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Nepal fails in ambitious attempt to revive wild water buffalo population

The death of animals involved in a project to establish a second population of wild water buffalo in Nepal has raised questions about the project’s management
<p>Wild water buffaloes in Kaziranga National Park, India (Image: Nigel Pavitt / Alamy)</p>

Wild water buffaloes in Kaziranga National Park, India (Image: Nigel Pavitt / Alamy)

On 15 August 2022, a tiger climbed into an enclosure inside Nepal’s Chitwan National Park and killed three wild water buffaloes. These animals were the last surviving subjects of a translocation project that aimed to create a second population of the endangered species in Nepal. Today, the 30-hectare enclosure lies deserted.

Known as arna in Nepali, the wild water buffalo is listed as globally endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with a global population of less than 4,000 spread across South and Southeast Asia. The species – the wild ancestor of the domesticated water buffalo – is threatened by interbreeding with domestic buffalo and lack of genetic diversity, as well as hunting and disease.

Since around the 1960s, the only habitat for the wild water buffalo in Nepal has been the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve in the east of the country. In 2017, the Nepali government tried to change this by translocating 15 buffaloes to an enclosure within Chitwan National Park, in south-central Nepal. But, in less than five years, all 15 translocated individuals – as well as the six calves born within the enclosure – have died.

Need for a second population of wild water buffalo

Once found more widely across South Asia, the wild water buffalo went extinct in Chitwan around the 1960s. By 1975, the last population in Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve had dwindled to just 63 animals, driven by habitat loss due to human encroachment, park-people conflict, flooding, inbreeding, and crossbreeding with domestic buffaloes.

Their numbers are on a knife edge and they can go either way
Maheshwar Dhakal, Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation

The population has since seen an impressive rebound, with 498 counted in 2021. Babu Ram Lamichhane, chief of Nepali non-profit the National Trust for Nature Conservation in Chitwan, says the recovery was facilitated by extensive patrolling, sweep operations, and controls on encroachment carried out by the reserve authorities. The improvement in numbers is a positive step, but experts say that finding a second home for wild water buffaloes in Nepal is essential to improve their long-term chances of survival. 

“Their numbers are on a knife edge and they can go either way,” says Maheshwar Dhakal, the director general of Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC).

The need for a second habitat was highlighted in 2008, when the Koshi River – which runs through Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve – abruptly changed its course and breached its embankments, inundating densely populated swathes of land in south-eastern Nepal. An estimated 50,000 people were displaced and biodiversity in the wildlife reserve was severely impacted. The reserve continues to be affected by seasonal flooding. 

The waters of the Koshi have long since subsided, but the risk of a recurrence has not. Located on a corridor for Nepal’s largest river, the likelihood of flooding during monsoons in Koshi Tappu is high. For conservationists, transferring some wild water buffaloes to a second location meant insurance against a future disaster, which could also include an outbreak of disease in the reserve.

Preparing to move water buffaloes

Ram Chandra Kandel, the chief warden of Chitwan National Park when the 2017 translocation project took place, did his PhD research on threats to the bovines of Koshi Tappu caused by the assimilation of domestic buffaloes, including the risk of disease.

Kandel was hopeful when, in 2016, researchers first proposed translocating a healthy population of wild water buffaloes from Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve to Chitwan National Park, some 255 miles west in the lowland belts of the Terai.

After a series of assessments, research reports and feasibility studies conducted by biologists, ecologists and policymakers, managed by the DNPWC, a collaborative decision was made to move some of the reserve’s buffaloes – the world’s first ever translocation of wild water buffalo. Kandel says the feasibility study made clear that Chitwan National Park had the potential to host a second population of wild water buffalo in Nepal.

Rama Mishra, a wildlife ecologist and an executive member of the conservation non-profit the Wildlife Conservation Association, agreed with Kandel, especially given Chitwan was once a native habitat of the species.

“Only after an analysis of the habitat and consideration of the long-term prospects, various ecologists involved in the project concluded that Chitwan National Park met the environmental conditions that wild water buffaloes need to survive, including weather, rich swamps, scrubby grasslands, and availability of aquatic plants and grasses,” says Mishra.

