The Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) was set up in 1986 by the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, (KMTNC), a national NGO. It is now the largest protected area in Nepal. The Area lies in central west Nepal around the Annapurna massifs. It includes one of the most impressive mountain cirques in the world, popularly known as the Annapurna Sanctuary which is surrounded by seven peaks over 7000 m. Annapurna I (8091 m), one of the world’s highest mountains, lies within the ACA and Dhaulagiri (8167 m) lies to the west of the area.
At the lowest levels of the Conservation Area (about 1000m) there are subtropical forests of broadleaved Schima wallichii, Castanopsis indica, and on dry slopes forests of Chir Pine Pinus roxburghii; alder Alnus nepalensis mainly occurs along rivers and streams. Higher up, these forests are replaced by temperate forests of mixed broadleaves, including the oaks Quercus lamellosa, Q. lanata and Q. semecarpifolia with rhododendron species. In the wettest places, such as in the upper Modi Khola valley, grow bamboo jungles of Arundinaria species. Above these grow coniferous forests, mainly of fir Abies spectabilis, Blue Pine Pinus wallichiana and hemlock Tsuga dumosa. Higher up there are subalpine forests of birch Betula utilis, blue pine and juniper species. Finally rhododendron and juniper scrub grow in the alpine zone. The area to the north of the Himalayas is semi-desert and small, scattered bushes of Caragana species and juniper replace the forests.
Biogeographically, the Himalayas can be divided into eastern and western sections. The dividing line between the east and west is the Kali Gandaki Valley that runs north/south through the Conservation Area.
Since the late 1970s Pipar has been the site of a partnership between the World Pheasant Association and the villagers of Karuwa, who live closest to Pipar, because of the importance of the area for pheasants. A conservation plan for Pipar has recently been prepared jointly by the World Pheasant Association with the ACAP and Bird Conservation Nepal (McGowan 2004).
A total of 486 bird species has been recorded in the Annapurna Conservation Area, over half the species recorded in Nepal (Inskipp and Inskipp 2003, Acharya 2004). Species typical of both the eastern and western Himalayas occur, as the Area is situated across the biogeographic divide in the mountain chain. Eight globally threatened species have been recorded, including Cheer Pheasant, for which the Area may be particularly important. Seven near-threatened species occur, notably Satyr Tragopan and Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, which are both resident. The Area has good populations of six restricted-range species from the Western and Central Himalayas Endemic Bird Areas, including the Spiny Babbler, Nepal Wren Babbler and Hoary-throated Barwing that are resident. It is the only known wintering area in Nepal for the restricted-range Spectacled Finch; this species may also breed.
The ACA is the country’s only protected area that has all of Nepal’s six Himalayan pheasant species. Pipar and the nearby area of Santel are of national importance for pheasants, supporting five species including a good population of the near-threatened Satyr Tragopan, and are also notably rich in other forest bird species (Baral et al. 2001).
Large areas of temperate forests and associated bamboo jungles occur within the ACA and are known to support important populations of characteristic species of the Sino-Himalayan Temperate Forest biome. There are also huge alpine and trans-Himalayan semi-desert areas that support significant populations of Eurasian High Montane biome species.
The Kali Gandaki valley is a migration corridor for birds moving south to winter in India. About 40 migrating bird species have been recorded, including Demoiselle Crane Grus virgo. In addition, larger numbers of birds of prey, totalling over 8,000 individuals of about 20 species in one season, have been seen including Greater Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga (de Roder 1989). There are two locations at the edge of the Annapurna Conservation Area which are the only sites identified as internationally important raptor migration sites and representative of the Himalayan region (Zalles and Bildstein 2000). The first site is Khare (NP-01) which lies just south of the southern edge of the ACA and the second site is Upper Kali Gandaki (NP-02) which lies on the eastern bank within the ACA.
