by wowmagazine

Four conservationists talk to WOW about keeping the balance between environment and development, their work and why it’s never too late to start.Four conservationists talk to WOW about keeping the balance between environment and development, their work and why it’s never too late to start.

Rinzin Phunjok Lama
Conservation Biologist

Rinzin Phunjok Lama, a conservation biologist from Humla is the first Nepali to receive the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. He was awarded the internationally acclaimed award for his research and efforts to conserve the wildlife of the trans-Himalayan region in Nepal. He was also named – along with four other recipients – the guardians of the future. In the isolated highlands, Phunjok is dedicated to increase local participation in protecting the fragile biodiversity and wildlife of the land.

Was there a certain turning point in your life that led you towards conserving endangered animals?

The first time I witnessed a snow leopard in 2007 changed my life. Since that day. I am working as a conservation biologist focusing on high-altitude wildlife, particularly snow leopards. 

What is your most cherished memory after working with animals for many years?

In the winter of 2014, we conducted an intensive camera trapping survey in Manang during the heavy snowfall. Climbing up the snow-capped hills and making sure that our camera functions well despite the harsh weather were some challenges that we had to face. But the hard work was worth it, we got to celebrate the footage of several wildlife species including the Pallas Cat, Snow leopard, and more. 

Nepal has put itself in the frontline of wildlife conservation. Is this accomplishment in conservation sustainable? 

This is a difficult comment to make. Conservation and sustainability are quite challenging aspects to balance. Just to give an example, Nepal has achieved exceptional success in Rhino and Tiger population recovery, and with this achievement, there are associated challenges to deal with like human-wildlife conflict. So conservation success is a great story to share, but its sustainability is something we cannot guarantee. 

Is Nepal’s dream of infrastructure development an environmental nightmare?

For a developing nation like Nepal, infrastructure development is our need for economic growth. While designing and implementing large-scale development projects, it should address environmental impacts and thus every development project – small to large scale – should follow strict environmental impact assessment to minimise the potential impact on the environment, wildlife and habitat. We must balance development and conservation need. National development needs shouldn’t be judged just from the point of view of being an environmental nightmare, development should be a national priority but it should be environment friendly and the government must find a suitable solutions for this balance. The first step is conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment.

 Three learnings from conservation…

• Strict conservation is not possible
• Community-based conservation is the need
• Conservation and livelihood enterprises should be integrated

What do you think our earth needs now?

Collective action to combat the global environmental crisis

Badri Baral
Program Coordinator,
Nature Conservation Initiative Nepal

Badri Baral is one of the founding members of Nature Conservation Initiative Nepal and has been working as its Program Coordinator. He conducts research on biodiversity conservation and is also involved in government liaison, academic advising and team building. His recent program that focused on local red panda conservation led to the story book called “Story of Red Panda: A Curiosity of Daughter”.

Was there a certain turning point in your life that led you towards the conservation of endangered animals?

The first time I ever heard about grass-eating carnivores was in my school days. I have been interested in learning more about grass-eating carnivores, especially the red panda ever since. Later, when I was doing my Masters in Environmental Science with specialisation in biodiversity conservation and wildlife management, I came across an interesting news report on the Red Panda and decided to conduct my dissertation on it. Writing that dissertation was my turning point in life, which also led me to being awarded the Red Panda Scholarship by the Red Panda Network.

What is your most cherished memory after working with animals for many years?

I am a native of Kathmandu and working in Karnali for the new locality record of Red Pandas was a thrilling experience. I remember one day in the course of the Red Panda survey, when our team encountered around seven to eight fresh pellets on the ground and again some more fresh nearby. we started searching silently and one of our local field assistants informed us about the Red Panda encounter. After recklessly ascending while holding the camera, we found a Red Panda. That moment took us four years of sweat, determination and hard work to analyse based on indirect shreds of evidence like faecal pellets. It was a dream come true for me.

Nepal has put itself in the frontline of wildlife conservation. Is this accomplishment sustainable? 

Although Nepal has put itself in the frontline of wildlife conservation, the accomplishments in conservation are not enough to lead the country to sustainability. Biodiversity conservation efficiency and adeptness in the country remain weak despite a notable paradigmatic change in the policies of Nepal and Nepal’s huge success in community-based conservation. One of the most important reasons behind this is the notable hiatus of knowledge of biodiversity and the associated linkage with civic societies living next to biodiversity refuge. 
Data sharing with fellow researchers is also lacking making it difficult for us to produce quality research. Development of data sharing culture among relevant stakeholders could motivate researchers to conduct good research and find science-based solutions for sustainability.

