In 2015, Shubash Lohani, Director of Sustainable Landscapes within WWF’s Forests team, was traveling through Nepal & Bhutan with a group of WWF supporters. Two days were left in the trip, when a devastating earthquake hit Nepal on April 25th, registering 7.8 on the Richter scale.
Good Nature Travel: What were you doing when the earthquake happened?
Shubash Lohani: I was leading a trip with several WWF supporters in the Eastern Himalaya region. We had just completed our first leg of the journey through Nepal and were enjoying our time in Bhutan. As we drove from Punakha to Paro, we stopped at a restaurant in Thimphu for lunch. As we settled in at our table we felt a strong tremor. The Himalayas lie in a seismically active region and earthquakes are frequent events. Having been born and brought up in the Himalayas I have experienced many earthquakes before so the first thought that came to mind was that this was just another average earthquake that wouldn’t cause much damage. Little did I know at the time that this was one of the mega quakes that happens every 80 to 90 years. This was the earthquake everyone in Nepal had been dreading. I tried to contact my family and friends from Thimphu but could not get through. It took me two hours to get in touch with my family back in Nepal and by then news of the devastation had started percolating throughout the media.
GNT: How has WWF’s conservation work in Nepal changed or shifted since the earthquake occurred?
SL: WWF’s work, especially in the mountain areas, was impacted significantly. Many of the local communities that WWF worked with suffered the loss of lives as well as property damage. Many community infrastructures, which WWF had provided support to build, were damaged in the earthquake. There were also hundreds of dry landslides triggered by the earthquake which destroyed forest cover and communities. The attention of the whole country shifted to recovery, rescue and relief for those impacted by the earthquake. WWF also mobilized its resources and staff in the field quickly to provide shelter, food, water and medicines to the impacted communities in our project areas.
The government declared a state of emergency and deployed Nepal’s army for rescue and relief efforts. This meant there were fewer army men protecting the national parks. When the earthquake happened Nepal was on its way to celebrating its third year of zero poaching of rhinos. There were only 15 days left to achieve this goal.
GNT: What should be one of the top priorities throughout the next two to three years as Nepal continues to rebuild? What about longer-term?
SL: The top priorities for next two to three years will be to help the government and local communities in the affected areas build back better and greener. To this effect WWF conducted a rapid environment impact assessment immediately after the earthquake. We have often seen that bad actors often use disasters to assault the environment to make quick economic gains. WWF has been promoting the green recovery and reconstruction toolkit that we developed together with the American Red Cross. We have also been building capacity of the relevant institutions to use the toolkit. This is also an opportunity for us to think creatively and develop initiatives that help others rebuild in a way that brings benefit to local communities and helps restore ecosystems. An example of one such innovative idea is the use of conservation travel principles in the Langtang area which would allow benefits to flow directly to local communities and incentivize the communities participating in biodiversity conservation within the national park.
GNT: How did the earthquake impact work you were personally a part of? Did some work need to be put on hold?
SL: Aftershocks continued for a long time. To date there have been more than 400 aftershocks that are greater than 4.0 on the Richter scale and they still continue. Therefore there have been severe delays in implementing activities in the most damaged areas. Also, most of the basic infrastructure and capacity build over the years vanished in the earthquake. It will take us some time to rebuild them. The earthquake has brought in new environmental problems such as landslides and increased demand of forest products, which we will now have to deal with, on top of our earlier planned activities.
GNT: Can you share any personal anecdotes from trips to the field, as post-earthquake conservation work has progressed, that highlights the current spirit/vision for the future of Nepal?
SL: When I was traveling in Nepal with our group of supporters, the government of Nepal, WWF and other conservation partners were in the middle of a rhino count to estimate their population. I was lucky to participate in the count for a day. When I left Nepal they had just estimated that the count would be completed in next 10 days. Five days later the mega quake hit Nepal.
When I learned about the earthquake in Bhutan I was concerned about the rhino count. When I was finally able to make it back to Kathmandu, this was one of the first things I asked our WWF Nepal team. They told me that the team had halted the count the day of the mega quake and continued it the day after, even though Nepal was experiencing t multiple aftershocks every day. This level of dedication from our field staff gives me hope for the future of conservation and Nepal. They completed the count just one day later than scheduled. When the data was analyzed we found that the rhino number had increased in Nepal by 21% as compared to an earlier count three years ago. In addition, staff continued to guard the parks against any illegal activities amidst the mega quake and Nepal successfully celebrated its third year of zero poaching of rhinos.
Thank you, Shubash. It’s these type of stories and examples that provide hope after such a devastating tragedy. After the earthquake, many travelers canceled or postponed trips to Nepal which has hurt their economy and the livelihoods of many communities that depend on tourism. Tourism is a key contributor to Nepal’s economy. In 2015, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the tourism industry supported 426,500 jobs directly and 918,500 indirectly (6.9% of total employment). Tourism contributed a total of 8.1% of Nepal’s GDP. Nepal is open for business. We hope travelers continue to visit through responsible operators to help keep Nepal resilient.