Sukla Phanta lies in the extreme southwest of the terai in Kanchanpur district. The international border between Nepal and India demarcates the western boundary and also the southern boundary, beyond which lies the Luggabugga Florican Reserve in India. Some 54.7% of the reserve is covered by broadleaved forests of Sal Shorea robusta with forests of Sissoo Dalbergia sissoo and Khair Acacia catechu along rivers, and grassland and marsh in the southwest where soils are of recent alluvium. The rest consists of forests of Sal, Sissoo and Khair and savannah, supported by better-drained soils on higher terrain in the northeast (Schaaf 1978, Green 1993). The reserve possesses the largest grassland phantas in Nepal; these are of both national and international importance for birds and other wildlife. There are four small lakes, Rani Tal, Salghaudi Tal, Kalikitch Tal and Shikari Tal, which add significantly to the reserve's biodiversity.
Around 373 species of birds have been definitely recorded in the reserve, including 50% of Nepal's globally threatened species. Over half of these threatened species frequent grasslands, emphasizing the reserve's importance for this habitat type (Inskipp and Baral in prep.). The reserve supports by far the largest population of Bengal Florican in Nepal (Inskipp and Inskipp 1983, Tamang and Baral 2000). Sukla Phanta also holds the large majority of Nepal’s wintering population of Hodgson’s Bushchat Saxicola insignis and is the country’s only regular wintering site for the species (Baral 1998b). The reserve is also important for Swamp Francolin, White-rumped Vulture, Slender-billed Vulture, Lesser Adjutant, Bristled Grassbird, Jerdon's Babbler Chrysomma altirostre and Finn’s Weaver Ploceus megarhynchus. The last species, which was previously described as endemic to India (Ali and Ripley 1987), is one of two new bird species for Nepal that were found in Sukla Phanta in 1996 indicating that the grasslands were poorly surveyed at that time (Baral 1998c). Almost half (11 out of 23) of Nepal's near-threatened birds have been recorded at Sukla Phanta and seven of these are wetland species (Inskipp and Baral in prep.). The reserve has large areas of grasslands, and dry tropical and dry subtropical forests. These are known to support significant populations of species characteristic of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, Indo-Malayan Tropical Dry Zone and Sino-Himalayan Subtropical Forest biomes respectively.
Non-bird biodiversity: A total of 30 species of mammals has been reliably reported from here, including the following globally threatened species: Tiger Panthera tigris, Asian Elephant Elephas maximus, Hispid Hare Caprolagus hispidus, Smooth-coated Otter Lutrogale perspicillata, Nilgai Boselaphus tragocamelus, Barasingha (or Swamp Deer) Cervus duvaucelii and, also, Indian Rhinoceros Rhinoceros unicornis, which has been recently reintroduced (Hilton-Taylor 2000). Sukla Phanta supports the largest population of the nominate race of Barasingha Cervus duvaucelii duvaucelii, in the world (Schaaf 1978). Sukla Phanta also has a healthy population of Mugger Crocodile Crocodylus palustris and Indian Python Python molurus.
Conservation responses/actions for key biodiversity
With the exception of the main phanta, many grasslands on the reserve are overgrazed, notably those lying close to human settlements (Baral 1997b). Tamang and Baral (2000) describe Haraiya Phanta and Karaiya Phanta as overgrazed and were of the opinion that if this trend continued it was likely that the few Bengal Florican present on these grasslands would disappear soon.
The main phanta is managed by cutting and burning in small patches and in rotation. This ensures that some grassland is always left for wild animals. Grass cutting in Sukla Phanta starts generally one month before other lowland protected areas, usually in the month of December. The changes in composition and succession of grass species should be monitored as they may have direct influence on the birds and other wildlife living in the area.
Three of the reserve’s lakes are choked with aquatic vegetation. This appears to be of native vegetation at Rani Tal and Salghaudi Tal (H.S. Baral pers. obs.), but most of Shikari Tal was covered by the introduced Water Hyacinth (Baral 1996). Kalikitch Tal is a seasonal lake that dries up during the dry months. In April 2001 less than 10% of the water at Rani Tal remained open, in contrast to 1982, when a considerable water area was free of surface vegetation. As a result, habitats for ducks and waders have been much reduced (Inskipp and Inskipp 2001b). The lake had been regularly managed by clearing aquatic vegetation, but this has been neglected in recent years (Hari Krishna Shrestha verbally 2001). Appropriate and regular management, especially regular clearing of surface aquatic vegetation could restore the lakes. Some work was carried out at Rani Tal in 1998, funded by the Institute for Nature Conservation and Rural Development, supported by the reserve authority and assisted by Silent Safari Camp and Bird Conservation Nepal. This work included making an earthen embankment over 600 m long and 3 m high to trap a larger quantity of monsoon rain and so significantly raise the water level of the lake (Bisht 1998).
Sukla Phanta's forests are susceptible to deliberately lit fires. While fires benefit ungulates by encouraging a fresh growth of grasses, they much reduce shrub and tree regeneration and result in open forests with little or no understorey and a species-poor bird community. Illegal logging in the reserve's extension area was reported in the mid 1990s; the current situation is unknown. West Nepal, in general, is said to have been facing severe problems from logging and tree felling (Hikmat Bisht verbally 1997). Poaching takes place in the reserve's extension. There are also illegal incursions by local people, especially in the extension area for fodder, fuelwood and other forest products.
There is widespread lack of awareness about the value of the reserve amongst local people. The UNDP funded Park and People Programme has been in progress since 1996 and aims to reduce the conflicts between villagers and park resources. Unfortunately, no successful outcome of the project has been noted so far. Forests and grasslands that were previously in good condition have now deteriorated (Baral 1997b). Conservation awareness programmes are conducted on a small scale by Bird Conservation Nepal and the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation. The latter has opened an office since 2002 for research and conservation programmes in Sukla Phanta.
Many army guards, park rangers and game scouts are unaware of Nepal's protected and threatened species that occur on the reserve (Baral 1997b, Tamang and Baral 2000). An army guard post was established in 1996 at Sukla Phanta proper so the guards could be in a better position to protect the reserve from poachers. This is a sensitive area for many globally threatened species, some of which are vulnerable to disturbance.
The extension area is still largely unsurveyed and the eastern half of the main phanta remains inaccessible for most of the year and has rarely been visited by ornithologists.
A new conservation initiative is under way. The Western Terai - Churia Conservation Program aims to restore wildlife corridors to link Nepal's two western lowland protected areas – Sukla Phanta and Bardia and also the adjacent Indian parks – Katarnia Ghat Wildlife Reserve and Dudhwa National Park. The WWF Nepal Program initiated the project in 2000 and is working with the Department of Forests, Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and local community Forest User groups. A community-based conservation and development approach will be made to reduce poverty and to facilitate the sustainable management of natural resources (Department of Forests/WWF Nepal Program 2000, WWF Nepal Program 2000a). A management plan of the Reserve is being prepared by the DNPWC.