In February I was fortunate enough to visit Nepal for the first time, as part of my new role of International Community Development Officer for The Donkey Sanctuary. Our partner organisation, Animal Nepal, has been supported by The Donkey Sanctuary since 2010, and the incredibly committed local team has worked tirelessly since then in the brick kilns of the Kathmandu valley to improve the welfare of donkeys and mules, and to raise awareness of the enormous contribution they make to the livelihoods of families all over the country.
After a few days in and around the capital, I set off with the Animal Nepal team to a remote area of the lower Himalayas known as Gorkha - the ancestral home of Nepal’s past royal family, and the area after which the British Army’s highly respected Nepalese troops, the Gurkhas, are named. This area is also famous for another, more tragic, reason. It was the epicentre of the April 2015 earthquake, which devastated many communities and caused destruction which is still clearly visible today. And it is the earthquake which has brought us out here for this trip, as Animal Nepal are hoping to investigate the impact of the earthquake on the mules used in the Himalayan regions to transport goods to remote mountain communities, and the implications of their now vital roles in transporting emergency aid and reconstruction materials to remote disaster victims.
The international team at The Donkey Sanctuary based in the UK have been tracking the earthquake and its impact on equines ever since it first occurred, as part of their work on understanding emerging themes, including the impact of natural disasters on donkeys and mules. This included supporting Animal Nepal to provide emergency assistance to donkeys, mules and their owners in the weeks immediately following the earthquake, as well as monitoring reports and communications from the region which related to equines impacted by the disaster. However, this trip to the mountains of Nepal would be the first opportunity that the UK team has had to assess the impacts on the communities and their mules first-hand.
Just a few minutes outside of Kathmandu and I felt as though I was in a different world. The drive to Gorkha was 8 hours, almost entirely off-road, on single lane dirt tracks perched high up along the edges of the mountains. The journey was certainly one of the more memorable - and terrifying - of my life. To one side of us were drops straight down, thousands of feet below us, but the views across the mountains to the forests, villages and terraced fields draped across the valley floor were awe inspiring. Every now and then on our journey we would have to squeeze past a vehicle coming the other way along these narrow mountain tracks, or if we were very unlucky a bus stuffed with passengers, including a very brave handful sitting on the roof!
Eventually we arrived at our first destination, a small village which acted as the main holding point for mountain mules - known as the mule station - and one of the last places with a road which could deliver the goods that needed to be taken up into the mountains. Here the team held a meeting with the Mule Owners Association, an organised group of owners who were happy to discuss the work of their animals and were interested in the idea of a project being done in their area to improve the welfare of their mules in a sustainable way. After talking to the group for a while we were able to gain a much deeper understanding of the work of the mountain mules, their routes through the mountains, their significance to the local population and the issues that they faced. We were then able to spend some time with the mules doing welfare assessments using ‘the hand’ tool, with medical checks being done by the team’s equine vet. By this time darkness was setting in, and we had to travel slightly further up into the mountains to our rest stop for the night, at the official end of the road and start of the mountain paths.
After a cold night we awoke in the dark and walked into the village to meet the handlers who accompany the mules on their 9 day return trip up into the mountains. The trek is incredibly difficult for the handlers as well as the mules, with each person being entirely responsible for 10 mules, as they have to battle extreme weather and negotiate steep mountain paths, many of which have been destroyed by the earthquake. As we watched the mules being loaded with a range of goods, from rice and noodles to medicines and bags of cement, we spoke to some of the handlers and learnt their stories. Their care for their mules was obvious, as was their appreciation for the invaluable role that they play in supplying the needs of remote mountain communities.
Animal Nepal hopes to expand its current work with donkeys and mules into the mountain regions of the lower Himalayas. During the visit we had identified some of the key needs of the mules, which were primarily wounds on their backs caused by poorly-fitting saddles; a lack of essential hoof care; and no access to shelter from the harsh Himalayan weather. While the mule owners are enthusiastic about the idea of improving the welfare of their animals, there is a need to support them in doing this by building their capacity in a long-term and sustainable way, to assist them in improving the wellbeing of their mules themselves. Animal Nepal’s community-based approaches, which are currently being used in the brick kilns, would be used in the Gorkha area to train mule owners on understanding and providing the essential basic needs of their mules, and assist them in building connections with existing local service providers, such as vets, animal health workers and farriers, whose skills in equine interventions can be strengthened by Animal Nepal’s own equine experts. It is hoped that, in the early stages, Animal Nepal will hold training and health camps in the Gorkha region to begin this capacity development process, and build stronger connections with the community and local service providers.
As the sun rose we watched the mules and their owners head off to begin their trek into the mountains, which began with their first challenge - having to negotiate a rickety wooden foot bridge swinging high over a river. It had been an incredibly rewarding trip, and I felt fortunate to have been able to see the huge contribution that mountain mules were making to Nepal’s recovery from the earthquake. It was inspiring to have seen Animal Nepal beginning to build positive relationships with the mule owners and handlers, as well as the wider community, which they can now use to continue their work in Gorkha into the future.