– Lila Nath Sharma, PhD
Nepal has the longest elevation gradient in the world i.e. 8000 meters vertical ascend within horizontal distance of 200km. The Himalayan country is known for majestic mountain peaks of which eight peaks cross 8000 meter above sea level (masl) but it also has land as below as 60 masl. Jalthal forest is the forest located in the lowest elevation in Nepal in the south eastern corner of the country in Jhapa district. Jalthal is a relict and remnant forest island in the densely populated region of eastern lowland of Nepal in Jhapa district. The forest gets its name from a nearby area called Jalthal. ‘Jalthal’ refers to waterlogged or marshy area. It is the largest forest island in lowland of Nepal. I had opportunity to learn about the wealth of flora of the forest from different people who have been there earlier. Two year back, I along with colleagues organized a quick visit of the forest and interacted with local people on various issues around the status and management of forest, which further helped me understand the uniqueness, importance and challenges of the forest. After the visit and the interaction, I realized the need for conservation and comprehensive assessment of forest so that we can get better idea about forest status and biodiversity for its evidence based management. With new project supported by Darwin Initiative UK, our plan to work for conservation of Jalthal forest became possible. After completing preparation, I decided to undertake fieldwork to sample the vegetation of the forest in the beginning of 2020.
I was excited and worried simultaneously for the fieldwork! Compared to mountain, no doubt Tarai topography is certainly a comfort to work with. Wildlife is a threat not to underestimate in some of the Terai forest. I had worked in the core area of Chitwan National Park. I was much worried to sample Jalthal than Chitwan National park. Jalthal forest has become a habitat of a heard wild elephants. Jhapa district is the worst affected by elephant attack. During the last one decade, so far over forty people were already killed in elephant attack of which over half dozen were from Jalthal area. Local reported that elephant roam throughout the forest.
Bigger team for fieldwork
After initial planning I called a community forest leader to discuss about the field work. I requested him to find some local helper for us and informed him that we go deep inside the jungle to work . When I said we are four and want two local helpers. He asked me ‘ is not this group small to go and work inside the core of the forest? I understood the level of threat and fear. After discussion with locals we decided to work in relatively larger group. Being in larger group would increase our confidence and feeling of safety. It would also allow us to invigilate on the way and around while working. Making too large group of course had resource limitation. As part of the sampling, we also had plan to engage locals in our team so that there will be mutual learning and sharing.
We decided to work in a group of 7-10 people depending on the location. In the team we four were researchers and other four to five people from local community. For the ease of sampling, we have two local youths who would work with us for the entire sampling while other three were from respective community forest. Two locals in our team would work with us during entire period of sampling. Purpose of bringing local people was to share learning and experiences of local people and technicians. In the team three were Master students namely Yogendra, Ramu and Shankar from Tribhuvan University. They are expected to develop their master thesis out of the plot data.
Learning forest diversity and degradation
I had opportunity to scan couple of paper of floral diversity originating on Jalthal data. These papers highlighted uniqueness of Jalthal forests and provided list of flora. However, from the very beginning of forest sampling I realized that the forest was much diverse than I thought. Jalthal forest shows paradoxies i.e. degraded and diverse simultaneously. Having worked with other forest of western and central Tarai of Nepal, I thought I would not have problem of identification of trees but I stumbled in several places. Jalthal could be only place in Nepal where one can find forest of Latahar ( Artocarpus chama). A chama forms a giant tree with spreading crown and is an East Asian species, and eastern Nepal could be its westernmost limit of distribution. During field work I also noticed several male and female individuals of Cycas (C. pectinanata) trees. This gymnosperm has not been reported from other parts of Terai region of Nepal. The forest is particularly rich in terms of tree flora and wetland flora.
Jalthal forest is enriched by diverse habitat; gullies, streams, hillocks, ponds and marshes. We encountered Burmese pythons in couple of occasions. Local field guides informed us there are Salak (Pangolin) as well. We noticed several signs of Salak hunting during our field work. The forest supports high diversity birds and reptiles including golden monitor lizard, a protected species, and Burmese python.
