– Lila Nath Sharma, PhD
While browsing Google earth, if we look closely in the lowland of Nepal, we can see a green patch in the south eastern corner of the country. The isolated patch is a 6000 hectare Jalthal forest in Jhapa district. If we look further, it is an island in the densely populated region. It is also true that forest island of this size does not exist in the Terai region of Nepal. This shows geographical uniqueness of Jalthal forest, a Charkose forest. The forest is considered as unique and biodiversity rich. In short visits made earlier in 2018, I had also similar impression. I was curious to visit the forest again to have a closer look into its biodiversity and importance to local people. From the mid-2019, I had some opportunities to walk through the forest along with local people. Such walks are often labeled as ‘ forest transect walk’ by researchers and are used to understand the various dimensions of people-nature interactions. During ‘walk through the forest’ we talked about species, ecosystems, threats and management of Jalthal forest.
Biological Invasion: a major burden
It was a day in the Month of June last year; we entered the forest from the Pathibhara temple. After walking few minutes, Chiran Paudel, chairman of Pathibhara Kalika community forest stopped us and pointed towards a giant tree which had a dark green and spreading crown. The tree had more than 15 meter long clear trunk. A member from my team asked him ‘which tree is this?’ Mr Paudel replied ‘It is called Lathar, Its fruits are edible, leaves are good fodder and trunk is used for timber’. I had heard and read about this tree but this was the first time I have seen it. According to updated record of plant distribution in Nepal published by Department of Plant Resources (DPR), the species has only been reported from the Jalthal forest. The tree was new for foresters and other visitors from western and central Nepal who have been there for the first time. The tree is well distributed mainly in the south East Asia, all the way from Northeastern India through Malaysia, and the eastern Nepal could be its last resort of distribution. This tree signifies the importance of Jalthal forest for botanists and nature lovers.
The tree was just 50 meter away from the trail where we were standing. I tried to approach the tree for a closer photograph of fruits, a local people requested me not to try. He pointed towards the green mat covering the forest floor and said ‘it takes you twenty minutes to reach to the tree; you will drown in the bush of Tyangri lahara and will be lost’. Tyangri or Pyangri lahara is local name for the invasive species that has been reigning the open areas of the forest for about last two decades. The invasive species called mile a minute due to its fast growing and rapidly spreading nature. The weed native to South America was first reported in eastern Nepal in early 60’ies. Locals report that in April 1996, there was a horrible storm which felled about 50% of trees in the forest; the northern parts of the forest was particularly hard hit by the storm. Some people claim that the weed proliferated in Jalthal after the incidence. Which may be valid given that disturbance events are key in spread of invasive weeds. In our preliminary estimation, the weed is already a major problem in more than half of the forest. The weed is moving fast in Nepal. In the west, it has been spotted in Dang valley and in Pokhara in the north. Including Mikania the forest has now 15 invasive plant species out of 27 invasive species reported from Nepal. Invasive species cover was not equal in the forest, they were plentiful in open areas and forest fringes while their density was lower under the continuous and close crown cover.
Useful plant resources
Mr Chiran Paudel was grown up in the area and used to herd his cows in the forest. He has witnessed how the forest shrunk in area and degraded in quality. He was very motivated to share his experience while we walked through forest or measured trees. He frankly shred his knowledge about different resources of the forest. Once we were measuring girth of a Kumbhi tree, the tree was lopped. He said ‘It is an important fodder tree, many fodder trees are declining’. During our chat, he started listing fodder trees and he made a list of 26 tree species as fodder species. Later, I had an opportunity to see all these 26 fodder tree species in the forest. When we include climber, shrubs and herbs the fodder species in the forest will be over 50.
In a day in Mid-march, we were walking through the forest; we were 10-12 people in the group. As we passed by a swampy area most of the women members in the team started dispersing. They were taking opportunity of collecting fiddlehead leaves, popularly called as Niuro. In few minutes they were ready to walk with small bundles of Niuro with them. A local man said that it can be collected from March to September. Niuro is one of the most important wild vegetables for local people. While walking we passed through a marshy area, I observed a Taro like plant with deltate leaf and thorny leaf base. I came to learn that the plant was called as ‘Morange’ and its tender shoots are eaten as vegetables and pickle. A local man introduced me with Kukur Daino a climber, he said that tender shoots of this species are consumed as vegetables. The forest has hundreds of plant species which are used by local people.
