Culture and conservation at Nepal's first bird sanctuary

Ghodaghodi lake, Nepal. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Bibek101. (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Nepal's first bird sanctuary, Ghodaghodi Lake Complex, serves as a habitat for both endangered resident and migratory bird species. Additionally, it contains a temple that attracts locals who come to worship and carry out various rituals and ceremonies, including marriages. During the Agahan Panchami and Maghi festivals, the temple draws a significant number of indigenous Tharu people who gather there to worship.

Ghodaghodi is a conjunction of the terms “Ghoda” and “Ghodi,” which literally mean male and female horses respectively. According to one belief, the name originates from the clay horses that the Tharu community used to offer to the Goddess on the lake's shore. Another belief is that the lake is so vast that a horse cannot cover its entire expanse in a day, which led to the name. The temple and the surrounding area contain clay horse figurines that the devotees offer to the Goddess.

A hotspot of biodiversity

The Ghodaghodi Lake, which is recognized as one of Nepal's ten Ramsar sites (wetlands of international importance), encompasses a total area of 2563 hectares. There are 24 separate lakes in the Ghodaghodi Lake complex. Among these lakes, Ghodaghodi, Nakhrodi, Budhiya Nakhrod, Bainsahuwa, Ojahuwa, Ramphal, Sanopokhari, Tehri, Chandrabijuwa, and Parsihiniya have an area of more than one hectare. Specifically, they range in size from 1 to 77.5 hectares.

Within the lake area, there are several notable species that reside, including the critically endangered red-crowned roofed turtle (Kachuga kachuga) and three-striped roof turtle (Kachuga dhongka), an endangered orchid (Aerides odorata), and the threatened and religiously significant lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), as well as rare wild rice (Hygrohiza aristata). Additionally, the region is home to various other animals, reptiles, and birds.

During a face-to-face interview with Global Voices, Hirulal Dangaura, an ornithologist with Bird Conservation Nepal, stated that three bird species, specifically the common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus), spot-billed duck (Anas aoecilorhyncha), and cotton pygmy goose (Nettapus coromandelianus), exclusively breed in the Ghodaghodi Lake Area of Nepal. Dangaura has been conducting waterbird censuses at the Ghodaghodi Lake Area since 2009.

He additionally mentioned that the Ghodaghodi Lake Area hosts a total of 360 bird species, comprising both migratory and residential birds. Of these species, 13 are identified as globally threatened according to the IUCN's 2022 classification. Similarly, 58 species are considered at risk in the nationally threatened status of the Ghodaghodi Lake Area.

The lake area’s ecosystem is under threat. The extensive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers by farmers has resulted in eutrophication (progressively absorbed with pesticides) in the entire body of water. Furthermore, the area's population has been expanding rapidly due to migration from hilly regions, resulting in the overuse of aquatic resources, overgrazing, and the generation of waste from thousands of domestic tourists who visit the lake each year. Collectively, these issues threaten the health and well-being of the lake's ecosystem.

The significance of culture in conservation

The Ghodaghodi Lake Area is culturally important to the indigenous Tharu people and there is an influx of people, even non-Tharus, in the temple area — especially during festivals. However, there are concerns that the increase in human traffic, particularly during these events, may be contributing to the degradation of the lake's ecosystem.

Horse statuettes inside Ghodaghodi Temple. Image from Wikimedia Commons by user Rajesh Dhungana. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Anand Chaudhary, a conservationist who has led conservation initiatives in the lake area, told Global Voices in a face-to-face interview:

In my opinion, the religious and cultural importance of the Ghodaghodi Lake Area has played a significant role in its preservation. In contrast, most other lakes (outside of the Ghodaghodi system) have been drained for farming or commercial fishing purposes.

While there are concerns about the pollution caused by the temple area and tourists, I believe this is mainly attributable to the non-Tharu culture or cultural appropriation occurring in the temple area. Nonetheless, the temple appears to be equally popular among non-Tharus.

On the whole, I think the cultural and religious significance of the lake has contributed significantly to the conservation of its ecosystem and bird habitat.

According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, countries that have signed the agreement are obligated to protect and encourage the customary utilization of biological resources that align with conservation or sustainable usage and are in accordance with traditional cultural practices (United Nations, 1992).

In recent times, conservation organizations have been integrating cultural values into the planning and execution of their conservation endeavours. This helps ensure respecting local indigenous community rights and raises awareness about the value of cultural diversity.

According to the study “Reflections on cultural values approaches to conservation: lessons from 20 years of implementation“, integrating cultural values into conservation efforts can yield advantages for both the conservation and the welfare of local communities. An example of this can be seen in Liberia's Lake Piso region, where designated sites for graveyards, ceremonies, and secret societies have helped protect forest fragments.

Likewise, in Uganda's Rwenzori National Park, the integration of cultural practices has been recognized by negotiating and agreeing on access to sacred sites and resources used in Bakonzo or Mountain people's rituals and ceremonies. The role of traditional leaders has been integrated into the park's management structure to manage access.

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