The International Crane Foundation redoubled its efforts Monday to restore and manage wetlands in Nepal by signing a memorandum of understanding with Nepalese conservationists it has collaborated with for decades.
“It’s kind of a friendly agreement to continue and expand on the work that we’re trying to support in Lumbini,” said Richard Beilfuss, ICF’s president and CEO, before signing the document.
“There’s tremendous opportunities for many elements of ICF related to education, restoration, as we saw, and conservation. Many opportunities to work together, so we’re fortunate to have these great partners,” he said.
Lumbini, a Buddhist pilgrimage site in Nepal known as the birthplace of Buddha, is situated in the Terai, a lowland region south of the Himalayas between India and China.
In the 1960s, more than 95% of Terai wetlands were drained to reduce mosquito breeding grounds in an effort to stop malaria, according to Beilfuss. Settlers repurposed the land into agricultural fields, which no longer provided the habitat needed for sarus cranes and other native wildlife.
Since then, local groups have tried to restore the land and preserve it for its religious and cultural significance, Beilfuss said. The Baraboo-based crane organization joined their efforts and, since the early 1990s, has held a long-term lease for 265 acres in Lumbini that cover one-third of the site.
The lease was in partnership with Nepalese conservationists who wanted help prevent development in the area, Beilfuss said in an email. There they established the Lumbini Crane Sanctuary.
Now, he noted, as many as six pairs of sarus cranes — the world’s tallest flying bird at 6 feet tall and considered a vulnerable species by the ICF — nest in the area, along with more than 300 bird species and other animals.
“There’s always been a tremendous interest in trying to work there, because you have sarus cranes right there, and sarus cranes are in the formative stories of the life of Buddha, so it’s an amazing cultural connection for us,” Beilfuss said at the memorandum signing.
According to Buddhist legend, a young Prince Siddhartha once saved a wounded sarus crane.
When Buddhist pilgrims visit Lumbini, ICF aims to connect them with the natural environment there “to promote Buddhist love for nature and connection with cranes and other species,” he wrote in an email.
Ghana Gurung, country director of WWF Nepal, which is part of the World Wide Fund for Nature, signed the agreement with Beilfuss on Monday in Baraboo to increase their collaboration.
He said his work involves balancing wildlife and human culture. WWF Nepal has to contend with issues including government corruption, development pressures and climate vulnerability, he said.
“We need a partner from all sectors,” Gurung said. “That’s the one thing that will take us to a better place. … Conservation cannot be done in isolation at all.”
Venerable Metteyya Sakyaputta, a Buddhist monk from Nepal, attended the program and signing, sharing his work in partnership with ICF and WWF Nepal.
Sakyaputta said he first got involved in environmental work as a child when ICF Co-Founder George Archibald and Jim Harris visited Lumbini.
“I was a young student, and I got to come and plant trees with them and learn about the cranes,” Sakyaputta said. From there, he “got hooked onto this nature thing.”
When Archibald visited the area again last year, the sarus crane was declared the Lumbini region’s official bird, Sakyaputta said.
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