While walking in the forest, Mr Kumar Tamang, a user of Diyalo CF, introduced me 10 different types of wild edible fruits. Of which Ban suntala was interesting for me. Ban suntala of this locality was different from Ban suntala I found in Chitwan and Makawanpur. People who were in their 60s and 70s shared me their experience of collecting and eating of wild edible fruits in the forest. They said that many species are now declining. Mr Paudel pointed towards a felled Khanyu tree and said ‘ its hard to find Khanyu trees in the forest but it used to be important fruits to fill our hunger when we used to rear cattle in the forest during my childhood’. Another wild edible fruit tree called as Kusum was not the Kusum to which I was familiar with. Two kusum are distantly related distinct species, some botanists have misleadingly mixed them up as one species though.
When I talked with Mr Dhan Raj Gurung, Chairman of Durgavitta CF, he was just returned from a visit of a community forest in Nawalparasi district. I requested him compare forest he visited recently with Jalthal forest. He proudly said that Jalthal forest has much more species of plants than the forest he recently and previously visited. He is right and many other local people who had opportunity of visiting Terai forests of central and western Nepal shared similar observation.
What astonished me about Jalthal forest is its diversity of flora and habitats. The forest is also worth mentioning for diversity of faunal groups like birds, reptiles, amphibians, mollusks and butterflies. The forest is an important habitat for Burmese Python. I have also had couple of opportunities to observe Python in the forest. My colleagues reported me they have observed several threatened birds in the forest.
When I requested locals to list tree species they have heard about and encountered in Jalthal forest. Some locals listed as high as 80 tree species. Based on my account, 90 tree species have already been identified and there may be other 10 species to be added in the list when botanical identification is complete. Based on my personal experience and literature I have scanned, this is probably the highest number of tree species recorded from any particular forest patch/area in Terai region of Nepal, which may mean that Jalthal forest could be among the richest forest patch of Nepal. There is similar story with fern species, when we compare Jalthal forest with rest part of Terai. We have listed around 30 species of ferns, which appears to be greater than any comparable location in Terai.
Richness in flora is small part of the story. When we give closer look, many interesting facts are floating about Jalthal flora. As mentioned earlier, Latahar tree is one iconic tree of Jalthal which has not been reported in wild in the central and western in Nepal. Jalthal forest is also a rich habitat of Cycas trees. Cycas trees are called as ‘Thakal’ in Jalthal, which is a completely different from what is called as Thakal in central and western Nepal. Cycas is reported mainly from Chure region of eastern Nepal. There are occasional sightings in central Nepal. But there may not be any record of Cycas from proper Terai forest of Nepal. Similarly, we have very few records of Palms from Terai forest and Jalthal could be important forest in this regard as well. We have spotted a palm species which could be a very rare species of palm in Nepal.
While walking through the forest I feel that forest shows a paradox i. e. diversity and degradation, simultaneously. Proximate and underlying drivers of forest degradation could be a separate topic; here I briefly mention major signs of forest degradation. As mentioned earlier, nearly half of the forest has been invaded by Mikania. In some parts of the forest trees are widely spaced, i. e two nearest trees are more than 50 to 200 m apart, and no regeneration in between them. While some old growth patches do not have any woody vegetation underneath. Several of tree species I observed do not have advance regeneration i. e saplings and pole sized trees. This can be analogous to human societies which had only elderly people without youths and children. Fodder trees are depleting and some standing trees are heavily lopped. There are signs of gully erosion associated with tractor routes.
According to elderly locals, forest was visibly bigger until 1950s. Forest gradually shrunk in area after that point. Locals say that forest shrunk following malaria eradication and during the period of rehabilitation in Terai. This trend can be generalized for the whole Terai and inner Terai region. Trees well felled and forest was also encroached during time of referendum in 1980. Now the forest is completely an isolated patch and its actual area may be less than claimed.