The forest is diverse and old growth but a portion of forest is also truly a secondary with recently regenerating trees. Forest consists of pure stand of sal to species mixed stand including riverine forest. Forest was notable in terms of tree diversity but forest floor was relatively poor. Nevertheless, the herbaceous component was compensated by habitat mosaics in the forest (For details of forest click here).
Champion of plot navigation
I divided Jalthal forest in grids of 500 m * 500 m and placed the plots to be sampled randomly. This was done to cover the whole area while trying to be random to some extent. We had to find and sample plots already loaded in GPS. Instances they followed an established or temporary trail would be simply a coincidence. Locating plots in the forest was really a challenge. In many places it took hours to travel between two consecutive plots mainly due to think layer of bush mainly invasive Banmara and Pyangri lahara. Without local help it would be very difficult for my team to find plots depending on forest location. The problem would be the same for externals who were unfamiliar about local situation. Luckily we got someone who became our great help in this matter.
Mr Bhanu Dhakal is a slim, athletic and cheerful boy lives in Badabari of Jalthal. Upon a short training and visualization of our plot maps he said that placement of plot was different from community forest inventory in which plots are placed systematic along a line. I thought he got it. My colleague Sanjaya helped him learning GPS and plot navigation. In no time he grasped it. Now GPS, compass and maps were handed to Bhanu. His quick learning about plot navigation and knowledge on forest geography and trails saved our time and made life easy.
He used to lead us and we usually lag behind him in the bush. He was so swift and could pass through thick bushes of invasive species in no time. During 30 days long field Bhanu was a very helpful, punctual and honest guy. He was always there to support us. His sense about place and map was impressive and strong. Once we missed a tape somewhere in the pot. After finishing field as 16:00, we were supposed to be out. But he was really serious about the tape. In next one and half hour he visited every plot we sampled during the day which were several hundred meter apart separated by think bush and not connected by trails. Finally he came with yellow tape in hand. Friends following him said that they felt that their heart was going to be burst. He never showed tiredness and was always focused on the work. While walking he used to think about plot for following days. All other workers were special and without their help this field would not be possible. Another noteworthy supporter was Krishna Kharel, I called him Kharel ji, who helped us in plot measurement and making the access road by slashing the dense layer of shrub and vines. Alost every single day he used to carry and distribute Supari (betel nut)to us. About to ripe Supari, was really refreshing, by the end of field work I was like addicted to that. Mr Bikram Baral was also there to help us in the field.
Fear of the giant but chronic trouble of tiny
As mentioned in earlier section, Jhapa district the most affected area by elephant. Local people have witnessed increased activities of elephant in the Jalthal forest. It is believed that occasionally a small heard of elephant lives in the forest for some time. While walking in the forest, I have also seen marks of elephant activities in almost all parts of the forest. Just before field work we also heard about appearance of elephant in different parts in and around the forest. So I was worried about safety. Local people also suggested visiting forest in little bigger group rather than just 3-4 people.
Every report of elephant sighting during night time used to scare us during days. Every fresh signs (dung, footprints and tree damage) of elephant used to make us cautious and increased our heartbeat. Some movement nearby in the forest used to took our breath. We used to get update about elephant sighting in the night to be cautious next day. As a team leader, I was always worried about safety of field crews. Fortunately, we did not encounter any casualty during the fieldwork.
While we were worried from big beast, we suffered from small creatures every single day. Most terrible was small tick which was hardly visible to naked eyes. In the evening we used to scratch and check body parts. A variety of tick was as small as head of sharp needle and visible in the skin only when they are done. Once I had it inside my ear which was removed by simple medication. Once we recovered it from eyes as well. One of my team members had to visit eye hospital to get it out from his eyes. Our body has full of red spots in the body and they may take few days to weeks to get recovered. We also found another larger species of tick which was about half cm wide and local call it as sungure kirna, which means pork tick. In marshy area we had leech but they were not troublesome like ticks. In few place while measuring trees we disturbed ants and got attacked. Rato kamila and Thad kande were red and black ants respectively often encountered in the forest.
