. The population of wildlife from countless to bare handfuls and again on it way to bountifulness drives home a point that Nepal is a natural haven for the wild animals who have made the country their homes. For despite our failures of past in securing them from threats like habitat shrinkage, poaching, hunting and natural disasters they have not deserted our country depriving us of the god’s grandeur that only a few places in the planet are blessed with.  

Some of the information for this story has been provided by the World Wildlife Fund Nepal Program, the Wildlife Conservation Nepal,, and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.