Mr Shyam Lal Meche, a member of indigenous Meche community of Jhapa district, recalls the past of the forest. He said that there used to be several dozens of cow herders in the forest. Forest was gradually encroached, trees were felled and human settlement extended. An elderly Rajbanshi man in his late eighties claimed that he even saw tiger and leopards when the forest was bigger and dense. Forest had several big trees on which people have seen dozens of beehives in a single Banyan tree (local name: lawar/bar). Mr. Paudel said ‘We used to collect a lot of honey from the forest, now bees in the forests are almost vanished and it is hard to see any bee hives in the forest’. Similarly, people have also witnessed that perennial wetlands are shrinking. Jhilka Pokhari– a pond situated at the middle of the forest, once was good enough to swim but now it’s been degraded due to siltation and progressing towards vegetation succession.
Species of midhills in Terai
When I requested local peoples to list tree species of the forest, I was surprised after looking the list. There were several tree species which were considered to be found in midhills of Nepal. The locals’ list consisted of Katus, Musure katush, Panchpate and Mauwa. Katus (Castanopsis indica) according to standard checklist of Nepalese plants, it occurs above 1200 masl, but in the Jalthal forest there are several old growth trees of this species at 100 masl. Another species of katus (C tribuloides), Mauwa (Engelhardia spicata), Panchpaate (Neolitsea cuipala) and Hattipaile (Pterospermum acrefolium) are also species of midhills and rarely reported from southern lowland. These trees not only have single individual arrived accidentally but have a population as well. These species of midhills make the Jalthal forest unique. These species, among several others, which are not reported from other Terai forest adds value of Jalthal forest. Local people have also realized this richness of Jalthal forest.
Degraded yet some legacies of primary forest
No doubt Jalthal forest is exposed to human disturbance since long. The forest is remnant of Charkoshe forest often called as Charkoshe Jhadi. Charkoshe forest was once a lush, dense and continuous belt of forest in the plains, south of the Chure hill. Charkoshe Jhadi has now been fragmented and in some places remnant patches still exist.
There used to be uncontrolled hunting during Shiruwa festival. Cases of wildlife hunting still observed in the forest. Hunting has big impacts in birds and animals. There have been several good works to protect standing green trees but the efforts are successful. Local people near Prithvi Nagar recalled that they used to fell tree and transport it to bordering market center of India through Deuniya khola. According to locals, four five decades ago Sal timber from Jhapa used to be sold in nearby Indian markets. Currently forest is almost free from cattle grazing but signs of past grazing are evident in the forest. Tree species like Tatari and Kumbhi are declining in density partly due to Sal forest management and partly due to pressure of firewood. In many areas trees are not regenerating. Mikania is also a culprit for recent degradation of the forest.
The forest is degraded still it has some legacy structures of primary forest indicating that in the past forest was relatively less disturbed or the disturbance was not very intense. We can see very big lianas of Debre and Bhorla. We do not have idea about their age, but they must be decades, if not centuries, old. There are some old growth trees of various species. In my personal experiences such large trees are rarely observed even in the Chitwan and Shuklaphanta National parks.
In a nutshell
Based on my transect walks in the forest and some botanical collections, I have impression that Jalthal has a high biodiversity significance. Forest is special in the sense that it is the largest remnant forest island in Terai region of Nepal and it has unique assemblage of tropical and subtropical tree species. The forest in specific and eastern Nepal in general, could be a last resort of some floral species of east Asiatic distribution. Observation on local people’s dependence on the forest clearly indicates that the forest has also high livelihood significance. The biodiversity rich forest is being degraded due to Mikania invasion and timber focused management. Timber focused management has compromised other multiple services of forest on which local people depend significantly. Users have started protecting forest but which seems insufficient. It may be necessary to manage the forest within the broader framework of restoration by addressing the proximate and underlying drivers of forest degradation. CFUGs must be supported further so that they can make forest management with long-term management goals.
Mr Sharma works at ForestAction Nepal. Views presented here do not necessarily reflect views of ForestAction Nepal.