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Gharial conservation plan leaves Nepal fishing communities searching for new jobs

Gharials swing their snouts through the water to feed on fresh fish. Credit: Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

  • Since the creation of Chitwan National Park, some Indigenous Bote people who have lost access to their ancestral lands and livelihoods have been employed by the park as gharial keepers to help conserve the critically endangered species.
  • However, community members say the park’s restrictions on their fishing livelihoods to protect the reptile species is taking a toll on their economic needs and restricting their rights; the possibility of working as gharial keepers and other livelihood alternatives are insufficient, they say.
  • Many parents are now encouraging their children to migrate to Persian Gulf countries to work as migrant laborers in order to lead a better material life.
  • Conservationists say restricting fishing is an important step in protecting the species, which would struggle to survive if many economically dependent communities fished in the rivers.

KATHMANDU — Fifty-six year-old Kaluram Bote has awaited the end of February, which marks a crucial time for gharial breeding in Chitwan, between Nepal’s Terai and hilly regions. Rowing his boat in the Rapti River, he sets off on an early morning hunt for gharial eggs and fetches them back to the breeding center. For more than two decades now, Kaluram has been deployed by Chitwan National Park to collect the reptile’s eggs, which are hatched in captivity at the gharial breeding center in Chitwan.

“Once the eggs are collected and hatched in the breeding center, the hatchlings are fed and taken care of in captivity until they are released in rivers to grow for the rest of their lives,” says Kaluram, one of the Indigenous Bote people who works as a “keeper” of the critically endangered species.

The park’s gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) population has seen an increase over the past few years, from 239 in 2023 to 265 in early 2024. But despite this jump, the keepers’ future, and that of other Bote people, is uncertain.

Since the park’s inception, there have been restrictions on fishing licenses to protect gharials. Indigenous Bote people, faced with the loss of ownership of their ancestral lands, have demanded their right to continue fishing in rivers without limitation, as it has been their traditional source of income. But many people can no longer see a future in fishing, even if the number of gharials eventually stabilizes. And the livelihood alternatives they were offered, such as working as gharial keepers, have so far been insufficient, they say.

In a region hit hard by floods, building dikes is a popular demand, putting pressure on officials responsible for land-use and river management. Image by Image by Abaya Raj Joshi for Mongabay.

Keepers like Kaluram only work a few months of the year, during spring, on a contractual basis and they have no job security.

Kaluram’s home is one among the 115 households living on the banks of the Rapti River. Like his Bote ancestors, he has spent all his life fishing and rowing boats on the river, which flows from east to west through the Chitwan Valley forming the northern border of Chitwan National Park and joins the Gandaki River inside the park’s protected area. When Chitwan National Park was created in 1973, many were evicted and they now have limited access to fishing upstream and to the protected area itself.

For generations, these communities have depended on fishing and forest resources for their livelihoods. In addition to the Indigenous Bote, ethnic communities including the Majhi, Kumal, Darai and Musahar have depended on fishing in Narayani and Rapti for their daily sustenance.

Although many parents like Kaluram raised their children to be economically dependent on fishing, restrictions and insufficient livelihood options are changing their minds. They are now encouraging their kids to leave local communities to work as migrant laborers in Persian Gulf countries in order to lead a better material life.

“Our struggles are futile; it feels like we are dead because our voices are not heard,” Kaluram says.

The gharial’s traditional keepers

To protect gharials from extinction, the government of Nepal launched the Gharial Conservation and Breeding Center as a project at Kasara, Chitwan National Park, in 1978. Since then, a few Bote people have been hired to collect eggs in the wild during spring, while others work throughout the year as employees at the center. Their traditional knowledge of gharial breeding and role as the original keepers of the species made them an attractive choice.

Among the seven Bote people working in the breeding center is Aitaram Bote, who has been a keeper for about three decades now. His daily routine includes feeding and taking care of gharial hatchlings and monitoring them.

A male gharial guarding hatchlings.
A male gharial guarding hatchlings. Image courtesy of Gharial Ecology Project/MCBT.
A rural community in the TAL.
A rural community in the Terai Arc Landscape. Image by Peter Prokosch/GRID-Arendal via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

From boating to the riverside for collecting eggs, catching fish to feed gharials and taking care of the hatchlings, Bote people have significant roles to play in the process of conserving the species. In these years, there were several times when Aitaram was under attack. “Gharials are not as aggressive as the mugger crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris) but there still are risks persisting from both the species during the egg collection process. It is important to closely watch their movement when the process is carried out,” he tells Mongabay.

Only mature females are capable of producing the maximum number of fertilized eggs, up to 60, laying one at a time every two or three minutes. The eggs are laid under fresh river sand about 60-90 cm (23-35 inches) deep. If they sense any kind of threat while producing eggs, they may lay their eggs on the riverbed, which could impact their survival.

“We take care of every tiny detail and fetch the eggs to the breeding center,” says Kaluram.

