The Tarai Arc Landscape, a shared transboundary protected zone between Nepal and India is spread across 25,000 sq km on the Nepal side, roughly 17% of the country’s total area. It is home to 7 million people, half of them women, making their stake in conservation efforts significant.
In Nepal’s agrarian society, rural women are often relegated to household roles and spend much of their time in the forest searching for fuelwood and fodder, or grazing livestock. This consequently places them at a higher risk of human-wildlife interactions, with research showing that more females than males have been injured or killed by tigers.
Women and marginalised communities are custodians of Nepal’s natural heritage, and have played an important role in safeguarding natural resources, especially in tiger conservation. Their contribution is valuable in every aspect of conservation: vulnerability, mobilisation and benefits.
Take Sapika Magar, the first female coordinator of the Thori Rapid Response Team in Parsa National Park, who believes that youth and women play a meaningful part in biodiversity conservation, particularly in reducing human-wildlife contact on the fringes of the park that is home to many tigers.
Magar also leads behavioural change communication classes, a volunteer group that discusses challenges that communities face in the hope of changing the negative attitude towards wildlife. She has restricted local herders from illegally entering the forest to motivating villages into mainstream conservation. It is no surprise that girls in her buffer zone areas look up to her and wish to pursue a career in conservation.
Nanda Devi Kunwar, former chairperson of Madhumalati Community Forest in Kailali district lost her right hand trying to protect the forest and wildlife. After she set up a metal fence to bar entry into the community forest, encroachers retaliated by physically attacking her.
Despite the injury and the traumatic experience, Kunwar carries on as before with her conservation activism. In 2018, the Nepal government recognised her contribution and named a newly found rare orchid species, Odanchilas Nandeyi, after her.
Many female grassroots activists have now been elected to local governments and are working to engage women in decision-making bodies, dialogue, and conservation mechanisms. This in turn has brought the opportunity to expand women’s access to natural resources and support their livelihoods.
Bharati Pathak is chair of the Federation of Community Forest User Groups, under whose leadership Nepal has rolled out group insurance schemes to mitigate human-wildlife contact in community forests across 77 districts in the country.
She has advocated for equitable rights for community forest users, and for the representation of women — particularly from poor, vulnerable, and socially excluded Natural Resource Management groups — in decision-making bodies.
Premiere schools such as the Institute of Forestry at Pokhara Campus are dedicated to producing top-notch forestry professionals. Each year roughly 40% of graduates who enter the field are female, and they have been making a significant contribution in ecology and natural resource management.
Without their involvement, Nepal’s conservation efforts risk overlooking root causes of biodiversity loss, as well as potential solutions all while perpetuating gender inequality.
The statute of community forestry envisions that half the executive positions be held by women. However, we are far from achieving it. There are structural and behavioural barriers that prevent women from climbing up the socio-economic ladder. Having them in leadership positions will change that.
Bishnu Shrestha, Chief Warden of Bardia National Park and co-author of the paper ‘Women in protected area and buffer zone management’ highlights the low representation of women in the workforce (less than 15%) despite supportive policies on women empowerment and engagement. The paper recommends policy intervention and sufficient resource allocation to generate awareness and promote gender inclusivity at all levels of the conservation movement.
Radha Wagle, Nepal’s first female joint secretary and division head at the Climate Change Management Division at the Ministry of Forest and Environment, is from the forestry batch of 1998-2002. She is working to make the forestry sector more equitable and inclusive for women and marginalised groups.
She recently helped draft the Ministry of Forest and Environment’s Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) Strategy and Action Plan, which is now awaiting endorsement from the government. This policy document highlights best practices for implementation and promises to empower all the beneficiaries and Natural Resource Management groups and aspires to mainstream GESI provisions in Forestry and Environmental Sectors.
Research has shown that including women in forestry and fisheries management can lead to better governance and conservation outcomes, with Rwanda being a fine example.
Representation of women, and their meaningful participation in the executive committee of Natural Resource Management groups, particularly in the buffer zones and corridors, can influence decisions which will be conducive to women and biodiversity conservation in general.
Challenges such as equitable access to natural resources, benefit-sharing, mitigating negative human-wildlife interactions, including building management and intellectual capacity, have been shown to have a better chance at success under female leadership.
Female conservation leaders like Sapika Magar and Nanda Devi Kunwar have helped motivate countless individuals and communities to work towards establishing a cordial relationship between communities, natural resource management groups, and divisional forest and protected areas authorities.
The next step would be to also include women from indigenous groups who have traditional knowledge of conservation efforts. This is especially true for indigenous women, who are even more marginalised in decision-making processes.
More attention and resources must be allocated, primarily at the local level, to ensure that Nepal’s conservation successes are efforts that are implemented in ways that address gender issues. Their efforts have shown that protecting the habitat of tigers protects its entire ecosystem.