Animal deaths in community run ‘zoos’ in Nepal raise alarm

Run for profit and without adequate resources, multiple wildlife rehabilitation centres run by community forest users’ groups in eastern Nepal are keeping animals in difficult conditions.

The commercial exploitation of wild animals under the guise of conservation is an issue recognised by key figures in government. Image: Shadow Ayush, CC BY-SA 3.0, viaWikimedia.

The bamboo-and-net pen looks like a small hen’s cage. Inside, however, is a black kite – a large bird of prey. The raptor is a resident of a small ‘zoo’ in the Mankamana Community Forest in eastern Nepal’s Morang district, the last survivor of a set of six kites that had been handed over to the Manakamana community forest users’ group (CFUG) two years ago. With limited regulation such CFUG-managed ‘zoos’ have proliferated in Nepal, but the state of the animals in them is raising a host of concerns among conservationists.

At the centre of the issue are CFUGs, a legally mandated system of decentralised forest governance that Nepal has pioneered in South Asia since the 1980s. A provincial government’s Division Forest Office is authorised to hand over the management of areas declared as community forests to the management of local residents under Nepal’s 1993 Forest Act. This initiative was designed to enrich local communities by allowing them to manage and utilise the natural resources of their area, via sustainable forest management plans approved at the provincial level.

Then Nepal passed the Forests Act, 2076 (2019), consolidating forest laws, and its clause 34 expanded what that CFUGs could do to include eco-tourism, including “wildlife farming”. The legal basis of wildlife conservation in Nepal draws from the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act, 2029 (1973), but this Act refers to wildlife parks and reserves, and does not directly address zoos. The rules and regulations of what the CFUGs can do are still to be finalised, so the ‘zoos’ that the CFUGs run do not have a clear regulatory mechanism. Nonetheless, because they are legally allowed to sell tickets for tourists to see these animals, such ‘zoos’ have proliferated.

Informal zoos proliferate without safeguards

According to a 2019 research paper by the National Zoological Garden 17 such ‘zoos’ were running in Nepal. It also noted that insufficient attention was being paid to animal care at the facilities, and that skilled personnel, such as veterinarians, or those trained to nurse injured or sick animals were lacking.

In Mankamana this was evident.

Udayakumar Rai, the chair of management committee chair of the CFUG tells The Third Pole that the lone kite in the ‘zoo’ is the only survivor from the six he brought here two years ago, when they had been transferred to the CFUG’s care from the Division Forest Office. The rest, he says, died due to fights amongst themselves and lack of proper care. Rai says that two leopard cats died from fighting in a cage here, while six peacocks died within a month of being dropped off by local people, who sold them for an undisclosed sum to the CFUG. Two pythons that his team brought from a wetland within the forest didn’t survive beyond three months. Pythons are a protected species in Nepal, primarily inhabiting wetlands and swampy areas in Terai, the lowland region that runs along the country’s southern border.

Wild animals are kept in cages after they are brought from their natural habitat, in the name of rescue. The cages are not good, since there are no facilities [nor] a good environment for [the animals’] survival.

Dibya Raj Dahal, chairperson, Small Mammal Conservation and Wildlife Foundation Nepal

It is unclear whether these animals were actually injured or ill, and were brought to the ‘zoo’ to be taken care of, or if they were merely sighted and picked up from the wild. While Rai says his team rescued them, there is limited supervision except when an animal dies in the care of a CFUG. In such an instance a representative from the forest office visits to conduct an examination and witness the burial.

These days, the Mankamana ‘zoo’ is home to a family of five deer and a rhesus macaque; the latter in a cage surrounded by foul-smelling rubbish. “We used to have langurs and wild cats, but they also died as we lacked proper knowledge to take care of them,” says Rai. While the enclosures are legally meant for the care of injured or sick animals, Rai says the ‘zoo’ was established to attract visitors – they have even constructed a tree house to attract TikTok creators.

Rai says he was inspired to open the ‘zoo’ in Mankamana by another such ‘zoo’ to the east, in Shanti Community Forest. The situation at Shanti Community Forest is no better. Every wild animal that was introduced in 2015 has died, according to Hembhakta Gurung, the vice president of the CFUG in this area. The ‘zoo’ in Shanti Community Forest previously housed pythons, deer, wild cats, leopard cats, nilgai antelope, civets, monitor lizards, Himalayan vultures and more. Gurung blames the deaths on a lack of ‘management initiatives’.

Conservation or profit?

The largest such ‘zoo’ in the Koshi province is in the Jamunabari Community Forest in Jhapa, Nepal’s easternmost district. It is home to wild animals of 29 species, including an adult leopard. The forest’s management plan incorporates an animal rescue centre; unusually its operation is approved by the Division Forest Office.

Nonetheless, when The Third Pole speaks with Tara Koirala, a member of Jamunabari CFUG’s board of directors, she said that they considered tourism as the primary focus of the zoo, with conservation being of secondary importance. Koirala says that the zoo currently has 15 empty cages waiting to be filled. “If provided, we can even house tigers and crocodiles. However, we lack [the] technical manpower to take care of these wild animals,” says Koirala. Furthermore, according to Koirala and the president of the CFUG, Khemraj Sitoula, they have budgeted NPR 120,000 (approximately USD 900) to buy two ostriches for the zoo. According to documents seen by The Third Pole, Jamunabari made more than NPR 5,000,000 (USD 38,000) from the entry fee they charged from July 2021 to September 2022. This is a large sum for Nepal, where the per capita GDP in 2022 was only USD 1,336.50.

Environmentalists deeply concerned

Dibya Raj Dahal, the chair of an NGO called the Small Mammal Conservation and Wildlife Foundation Nepal (SMCRF) and a zoology teacher in Morang, is worried by the trend. “Wild animals are kept in cages after they are brought from their natural habitat, in the name of rescue. The cages are not good, since there are no facilities [nor] a good environment for [the animals’] survival.”

Rachana Shah, head of the National Trust for Nature Conservation’s Biodiversity Conservation Centre, explains that wild animals require environments they are familiar with in order to survive in captivity, whether “rugged terrain conditions for mountain-dwelling species” or “flat terrain for animals from lowlands”. Shah, who worked at Nepal’s only government-authorised zoo, the Sadar Chidiyakhana (Central Zoo) in Kathmandu, for more than two decades, says that these enclosures should replicate the natural environment of the wild animals, for instance having burrows for porcupines. “If we focus solely on tourism, it leads to misuse and that acts as a death trap for wild animals.”

Pushing for regulation

The commercial exploitation of wild animals under the guise of conservation is an issue recognised by key figures in government. “Zoos in community forests prioritise income generation over conservation education and that’s the root of this problem,” says Meghnath Kafle, head of biodiversity at the Ministry of Forests and Environment. Kafle blames the issue on a lack of official processes for the establishment of such ‘zoos’.

The director general of Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), Maheshwar Dhakal, acknowledges the positive role that CFUGs can play in taking care of injured or sick animals, but is also aware of the potential harm of informal zoos being run without any sort of regulation. “No-one has been granted permission to operate such a zoo thus far from DNPWC,” he clarifies. But while acknowledging that, “There is a need to train manpower to fix this problem,” the DNPWC has also not put any plans in place to make this happen.

While regulation is a concern for everybody it is unclear which department or ministry would step in. Rewati Raman Poudel, Secretary, Ministry of Forest and Environment, tells The Third Pole that comprehensive rules and guidelines around such ‘zoos’ are being formulated and will be completed this year. “The guidelines will address the issue of what actions should be taken against [informal] zoos that fail to meet the prescribed standards.” So far, though, nobody knows what those standards are, or who will determine them.

This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.

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