The Wildlife Behind Bars in Nepal’s Community Forests

The public can view caged wildlife in these locally managed preserves under federal laws allowing for ecotourism ventures. But the parks do more harm than good, experts say.

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The Wildlife Behind Bars in Nepal’s Community Forests

Mayamitu Neupane, GPJ Nepal

Kids, teachers and parents view a leopard on display at Jamunkhadi Community Forest.

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JHAPA, NEPAL — Two pythons are coiled into the corner of an enclosure, attracting the curiosity of two brothers. Anil Thapa, 11, pushes apart the wire mesh of the cage while Anish, 4, throws a pebble through the opening at the snakes. The stone hits its target. The snake stirs, making the boys retreat in fear, shouting, “It’ll bite!”

The brothers are at a small zoo in Jamunkhadi Community Forest in eastern Nepal. The former rescue center is filled with wild animals that once lived in the forest and were moved here because they were injured. Now, they are on public display.

Small zoos have proliferated inside community forests across Nepal since 2017, when the government made them legal. But the animals are often housed in inadequate cages and fed and managed poorly by unskilled staff, conservationists say. The zoos are popular field trip spots for schoolchildren, raising concerns among educators and parents that kids are receiving incorrect messages about the appropriate treatment of wild animals. They say that if such community zoos are to become effective learning centers, they should have signboards about the animals and set up habitats that are suited to each species.

“If they truly want to build a learning center, they must build wildlife-friendly cages,” says Rajan Sigdel, principal of Pathibhara English Boarding School, during a visit with the school’s 150 students at Jamunkhadi’s community zoo. Some kids compare themselves to the animals and feel sad seeing them in small cages, he says. “Keeping wild animals in cramped and smelly cages can have a negative impact on children’s brains.”

He points at four Himalayan vultures sharing a single cage. One has a swollen foot. In the wild, the animals tend to nest singly or in small colonies, spread out on steep cliffs — not on the ground, without natural elements.

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Mayamitu Neupane, GPJ Nepal

Himalayan vultures, which nest in craggy cliff faces in the wild, rest on the ground at Jamunkhadi’s community zoo.

Forest department officials say a number of animals have died in eastern Nepal’s community zoos recently because workers lack technical knowledge on handling the animals. But the department does not maintain an official record of mortality as the centers fall outside its jurisdiction and are managed by community forest groups, says Anjana Puri, information officer for the divisional forestry office in Jhapa.

Two pythons died from heat exposure in 2022 at the Kalika Community Forest zoo in Mechinagar, says Rajan Rai, a ranger with the forest’s consumer committee.

“Pythons need soil floors. But we made a cage with concrete floors, so they died due to the heat,” he says.

In 2019, a python also died at Jamunkhadi’s zoo, says Khyam Raj Sitaula, the former chairperson of the Jamunkhadi Wetland and Tourist Area Development Committee, which oversees operations.

Casualties at the Bansbari Community Forest zoo include four deer, a dozen lovebirds and an ostrich since 2020, says Bed Prakash Bhandari, representative of Jhapa at the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal. Some were killed by other animals due to improper housing.

“The condition of [community forest] zoos in Nepal is pathetic. Wild animals kept there need immediate rescue,” says Ambika Prasad Khatiwada, spokesperson for the National Trust for Nature Conservation.

An ecotourist draw

The small zoos are located within Nepal’s renowned community forests, which are entirely managed by local communities in a model of decentralized conservation. Until 2017, community forest groups were not allowed to set up zoological parks, although 17 of them, including Jamunkhadi, operated rescue centers for injured wildlife. Until recently, the only official zoo in Nepal was the Central Zoo in Lalitpur.

That changed in 2017 when Nepal’s government amended the Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1973 to allow community forest groups to display wildlife as an ecotourism venture. The government also carried these reforms into the new Forest Act of 2019. Since then, about 50 community zoos have been set up, says Thakur Bhandari, president of the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal.

At Jamunkhadi, the animals include those that had already been housed at its rescue center — those injured, old or otherwise unlikely to survive in the wild — as well as troublemakers captured from the forest. They also get healthy animals. Visitors pay up to 100 Nepali rupees (0.75 United States dollar) for entry, and the revenue is used to run the park, Sitaula says.

Mayamitu Neupane, GPJ Nepal

(Clockwise from the top) A lesser adjutant stork, a vervet monkey, a Himalayan black bear and an Indian leopard are caged in what conservationists call inadequate conditions at Jamunkhadi Community Forest.

On a visit earlier this year, kids crowd the community zoo at Jamunkhadi, the largest in Koshi province. It has 28 species, including reptiles, birds and mammals. Nine of the animals are globally endangered, while 15 are endangered in Nepal, according to a 2022 study.

Animals are housed in small cages without habitat that mimics their homes in the wild. The floors are either cement or scrubby earth. The sides are wire mesh. Many enclosures have no species label, and the few that do have no other information about the animals on display.

Still, Sitaula says the display teaches kids about animals they would otherwise only read about in books.

A proper home?

In 2023, the province and Jamunkhadi Community Forest invested more than 20 million rupees (150,000 dollars) to replace wood-and-bamboo cages with the concrete-and-mesh enclosures, creating a modern rescue center, Sitaula says. The animals are properly housed and maintained, he adds.

Other conservationists disagree. While centers keeping rare species could be useful for education and research if well managed, most of the community zoos are in a derelict state, says Rachana Sah, project manager of the Biodiversity Conservation Centre at the National Trust for Nature Conservation, based in Kathmandu.

Mukesh Kumar Chalise, a zoologist who used to teach at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, says community forests need to set up habitats for their caged animals that match the species requirements and that allow the animals to breed.

As it is, Tapil Prakash Rai, a forestry professor at Tribhuvan University’s affiliate in Jhapa, says the animals are sometimes mislabeled. He recently corrected a misidentified turtle at Jamunkhadi.

“If wrong information about animals is presented, children will learn incorrectly,” he says. “It is necessary to keep the wildlife information correct by involving experts in such rescue centers.”

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Mayamitu Neupane, GPJ Nepal

Jamunkhadi Community Forest zoo employee Harimaya Shrestha feeds a Himalayan black bear milk and rice.

Learning their lessons

Children need to see animals in their proper habitats so they can learn, says Rajkumar B.K., chief of the Education Development and Coordination Unit in Jhapa.

Signboards should indicate the animals’ original habitats and range, and how they ended up in the zoo, he says. The language should be understandable by kids, he adds.

Without such information, kids could mistakenly believe the animals originated in the zoo, he says. “Schools and teachers need to be aware [of background about the animals] when taking students for observation.”

On the visit earlier this year, school kids are excited and puzzled by the animals. Some shake the mesh of the cages and yell at the animals to get them to react. One kid rues that the Himalayan black bear — housed in a small, spare enclosure with bare cement floors — does not have a friend to play with.

Two teachers say they are conflicted about the small, heat-prone enclosures. The animals would be better off in the wild, they say.

Mayamitu Neupane is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Nepal.


Sunil Pokhrel, GPJ, translated this article from Nepali.