Doing field work in the lowest elevation forest in the Himalayan Country

Photograph of old growth Sal forest at Pathibhara Community Forest

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.

Local youths and master students in field measurement


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.

Author standing inform of female cycas plant and male cone of Cycas
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.
Burmese python in the forest and Lesser adjutant in Simal tree.

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.

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.

Bhanu meuring tree girth at DBH

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.

Travelling to the forest

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.

Taking notes while talking with local youths

In summary

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.

Walking through Jalthal forest exploring diversity, importance and degradation

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.

Trees in 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.

Mikania invaded area

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.

Cycas-a tree growing in Chure and Bhawar in eastern Nepal is rare in Terai forest,  covered by Mikania

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.

Two wild edible fruits:  Archal and Kusum (Kusum Photograph: Sanjaya Tamang)

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.

Impressive diversity

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.

Burmese Python in Jalthal

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.

Lesser adjutant in Jalthal area

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.

Forest degradation

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.

Jhilka Pokhari: a degraded wetland in the middle of the forest (Photo: Sanjaya Raj Tamang)
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.

Jhilka Pokhari: a degraded wetland in the middle of the forest (Photo: Sanjaya Raj Tamang)

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 KatusMusure 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.

Mauwa tree growing in 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  JhadiCharkoshe 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.

A Debrea lahara in sal tree

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.