Barely Surviving: the Karnali River and Forest Corridor

Posted on 14 June 2013
Sand and gravel mining in Karnali river
© WWF Nepal / Pallavi Dhakal
“Let a female tiger in India make love to a male tiger in Nepal,” sang Bhadai Tharu, a local conservationist from Bardia. His song underlines an important fact. Like all other species, tigers too need genetic diversity in order to survive. Inbreeding reduces their chances of survival and with the added complication of climate change, how do we ensure that Indian and Nepali tigers meet?

One way to do it is to create conservation corridors to restore habitat connectivity, enabling wildlife to move from one place to another. Although four such trans-boundary corridors already exist and are recognized by the Nepal Government, there is an urgent need for an additional corridor to connect Bardia National Park in Nepal to Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in India. This will be called the Karnali River and Forest corridor. The corridor will follow the western tributary of the Karnali River, which branches out from Chisapani Bazar in Baliya VDC and covers an area of 14,618.5 square hectares.

As the name suggests, this will be the first river and forest corridor in Nepal, facilitating the movement of both terrestrial and aquatic animals, notably the threatened Gangetic dolphin and gharial populations. The corridor provides both north-south and east-west connectivity which will be of particular help in the western stretches of the Churia hills. This additional corridor will also shore up protection for the entire Karnali River ecosystem in combination with the Khata corridor which lies to the east.

Both the (existing) Khata corridor and the (proposed) Karnali corridor facilitate the north-south movement of mega species such as rhinos, tigers and elephants. "If we do not intervene immediately, the long term viability of the narrow strip of forest that still exists in the Karnali corridor is put into question," says Dr. Shant Raj Jnawali of WWF Nepal, Biodiversity Coordinator for the Hariyo Ban Program. Dr. Jnawali’s fears are well placed given the many challenges the area is facing – forest encroachment, poaching, unsustainable harvesting of river and forest resources, illegal and intensive fishing, over-grazing, forest fires and problems of invasive plant species. The area is also facing climate induced threats such as flood, river-bank cutting and landslides in the north. The most serious of these challenges is the massive encroachment of forest land and river beds in the southernmost section of the corridor near the Nepal-India border. This wholesale encroachment has almost caused the corridor to be split in two.

The ongoing development of infrastructure presents further challenges. The east-west Mahendra Highway passes through the Karnali corridor at Baliya VDC, fragmenting a major patch of forest in the Churia hills and a narrow strip of forest in the Terai. The ongoing World Bank supported Rani Jamara Kulariya irrigation canal project also bisects the forest corridor. This physical barrier will have direct impacts on the north-south movement of wildlife. The canal will eventually pass through almost all of the corridor-adjoining VDCs in Kailali district. A hydropower project has been proposed upstream of the corridor on the Karnali River at Chisapani and if ever built, would very seriously affect the ecosystems in both the corridor and Bardia National Park. The proposed Indian funded Hulaki Highway connecting Nepalgunj and Dhangadhi, if constructed, will pass through the lower part of the corridor, fragmenting the habitat further and threatening the very existence of wildlife in the area, let alone their free movement.

“While national development is essential, we need to be careful, because this is a corridor of international importance. Any infrastructure development in this corridor should be designed in such a way that it will have minimum impact,” says Santosh Mani Nepal, Director of the Policy and Support Program at WWF Nepal. “WWF Nepal strongly recommends that the government either elevates the part of the Hulaki Highway where it passes through the corridor, or runs it underground,” he continues. “This is essential for the safe movement of wildlife, and for safeguarding the ecological functionality of the corridor.”

The conservation efforts carried out by the Hariyo Ban Program in the Karnali corridor, although wide-ranging and successful, will be unable to address critical ecological issues without strong government support. The corridor must be conserved by strong community engagement, supported with robust policy back-up. The participation of local communities in conservation initiatives is after all imperative. If only there were more local heroes like Bhadai Tharu to save the Karnali river and forest corridor. He has achieved so much in the neighboring Khata corridor which is well-maintained by local communities. And his passion for tigers continues, despite losing an eye in the tiger attack. “Let us not break the love between the Indian and the Nepali tigers,” he sings, “let us not block their free passage, let them meet and make love.”

By Pallavi Dhakal, Communications Officer, Hariyo Ban Program, WWF Nepal

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Disclaimer: The Hariyo Ban Program is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents of this article are the responsibility of WWF and its consortium partners and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.
Sand and gravel mining in Karnali river
© WWF Nepal / Pallavi Dhakal Enlarge
Map showing Karnali river and forest corridor
© WWF Nepal Enlarge
Women from Layakpur village in Karnali river and forest corridor
© WWF Nepal / Pallavi Dhakal Enlarge