At the breeding center, the eggs grow into hatchlings for the next three months (mid-April to July) and are fed river fish until they are 5 or 6 years old. Once they grow up to 1.5 meters (about 5 feet), they are released back into the rivers.

From 1981-2017, 1,246 gharials were released in the Rapti, Narayani, Kaligandanki, Koshi, Karnali and Babai rivers. However, gharial breeding is still a challenge. Conservationists point to unsustainable fishing practices, both subsistence and commercial, industrial pollution from nearby factories, sand mining and rock quarrying as the persisting problems.

To solve the fishing issue, they propose an option: During the three-month egg-to-hatchling journey, the fishers, including the Bote and other Indigenous groups holding fishing licenses, are not allowed to fish in the Gandaki and Rapti rivers. Their fishing nets, conservationists say, could harm the hatchlings and deplete fish for gharials.

Bote people with a license are only allowed to fish for nine months a year before they renew it at the end of the year. Although the issue of restricting licenses is the topic of frequent criticism and discussion between the community members and the park, the issue remains. This bars a new generation of community people from continuing to fish, sources tell Mongabay.

The Rapti River is as essential lifeline for the ecosystem of Chitwan National Park. Image by Abaya Raj Joshi for Mongabay.

No other options?

On Feb. 8, Chitwan National Park detained 13 Bote people, including four women and nine men who were fishing in the Narayani River, outside the protected area. The officials charged a fine of 500 rupees (about $3.75) each, a quarter of the earnings a fisher makes in a day.

Two weeks later, on Feb. 22, four other Bote fishers holding licenses were detained and each fined the same amount.

The Bote people in the region say such episodes of rights violation by the park are common, given that the community has long demanded rights to fishing and self-determination inscribed in the U.N. Declaraion on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Nepal ratified in 2007.

“They don’t want us to fish in the river, as it could decline the fish population, posing risks to gharial conservation. But there are also a lot of conservation threats that persist otherwise, but the park is actively engaged in violating our right to self-determination,” says Raj Kumar Bote, chairperson of the Bote Sewa Samaj Samiti, a rights-based organization of the Bote people. Fishers call on using other measures, like reducing pollution and sand mining in the river upstream, to protect the species and their habitat instead.

Riverine communities living on the fringes of Chitwan National Park have no land ownership certificate, though they have depended on the land, river and forest resources for their livelihoods for generations. Community members initially depended on gold panning, forest resources and fishing for daily sustenance before the park restricted these activities.

“They restricted gold panning, and this is now followed by a fishing ban. We have culturally and economically depended on these rivers long before the park was launched,” says Raj Kumar.

But some conservation officers at the park say restricting fishing is significant and proven successful for gharial conservation, as it would leave no fish for gharials in the river.

To aid conservation, the park has banned fishers from using fishing nets locally known as tiyari — a new tight-knit plastic net that harms the gharial, as it can’t set itself free once trapped. The traditional fishing nets, which fishers use today, are handwoven and leave space for gharials to set themselves free.

“It is not necessary for Bote and other river-dependent communities to do fishing as their traditional occupation, especially when it poses threats to conservation,” Santa Bahadur Magar, who worked as a conservation officer at the breeding center, tells Mongabay.

“They fall back on fishing even if provided with other income-generation opportunities. Gharial conservation cannot exist with many communities economically depending on these rivers.”

An adult and juvenile gharial on a riverbank.
An adult and juvenile gharial on a riverbank. Nepal’s river are home to around 200 individuals of the critically endangered species. Image by Goodfriend19 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

However, Chitwan National Park’s chief conservation officer, Dil Bahadur Purja Pun, says what’s provided for communities is not enough. “The government-provided funds and resources are not adequate for the communities to opt for alternative livelihood options,” Pun tells Mongabay, explaining that more needs to be done to protect the gharial’s natural habitat.

To foster conservation, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation introduced a five-year Gharial Conservation Action Plan (2018-22), which allocated a budget to identify and manage the alternative livelihood options of fishing to river-dependent communities and initiate an amended provision of fishing on legal and policy instruments. However, the chairperson of Bote society, Raj Kumar Bote, emphasizes that the funds that are allocated for marginalized communities don’t end up improving the livelihood status of these communities “because these funds never reach us.”

“A few Bote serving in and out of the breeding center for gharial conservation have been working on a contract basis, which means there is no job security or motivation provided by the national park to these people. The ones working out of the center were previously hired for three months, which now has reduced to a month,” he says.

Having more Bote people working in the park during the spring months when fishing is restricted could be an option, but lack of education to pass the necessary exams is a barrier to getting jobs as keepers.

Raj Kumar also explains that people don’t just rely on rivers because they can’t find an alternative. For the Bote, the river is their origin — where their lives begin and where they should end.

“The Bote people must harvest fish intestines themselves from rivers to perform the last rites of community people,” he says, explaining that communities carry out funeral services near the rivers. “From birth till the day we die, we are connected to the river.”


Banner image: Gharials swing their snouts through the water to feed on fresh fish. Credit: Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

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