Beyond ecological and biodiversity data
While sampling the forest, learning about diversity and ecology of forest was obvious. Sampling forest with local people helped us better understand the people- forest interaction. These learning could be verified while working in the forest. Local people informed about the plants and other products from forest. We observed people collecting forest products, signs of hunting and cases of illegal tree felling. Locals also shared their impression about CF officials and forest technicians. We also learnt different management in different community forest and peoples understanding about biodiversity.
One important insight during field work was about forest use and dependency of people in forest. Many people think that dependency on forest is decreasing during recent decades, in general this may hold true. But this statement may not hold true when you analyses the data across social and economic class. I observed hundreds of people carrying firewood, fodder and other products every day. If you think that many people use LP gas, so dependency on firewood has been declined. This also depends on who you are looking about. It appears that for some people dependency on forest has not declined. Analyzing forest dependency should therefore be disintegrated across social and economic class.
In general the forest looks dense and full of fodder but the we observed different cases. One case may explain the dearth of fodder. We encountered many men and women collecting in forest. One day, we were about to return from forest at 3.30, we noticed someone was shouting. Our local assistant listened the sound carefully as he thought people should not be in the interior by this time. We also shouted, a man of around 70 appeared and approached towards us. He lost his way inside forest and became very happy to find us. He was in a group of people from his village but somehow he not only missed friends but also the way to back home. He crossed his forest and came to another CF. We asked him why are you so far from your CF. He replied “it is hard to find fodder and it takes several hours to make a bundle of fodder in our CF so I came inside and another CF. He told “nisha lagyo” which means loss sense of direction. We helped him find way to his home. Our local assistant requested him to throw the fodder and follow us as it would be difficult to carry the load as there was not a trail. But he refused.
Boring daily schedule but newness everyday
Making datasheet ready, checking battery of GPS, putting field gears in field bag, purchase of snacks for day time, informing local helpers about today’s meeting point and time, confirming auto rickshaw and having dal bhat around 8.30 were our regular schedule in the early hour. Moving between plots to plots, navigating plot location, passing through dense layer of shrubs, measuring girth of trees, counting herbs, remaining vigilant to elephant, returning from field, checking ticks, itching body parts were regular activities in the noon and afternoon. In spite of this regular and boring schedule we always enjoyed field. Everyday some new guys used to be in the field to accompany us. Those new guys used to bring different culture and stories about forest. Some were very frank while others were shy. Everyday something new to learn from them about forest and plants. Next plot used to be different from previous plot and there used to either new species or new stand story.
After returning from the field Mr. Yogendra used to sort, describe and identify plants observed during the day. We used to discuss each plant about its identity. His plant related activities was very intense during the second phase field work. He closely observed minute flower and parts inside, checked the characteristics with taxonomic literatures and identify species. Finally he used to press the specimen and put them over heater to get them dried. I enjoyed closely observing the hard work and found a passionate taxonomist in him. He was highly motivated and immersed into that. Observing trees and other plants in the field and Knowing about their classification and names in the evening really refreshed me in spite of tiredness of the day. Although our schedule was monotonous with similar activities every day I had new learning and new observation about diversity of forest, trees, plants and forest-people interaction.
We worked for 30 days, sampled 220 plots, measured over 4000 tree trunks in Jalthal forest. Forty local people participated from different community forests and they contributed over 120 man day’s work in the participatory field work. Jalthal forest is very important natural resource for local livelihood. It is unique forest in lowland Nepal and has important area for biodiversity with rich flora. While the vegetation data analysis may take some time it was great learning to work with local people in forest sampling.
Mr Sharma works at ForestAction Nepal. Views presented here do not necessarily reflect views of ForestAction Nepal and it’s collaborating institutions.