Far from the noise of the city, we witnessed Dev's community and environmental work first-hand.
After whipping up dust for almost an hour along Dhanusa District's rural roads, we arrived at an agrarian village - the sort I'd only before seen on TV.
North of Janakpur lies Bhatighari, a compact village characterised by mud-brick houses with thatched roofs, free-roaming livestock, and a tight-knit community of welcoming townsfolk; not forgetting the vivid verdant forest surrounding the town on all sides, largely due to Dev and the local Community Forest Users' Group (CFUG) - but more on that later.
It's an uncomfortable journey, with Dan and I squeezed into a cramped backseat corner of Dev's truck; the other half of the space taken up by over 20 boxes containing laptops destined for the local school.
Following a brief pit stop for some Momo - a stuffed dumpling that is a traditional Nepalese breakfast - we made our way through the steel gates leading into the courtyard of the school, designed to serve the children of marginalised families - mainly girls, as parents will often prioritise the education of their sons - that belong to the CFUG.
In early 2022, Pipal Tree, working with its NGO partners in Nepal, including Dev and Mithila Wildlife Trust (MWT), prepared a computer classroom with the support of Guy's Trust. It just so happened that our arrival in Nepal coincided with the delivery of the laptops.
After unloading the truck with the help of the school's principal and support teacher, the latter reveals that until today, they have only been able to teach the kids computer theory, but will now be able to conduct practical lessons, giving the pupils vital skills in an increasingly digital world.
An hour passes before the laptops are set up and then it's time to leave. We return to Dev's truck and head to the village's community hall - a centrally located two-room building with walls of cracked blue paint, wooden shuttered windows, and knee-high benches.
There, Dev leads a meeting with a selection of the town's women before we hit the road again, heading further into the sticks to explore the Bhatighari Community Forest - a project the MWT and CFUG set up to restore the diminished forest surrounding the village.
Illegal activity such as logging by Nepal's notorious timber-mafia and poaching is largely responsible for the denuded state the landscape is in, as is overgrazing. The country has burgeoning deer populations, among other grazers, which hampers natural forest regeneration as these animals chew young tree shoots, meaning saplings can't get a foothold in the land.
As the landscape has been stripped of its dynamism and stochasticity, many of the species that reside there have migrated away, upsetting the balance of the ecosystem, allowing species able to stay to dominate and overwhelm the area.
Using conventional methods of forestation, the Bhatighari Community Forest is slowly but surely returning to health, and many of the endemic species that previously absconded are returning. The project is also empowering surrounding villages through employment opportunities - especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, where these communities received no support from the Nepalese government.
But it's perhaps the second of Dev's environmental projects, Dhanushadham Bird Park, that is most intriguing.
The project is the first of its kind in Nepal, and among the first in the world using the rapid growth 'Miyawaki Method' of forestation (saplings grow 10 times faster than conventional methods allow). This approach plants seeds of many different species near each other in composted soil two metres deep. The saplings then seem to work together, helping each other grow.
At least one of each of Nepal's native plant species has been planted at the small site, including 18 species that are extinct in the wild.
In the wake of the climate crisis and during the UN's decade of ecological change (2020-2030), witnessing passionate conservationists like Dev is a comfort; a source of hope that maybe we can reverse the damage we have inflicted upon the environment and avoid irreversible planetary tipping points.
Back at Bhatighari, we witnessed the impact of Dev and co.'s work first-hand, driving for two hours down the bed of a river that changed course 22 years ago to do some wildlife spotting.
The southern Terai of Nepal is a biodiversity hotspot. In fact, most of the species that reside in the country call the region home. But, as mentioned before, activities that have diminished the integrity of the landscape and poaching have driven many of these species away.
These animals are beginning to return to the area as poaching declines and habitat is restored. On our journey, we witness Storks, Kingfishers, and numerous insects including multiple butterfly species. In the small pools where water still exists, shoals of miniature fish no bigger than a thumbnail dart around, and wild horses maraud across the tree line in the distance.
But perhaps most exciting of all, and the best indicator of wildlife's comeback is the animal we don't see. Pressed into the sand, we catch a glimpse of footprints made by the endangered Asian Elephant. Thanks to the work of Dev and those of his ilk, Nepal's largest mammals are beginning to thrive in the vast forest of the Terai once again.
- Linked here is our fundraising page. Numerous kind and selfless people have sponsored our journey, and we'd love to be able to repay even a fraction of their generosity. If you are able, a donation would be much appreciated. Any amount, large or small, will help the organisations you will read about in this blog create real and positive change.
Much love, Dan and George