This woman has the most beautiful giggle I’ve ever heard. It bubbles out of her like water.
Her name is Jitani. She runs a homestay business in a village called Dalla in the south west of Nepal.
With her is Niru, her daughter. The two of them run their homestay together, sharing their hospitality and the traditional Tharu way of life with their guests. Jitani also works on a neighbour’s farm for extra money, but the homestay is her main source of income.
Inside their home is a stove that runs on biogas, from a scheme subsidised by WWF, as is the homestay itself. It’s part of a project to help people conserve the natural environment in this breathtakingly beautiful country. The biogas system means that they don’t have to take firewood from the slowly recovering forests; the homestay gives them a source of income that makes it easier to live alongside the wildlife here.
In the yard three goats are tied up under a shelter, a couple of kids bouncing nearby. Chickens scratch about too, and bony-ribbed oxen are standing quietly.
It’s peaceful now, but it’s not always this way. This village is in a corridor of land between two national parks, and it’s one of those places where human and wild worlds meet. Leopards come to these houses and snatch the goats. Elephants raid crops during the harvest season, and sometimes kill people who get in the way.
The biggest predator in these parts is the tiger. It doesn’t often venture out of the forests, and its increasing population is one reason for leopards coming into the villages: tigers don’t like to share their habitat.
Jitani has seen a tiger once in her life. She was out in the forest gathering firewood, in the days before her biogas stove, when she saw something moving. She gestures to show the distance – it’s not far at all. She was so shocked that she just stood there, until the tiger turned and disappeared back into the forest. It doesn’t sound like an experience she wants to repeat.
Not everyone is so lucky. Bhadai Tharu, the chairperson of a community forest users group here, lost his eye to a tiger. He was in an area of tall grass when he almost ran into one. Startled, it swiped at him with its paw, catching his face. His companion fainted in shock when he saw the injury, but Bhadai was eventually found and taken to hospital. It took him a long time to stop being angry, he says.
Now, you can see none of that anger. He looks almost gleeful as he repeats his often-told story – how he pushed the tiger back with his elbow, and told it to get away.
Now, Bhadai’s something of a celebrity. His story’s been covered by all the Nepalese papers, and some international too. He clearly enjoys telling it – you can see him settling back into his ‘once upon a time’ – but that doesn’t diminish his heroism. How many people could go from feeling such rage at a life-changing injury to protecting the animal that caused it?
Bhadai says he gradually came to realise that he had been in the tiger’s territory, not the other way round. It was his fault. Still, I can’t help thinking it’s pretty big of him.
It’s attitudes like Bhadai’s that we need, if conservation is to continue successfully. Nepal is an exemplar when it comes to conservation, and wildlife populations are steadily increasing. But more wildlife in these edge-lands near human habitation is bound to mean more conflict.
The stories are heart-breaking. Last year a fourteen-year-old boy was killed by an elephant on his way to school. Hemant Acharya, chairman of one of the community-based anti-poaching units here, lost his father when he was twenty-one, also to an elephant.
Besides, Nepal is still suffering from the earthquake that hit in 2015. 9,000 people were killed, and still the evidence is everywhere. Over Kathmandu, the dust hangs in a heavy smog that obscures the mountains completely. Nepali people, I can’t help feeling, could be forgiven for thinking that there might be more important things than conservation. But, somehow, an intense national pride in the natural beauty of this little Himalayan country persists.
I can certainly share in a healthy dose of fear for the huge fauna of Nepal. It’s something I think we don’t appreciate in a country where most people are unlikely to encounter anything more dangerous than a wasp. In Bardia National Park, a tourist hotspot but also a hub of wildlife conservation, we went looking for tigers.
We spent three hours of one afternoon watching the banks of a river where a tiger had been seen. Nothing. The next morning we went out early, and waited for another three hours.
We’d been trying to sit unobtrusively, keeping still and talking in whispers. When the tiger did appear all that was abandoned. Shouts of ‘Bagh! Bagh!’ – ‘Tiger! Tiger!’ – rang out across the river, and there was a great deal of rushing about. The tiger was a long way away, and she ignored us. Still, it was electrifying. Seeing her fresh markings in the earth not far from our viewing spot later that day was a reminder that this was her home, and she could come and go as she pleased.
Bardia is a conservation success story. Tiger numbers have increased here – the 18 estimated in 2009 rose to 50 in 2013 – and WWF has been a huge part of that. Critical to the success has been the recognition of how important local communities are – people like Jitani who have these animals for neighbours. Without them on-side, it’s clear that none of this would have been possible. Visiting the villages with the team, I can appreciate how hard they’ve worked to build these relationships and make this a partnership that works for everyone.
I came away from Nepal feeling a huge sense of admiration for what’s been achieved here. To restore forests as they’ve done, to see such great increases in the numbers of tigers – key indicators of the health of the whole ecosystem – is evidence of the years of hard work that have gone into restoring Nepal’s natural wealth.
Jitani’s giggle will stay with me – and the dust, and the friendly people, and that faraway tiger – for a long time.