top of page
The needles of Maire's yew (Taxus mairei) are being harvested to produce Taxol, a chemotherapy drug (Courtesy of Sanjay Paudel)

Searching for the Tree of Life Near the Gates of Heaven


 

नेपाली

 

I’m cramped on the back of a 160 cc Honda unicorn motorbike, speeding along an ill-pitched twisting road in rugged terrain 5200 feet above sea level, thinking about my final year internal exam on ecology and fisheries that I ditched for a supposed hassle in some remote jungle of central Nepal.

The rising sun painted orangey color splashes in the eastern sky, but I could see none of that. My vision was blurry. The rushing cold January air was freezing my ear. I guess there were few loose ends in this tiny woolen cap that I was wearing. Trying to cover it up, I end up freezing my hand. “God damn it!” Now I got another opening at the other end. I definitely regret wearing this tiny cap.

I tried to grab a hold of anything sticking out of the bike, but that was not possible. Instead, I grasped on to Prakash Paudel, the driver, at his back and constrained my body as best as I could to hide behind him. Surely, I couldn’t face the rushing morning air.

It felt uneasy risking the trust of professors and ditching the internal exam like that, but Prakash (I call him by his first name to distinguish him from the other Paudels at the organization), the lead surveyor for the day, convinced me that it’s all for the good cause. Priorities huh! After all, he himself bunked several of those for works like this. And he’s certainly not alone: there are few other daredevils like him at Greenhood Nepal, a science-driven non-profit conservation organization based in Kathmandu.

I remember Sanjay Paudel, a distant brother of Prakash from the same town who also worked at Greenhood Nepal, saying, ‘instead of howling over long texts and boring lectures, I could do the real work that matters.’ We studied in the same college, yet he barely attended any theoretical classes. His uncle Kumar Paudel co-founded the institute back in 2012 and Sanjay was fortunate to have identified his passion in this field early. So, for aspiring conservationists at Greenhood Nepal, morning rides like this are fairly common. They run miles in two-wheelers and find passion advocating for nature and its conservation.



A wild Maire's yew plant in rural Nepal. (Courtesy of Sanjay Paudel)

Today, Prakash and I were headed towards Bhumidanda inside Panauti Municipality in Central Nepal to carry out a survey of Maire’s yew (Taxus mairei), a conifer that remains critically endangered within the nation. Not much is known about Maire’s yew, to the point that taxonomists spent years justifying its existence. It was thought once as a variant of the English yew (Taxus baccata), a European counterpart of the species which can be found in Southwest Asia, and then the Himalayan yew (Taxus wallichiana), another endangered species native to Himalaya and Southeast Asia. Only did a genetic assessment (DNA barcoding) comprehensively establish it as an independent species.

The previous day, Prakash had called me explaining that this population assessment was the first of its kind for the species: “There are supposedly very few numbers of Maire’s yew trees across the nation; this assessment will tell us just how many are left in the wilderness.”

‘Wow! Saving an endangered species.’ I was feeling adventurous in my pre-final, post-Nescafe caffeine high. Less than 24 hours later, I was cursing myself out on the Honda on my way to Bhumidanda. There is no time to lose and there is no turning back.


 

The roads to Bhumidanda were treacherous and bouncy. We crossed Panauti, the historic city center of the area, and headed southwest. There, hideous stone excavations had scarred massive hills, leaving behind felled trees, rubble, and lots of abandoned houses. The terrible impacts of anthropogenic influence have not only ruined the virgin forests and driven away locals but also increased the stakes of the survival of Maire’s yew as a species.


I tried to grab a hold of anything sticking out of the bike, but that was not possible. Instead, I grasped on to Prakash Paudel, the driver, at his back and constrained my body as best as I could to hide behind him. Surely, I couldn’t face the rushing morning air.

The road ran at the base of two tall hills. Adjacently, the Roshi river flowed with the full thrush, roaring over the region. We could hear the thunder of excavation works at one side, while the roar of the river echoed on the other. As we headed further upwards, we could see clusters of trucks and tippers, all lined up the road. Cold riverine air was throbbing us to the core. Dust stirred