Non-bird biodiversity: A total of 101 mammal species has been recorded in the Conservation Area so far.. A large number of globally threatened mammals occur including Asiatic Wild Dog Cuon alpinus, Grey Wolf Canis lupus, Red Panda Ailurus fulgens, Asiatic Black Bear Ursus thibetanus, Common Otter Lutra lutra, Smooth-coated Otter Lutrogale perspicillata, Clouded Leopard Neofelis nebulosa, Snow Leopard Uncia uncia, Himalayan Musk Deer Moschus chrysogaster, Wild Yak Bos grunniens, Himalayan Tahr Hemitragus jemlahicus, Serow Capricornis sumatraensis, Argali Ovis ammon and Chiru (or Tibetan Antelope) Pantholops hodgsonii (Hilton-Taylor 2000, Inskipp and Inskipp 2003). A total of 36 reptile species, including 11 lizards and 25 snakes, has been found, some as far north as the upper Mustang valley. Twenty amphibians have been recorded, all frogs and toads, and these are more or less restricted to the southern slopes.
Conservation responses/actions for key biodiversity
The Annapurna Conservation Area is regarded as one of the most biologically diverse reserves on Earth (UNEP 1995). By 1989 many of the Area's 40,000 inhabitants were subsistence farmers and the problems of population growth, overgrazing, fuelwood demands and intensive agriculture had resulted in severe environmental degradation (Gurung 1991).
Local hunting pressures can be high, for instance in the area south of the Annapurna Himal. Here amateur and professional hunters were observed to trap and shoot pheasants for food throughout the year (Lelliott and Yonzon 1980). Small scale hunting for migrating cranes was observed at Kagbeni, Jomsom and at Ghemi for migrating waterfowls in 1999 (Samuel Thomas verbally 2004, H. S. Baral pers. obs.). Hunting pressures have decreased since the creation of the Annapurna Conservation Area mainly as a result of work done by the KMTNC in raising conservation awareness and changing the attitudes of local communities. The present security problems have also lead to a reduction in hunting.
In the 1980s the Area's environmental threats were further exacerbated by over 36,000 trekkers annually (Gurung 1991). Until the current unstable political situation developed it was the most popular tourist destination in Nepal, drawing more than 60 % of the trekkers visiting Nepal. Tourist trekkers increased almost every year until at least 2001, when they reached 77,850 trekkers.. About the same number of Nepali support staff visited the area and they had an equally significant impact on the local ecology (Gurung undated). Deforestation to fulfil tourist demands for fuelwood has been extensive, especially close to trails and lodges. In 1989 the lodges in one small village along the major Annapurna trekking route were estimated to consume one hectare of virgin rhododendron forest per year to service the needs of trekkers (ACAP 1989). A tourist lodge in Ghorepani village was estimated to consume 220 kg per day, in contrast to an average household in the village that used 22 kg per day (Ministry of Tourism 1991).
Even as late as 2002, in Manang, almost every householder of every village along the trekking route was reported to be building a lodge or expanding their teahouse, in anticipation of more visitors, despite the national drop in tourist numbers. Timber from forests within the ACA was being used. The Manang valley has lost over 10 per cent of its forest cover in the last decade, in large part due to this wave of construction (Khadka 2002).
Environmental impacts caused by tourism were new in some areas, such as the Annapurna Sanctuary. The trail between Ghorepani and Ghandrung on the southern flanks of Annapurna is another example. This route was once almost never used by local people and an extensive unbroken oak/rhododendron forest, important for rare species such as the Satyr Tragopan and Red Panda covered the surrounding ridges before the advent of tourism (Inskipp 1989a). Now this forest is broken at several places where large patches have been cleared to build bigger and newer lodges.
Temporary wealth generated from tourism is often spent on more hotels and larger herds of livestock, hastening the downward spiral of ecological degradation. Litter and sanitation problems also reached alarming levels in the 1980s. Trekkers brought many non-biodegradable items that ended up strewn along trails or along the banks of rivers (ACAP 1989).