In 2017, the translocation project was carried out by the DNPWC with the technical and financial support of the USAID-funded Hariyo Ban Program and the Zoological Society of London. The total estimated cost of implementing the five-year action plan was NPR 168 million (almost USD 1.3 million). Of the 15 animals introduced to Chitwan, 12 were from Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve and three were from the Central Zoo in Kathmandu.

Staggering demise of the translocated buffaloes

Initially there was a great deal of hope. In 2019, Kandel tells The Third Pole, six calves were born to the relocated herd, taking their number to 21.

Abhinaya Pathak, a conservation officer at Chitwan National Park who was in charge of monitoring the enclosure from 2016 to 2019, says the population of wild water buffaloes was continually in flux. After the enclosure was impacted by seasonal flooding, tigers managed to get inside on several occasions and killed five water buffaloes. Others died due to disease and injuries caused by the floods.

Wild water buffalo mother with calf, Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka
A wild water buffalo and calf in Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka (Image: Jürgen & Christine Sohns / Alamy)

Following the loss of the last buffaloes in August 2022, questions are being asked about the possible negligence of park officials.

Research into the outcomes of translocation projects has shown that the number of individuals involved is very important, concluding that “a crucial determinant of success is sufficient resourcing to enable the release of at least 20–50 individuals”.

According to Lamichhane, the standard size of a wild water buffalo herd is around 35 to 40, and the DNPWC had planned to grow the population in the Chitwan enclosure to around 40 before releasing them into the park proper. But while the initial birth of calves led to hopes that this number might be reached, losses to disease and tiger attacks meant that the buffaloes were never released into the wild.

“The buffaloes were kept in the enclosure for a prolonged period. That wasn’t a sustainable move,” says Mishra from the Wildlife Conservation Association. “If a larger herd was translocated and released in the wild immediately, there could have been more chances of survival.” While Koshi Tappu has no apex predators, Chitawan has a growing tiger population. According to Mishra, a larger herd would have been better able to defend themselves against tigers.

There is no point in rescuing one species when we are losing whole habitats
Maheshwar Dhakal

Dhakal says that translocation is a complex process. “The local community is also involved. They may or may not be willing to accept a larger herd as there lies a risk that relocated species could overpopulate a new area and cause local livestock to become extinct. There are other technical factors as well. We have to look at how to transport the herd safely from one place to another. All these aspects play a role.”

Shant Raj Jnawali, biodiversity conservation coordinator at the Hariyo Ban Program, says another reason behind the project’s failure was that when the water buffalo were impacted by disease or flooding, there was a delay in conducting an investigation and providing veterinary care. Jnawali says that park officials should have taken more time to monitor and review the project as it was underway, to make improvements as required.

The challenge of protecting overlooked species

For years, conservationists have grappled with the problem that charismatic species consistently attract the most attention, and therefore the most money. Less well-known species, like the wild water buffalo, have often been neglected as efforts are directed elsewhere, even if they present easy conservation wins.

Pathak says insufficient funding was the biggest limitation to the buffalo translocation project.

“We realised, later, that the project was more cost-heavy than expected,” Pathak tells The Third Pole. A lot of manpower was required, and regular veterinary services. The 30-hectare enclosure that had electrical fencing was damaged time and again by seasonal flooding. It had heavy reparation costs. Initially, all the resources were managed. But later, we fell short of making the project financially sustainable. We couldn’t bear the monitoring costs anymore which caused was a huge management gap. Later, again, due to Covid-19, funds were compromised.”

“In the way we have successfully conserved the tiger population, Nepal hasn’t been able to give the same attention to wild water buffaloes,” says Dhakal. “That attention needs to be redirected and redistributed. There is no point in rescuing one species when we are losing whole habitats. It is time for a proper assessment of scientific investments.”

In a warming world in which biodiversity is under increasing threat, restoring populations in former habitat or moving them to new, safer locales is likely to remain a critical conservation tool. 

“I wouldn’t call this translocation project a [complete] failure,” says Jnawali. “It was a great attempt. The natural factors that caused the death of the bovines were complex and they shouldn’t be underplayed in the future plans.”

Looking ahead, Dhakal says: “We still have the capability to do this job well, but we have to give it a chance by funding the actions that its implementation demands. The DNPWC will be planning on future translocation projects for water buffaloes by applying a cautious approach and learning from previous mistakes. We will eventually learn how to do it right.”