This article by Sonia Awale was originally published in Nepali Times. An edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.
The South Asian nation of Nepal is one of the global leaders in environmental restoration and conservation. For example, Nepal's community forestry program doubled tree cover to 45 percent in the past three decades. Additionally, nature sanctuaries make up a quarter of the country's total land area.
Two years ago, Nepal’s national parks marked five years with zero rhino poaching. Nepal is also the first tiger range country to nearly triple its population of big cats.
But new development projects may be threatening these hard-won achievements. Linear infrastructure projects will soon be crisscrossing national parks along the Tarai lowland region in southern Nepal — home to many endemic and endangered species — disturbing the habitat and blocking wildlife migration routes.
Nearly 400 km of the 1,028 km East-West Highway slices through national parks in the Parsa, Chitwan, Bardia and Banke districts. Transmission lines have been built through protected areas, and more are planned. Irrigation canals such as Babai, Ranijamara, and Sitka are obstructing wildlife movement pathways.
“Nepal is among the fastest growing countries in terms of infrastructure, but projects are also the least well planned,” says World Wildlife Fund Nepal (WWF-N) Country Director Ghana Gurung.
Balancing development and conservation has been a longstanding challenge for countries like Nepal, but experts say it need not be. Around the world, planners are now building infrastructure with climate-smart and wildlife-friendly safeguards. With technical expertise and investment, there is no reason Nepal cannot do the same.
In fact, the 30 km Narayanghat-Mugling Highway features the first two of Nepal’s wildlife underpasses, where the busy highway artery passes through an important animal migration corridor. Camera traps at underpasses showed deer, wild boar, and other animals regularly using them, with half the wildlife movement occurring in winter when animals search for water.
The Narayanghat-Butwal highway, which is being upgraded, will have 40 wildlife crossings along the Daunne-Gaidakot section. Their location is determined after monitoring wildlife movement in the area. The project, funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), will also monitor how often the animals use the crossings.
The facilities are necessary not just to prevent the fragmentation of wildlife habitats, but also to reduce road accidents with endangered species.
But there is a tension between road engineers and conservationists, with the former prioritising connectivity while the latter is blamed for one-dimensional advocacy for wildlife without considering human or development needs.
Bridging this gap is the recently launched Asia’s Linear Infrastructure safeGuarding Nature (ALIGN) project, which aims to protect protected areas from the impact of new infrastructure.
Funded by USAID and implemented by WWF, the ALIGN project was launched at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Montreal in December 2022 with an initial focus on three countries: Nepal for its rich biodiversity, Mongolia for its fragile protected areas, and India which is accelerating investment in infrastructure.
ALIGN has three main objectives: refine and strengthen existing policies so that they align with international best practices, enhance partnerships to promote and support investment and implement safeguards for linear infrastructure and capacity building.
“As it stands, we have a very weak policy framework but we must strengthen it to avoid the impacts of big infrastructure. Soon we will be reviewing them,” says Semina Kafle of the ALIGN project in an interview with the Nepali times.
She adds: “Our focus is on producing our own experts. But there is a big gap between how an engineer thinks versus a conservationist. So we have decided to go back to school and make the impact of linear infrastructure on climate and wildlife an integral part of engineering studies.”
ALIGN is working with the Institute of Engineering (IOE) in Pulchok Campus to develop a syllabus for an elective for students of civil and electrical engineering and urban planning.
The team is also collaborating with American universities to bring engineering lecturers to the Institute. As the demand and interest for the course increase, the elective will be upgraded to a core course or even a Master’s program.
“It is crucial that we equip our students with the latest technologies and construct linear infrastructure while also ensuring the safety of the wildlife,” says Shashidhar Joshi, dean of IOE.
He adds: “This is already practised elsewhere in the world, and we are integrating it now into our engineering studies to redefine infrastructure and planning.”
Poorly planned highways, power lines, or railways now threaten to undo Nepal's conservation success. With poaching controlled to a large extent, protected areas are now getting overcrowded, leading to more frequent contact between people and tigers, wild elephants and leopards.
Wildlife crossings over or under highways or irrigation canals can make them safer for endangered species. Otherwise, vehicle collisions with wildlife may become a problem because more vehicles are moving at a faster speed.
Safe routes for animals will also reduce human-wildlife contact. The crossings provide drainage, preventing inundation, especially as climate-induced weather extremes lead to more downpours and flash floods.
Wildlife-friendly structures across highways and irrigation canals are helpful, but they need to be maintained and monitored. An underpass in Barandabhar, a 29km-long forest corridor bisected by the East-West Highway in Chitwan, is often cited as a notable wildlife crossing. However, Sandesh Singh Hamal of the ALIGN Project says that the lack of upkeep has turned it into a garbage dump.
He adds: “Who should be responsible for their maintenance? There should be no conflict regarding the jurisdiction, we cannot pass the buck from one agency to another.”
The ALIGN project has a performance period until September 2025, during which it will also facilitate learning and sharing between the three focal countries. With Nepal embarking on mega projects like the East-West Railway, Nijgad Airport and the Kathmandu-Tarai Expressway, wildlife crossings need to be integrated into their planning.
Ghana Gurung of WWF says: “We will work with governments and try to bring engineers and conservationists together to ensure infrastructures do not disturb protected areas.”