By Tempe Parnell, BSc (Ecology and Conservation Biology)
This time last year, I was beginning an exciting adventure in Nepal with fellow university students for a month long field course titled ‘conservation in practice’.
On my very first day at university I met Associate Professor Jean Marc Hero. I was starting a Bachelor of Science (Ecology and Conservation Biology) and Marc gave us an brief overview of the degree and all that it involved, including where it might take us in the future as graduates.
He told us that there would be an opportunity for a small group of us to accompany him to the wild open plains and forests of Nepal where we would be completing important ecological research out in the field and learning about conservation issues hands on; in the territory of wild rhinos, elephants, tigers and bears.
This is exactly why I started my degree, and all I knew is that I had to be on that trip! it sounded like the experience of a life time so I made it my goal to be a part of it.
Before I knew it the time had come and I was one of the lucky students travelling to Nepal.
Arriving in Kathmandu was a real eye opener and such a different experience to see a culture and lifestyle so different from ours. Our field course begun in Chitwan National Park, where we stayed at the headquarters and completed field work on long-term ecological research plots established as part of the Program for Planned Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research (PPBio).
The PPBio initiative is a multidisciplinary program for effective and efficient long term research and ecological monitoring through collection of data for many biological parameters.
The importance of this kind of research is that it offers a standardised system that can be replicated over time to assess the condition of the environment to assess impacts of management, climate change and poaching. Long-term collection of data enables comparisons to be made between areas or changes to be monitored over time, which is fundamental for effective conservation as it allows for management practices to be improved.
How to avoid being eaten
One of the first lessons quick to be stressed upon us was what to do in the instance of wild animal encounters; as bumping into rhinos, elephants, tigers and bears would be a likely event in the park.
Surely enough, on the very first day in the field one group were running from a rhino while another avoiding a sloth bear that was reported in close proximity to them. I don’t think ecological research can get any more real life or hands on than this!
A standard day for us included crossing the Rapti River to enter the park early in the morning, loading into small canoes and crossing waters that were swimming with huge mugger crocodiles (commonly referred to by the locals as “man eaters”) and gharials (a critically endangered crocodilian species). It was quite a trek to reach the plots where we completed our research; battling through elephant grass as tall as our heads and so thick that in parts you could not see a metre in front of you, whilst desperately trying to keep up with the rangers who were guiding us.
From catching the world’s smallest mammal (a pygmy shrew) in Elliot traps, to the first capture of tigers sighted on a camera traps in more than 10 years; the things we were seeing and learning were pretty cool.
We would also search for other evidence of activity by identifying scats and tracks of animals, and searching for rhinos from the backs of elephants.
Lists of bird sightings were in excess of 50 different species, and there were regular sightings of monkeys and several species of deer. We would spend all day in the field, a continuous learning curve for all of us as we acquired new skills through the field work, and return across the river bank just in time for a cocktail as we sat and watched sunset along the bank of the Rapti River.
But our days didn’t end here, in the evenings we were fortunate enough to have presentations by the various management and conservation authorities protecting Chitwan national park including Department of National Parks and Wildlife conservation (DNPWC), the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) and World Wildlife Fund – Nepal (WWF-Nepal).
These lectures reinforced what we saw out in the field, and taught us about the most pressing conservation issues they face in the park and how they are seek to overcome them through various management strategies.
One of the highlights and best days for me was visiting the gharial breeding centre; for two reasons – both of which, funnily enough, do not involve the gharials themselves.
Firstly, we were lucky to meet two special baby rhinos here that were saved when their mother died. They were friendly adorable little things, who had a taste for banana skins and loved a pat.
The second moment was coming within a metre of an injured wild tiger that was rescued within the park. As we approached his enclosure we had to be deadly silent, so as not to aggravate him. Not many people can say they have heard the roar of a wild tiger; the experience is one that is simply unforgettable and hard to describe.
The second half of the trip involved hiking mountains in the Himalayas, this is the biggest challenge I have faced in life so far. We hiked in the Langtang Mountian range, seeing some of the most spectacular and breathtaking sights and trekking through small villages hidden amongst the steep mountains.
It was so difficult adjusting to the high altitudes which saw a lack of oxygen, whilst hiking for kilometres every day, and during the night it was freezing cold.
The trip was unforgettable with so many treasured moments and is something I will never forget.
To date it has been the best and most valuable experience of my life and I feel so fortunate that the university offers such great opportunities to undergraduate students.
I can’t help but feel extremely envious of the students currently over in Nepal for this year’s course which has taken a slight focus on the Bengal Tigers in the region, and only wish I could be over there doing it all again. I hope their journey is amazing as mine was!
Namaste, Tempe Parnell