In response to these negative impacts of trekking tourism on the Area's ecology and also on local culture, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) was set up in 1986 by the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, with strong support from the WWF Nepal Program. Unlike the national parks and wildlife reserves in other parts of Nepal, where the army and park personnel guard resources against the local inhabitants, villagers are the guardians protecting the fragile environment of the Conservation Area. All the project staff members are Nepalese. Initial funding came from various organisations, but eventually the project became self-sustaining and was supported by tourists who pay an entry fee, which goes directly towards funding the Project (Gurung 1991). Today, the ACA Project serves as model for conservation projects throughout the world, KMTNC being a unique example of a non-governmental organisation managing a significant portion of the tourism revenue to plough back into conservation and development activities.
ACAP runs integrated conservation and development programmes. These include Tourism Management, which runs in two modes. One is inside the Special Zone, where ecological impacts are chiefly due to tourism and the other is in the General Zone, where the local communities had some ecological impact before the tourists came and added to their impact (Gurung undated). Tourism Management measures include the formation of local Lodge Management Committees, training courses for lodge operators and the provision of information posts and visitor centres for tourists. Resource conservation measures include forest management, soil and water conservation, training for local nursery workers, forest guards and leaders, promotion of alternative energy and fuel-efficient technologies, and wildlife census work and research (Gurung undated). At the heart of ACAP's programme is conservation education, both for the locals and visitors. ACAP has produced a 'minimum impact code' that encourages tourists to conserve firewood, stop pollution and to be true guests who do not abuse the local environment or culture. The Conservation Education and Extension programme also includes conservation education classes in schools, conservation awareness camps, development of educational materials and mobile audio-visual extension programmes. In addition, there is an extensive Community Development programme including the repair, improvement and construction of schools, bridges and trails, the establishment of health clinics and family planning, toilet and rubbish pit construction, adult education and agroforestry (King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation undated a).
In the experience of the KMTNC/ACAP, an integrated tourism management programme was found to be effective for maximising the benefits to the local economy and ecology and minimising negative impacts. The KMTNC/ACAP experience shows that strong community participation is required for effective local tourism management (Gurung undated).
The objectives of forest conservation activities in the ACA are to fulfill the local demand for forest products i.e. timber, fodder and fuelwood as well as to create awareness among the local population and motivate them for adopting community and private plantation. Nursery operations, plantation at private and community levels, and fencing are some of the activities carried out for forest conservation. ACAP's forest conservation measures have lead to a reduction in the use of fuelwood and visible improvement in forest cover in some places. Many thousands of tree seedlings have been distributed for plantation at community and private levels. For instance in the year ending July 2004, just one of the seven conservation unit offices, Bhujung, supported eight nurseries producing 65,000 seedlings of forest species, which where distributed for plantation to 4,051 households (KMTNC 2004). The Conservation Education and Extension Project is being implemented in the entire ACA and forms the backbone of all its conservation efforts in the region (King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation undated b). Other activities include training for local lodge owners, the operation of kerosene depots and prototype micro-hydro stations, agroforestry demonstration plots, community health clinics, environmental education programmes in schools and an adult literacy programme (WWF Nepal 2000a).
While the focus of Jomson, Manang and Ghandruk, which are popular areas for trekking, is on integrated tourism management and agro-pastoralism, the programme priorities for Bhujung, Sikles and Lwang are poverty alleviation and integrated agriculture and livestock development, agroforestry and community development respectively. Since 1992, Lho Manthang, Upper Mustang has come under the jurisdiction of ACAP and the focus has been on managing controlled tourism on a sustainable basis, and promoting heritage conservation which is the major tourist attraction. Conservation education, alternative energy, resource conservation and community development programmes are also being implemented (King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation undated b).
The current security problems have resulted in a sharp drop in tourist numbers and a temporary cessation of ACAP’s activities in some of the Area, although the northern Districts of Mustang and Manang have been unaffected.