The majority of rural community members are unaware of wildlife management tools and techniques, policies and strategic intervention. This is causing an increasing number of illegal ownerships of globally threatened species like Red Pandas pelts, musk pods, and bears bile ducts in different parts of Nepal. There is an obvious lack of impracticality in implementing policies against illegal hunting and illicit wildlife trade.

Hence, educating students about globally threatened species like Red Panda, Snow Leopard, and Musk Deer conservation as flagship species, wildlife-based ecotourism, ecosystem services that their habitat provides, and livelihood diversification can largely contribute to empowering students to take charge of their own future from the very formative stage that can lead to ensure sustainability in conservation.

What is the scenario of human-wildlife conflict in Nepal?

Let me share a recent incident with you. In Nawalparasi, local villagers illegally used poison to kill stray dogs, and these dog carcasses were then eaten by the vultures, killing 69 vultures in 2021. Human-monkey conflict is another severe conflict in the mid-hills of Nepal.

According to the Forest Research and Training Centre (FRTC), the forest area of Nepal increased by 1.7%, and the agricultural land shrunk by 2.1% from 2000 to 2019. As wildlife habitat (forests) increases, so does the human-wildlife conflict. 

This cumulative effect of shrinking agricultural fields and increased forest fragmentation is a major contributor to human-wildlife conflict.

Is Nepal’s dream of infrastructure development an environmental nightmare?

The Nijgadh International Airport, east-west highway expansion, hydroelectricity development, linear structures like roads, canals, and transmission lines is in limelight nowadays with regard to infrastructure development and biodiversity conservation. In 2020, 108 animals have been killed in road accidents as per DNPWC. But wildlife-friendly linear infrastructures are gradually getting recognised by engineers in Nepal as a solution-oriented approach to conservation. 

On the bright side, the Department of Roads is incorporating 55 wildlife crossing structures, primarily underpasses at critical locations along the Narayanghat-Butwal section of Mahendra Highway. Likewise, linear structures like irrigation canals should be designed in a way that does not prevent migratory fishes. 
Hence, while considering infrastructure development, the government should address wildlife issues seriously so that possible damage and human-wildlife conflict could be curtailed. Nepal’s dream of infrastructure development could be an environmental nightmare if effective planning is not done.

Three learnings from conservation…

The foremost thing I have learnt is the identification of contextual needs and the stakeholders for whom the project has been designed. Stakeholder identification should be of utmost priority, and project activities should address them without being induced from elsewhere. 

The second lesson that I would like to highlight is that despite such a laborious contribution, one researcher/biologist is unable to earn a worthy amount for livelihood in Nepal. There is a kind of data syndicate among a few professionals that cannot be accessed easily in research need.

And of course, wildlife conservation is simply a beautiful and passionate task, and hence should be portrayed to illustrate experiences, ideas and vision. 

Tulshi Laxmi Suwal
Co- Founder & Researcher, Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation

In 2008, as part of a conservation initiative, 11 confiscated and rescued pangolins were released back into the wild. Since then a total of 45 pangolins (3-4/year) have been returned to their natural habitats in different regions of the country and Tulshi Laxmi Suwal is helping to pave the way. Tulshi has committed to conserving and researching pangolins in Nepal for 15 years and has co-founded Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation.

A student of the Central Department of Zoology, Tribhuwan University, Tulshi has enrolled at the National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, Taiwan for her PhD degree. 

What is your most cherished memory after working with Pangolins for so many years?

In 2009, I went for a study, observing a mother and baby pangolin in their natural habitat which showed me various aspects of motherhood. The pangolin rolled into a tight ball with her baby while sleeping, she carried the baby on her back, and breastfed. I was deeply moved by this experience.

Nepal has put itself in the frontline of wildlife conservation. Is this accomplishment sustainable? 

Wildlife is simply one of the most precious natural gifts. We can only proclaim our existence and our entity in the world through their presence and conservation. Thus, not only Nepal but the whole world should also put wildlife conservation on the frontline. 

Yes, Nepal accomplishes conservation, and there are many successful conservation stories in our country and there are many more conservation initiatives for sustainable conservation, however these aren’t enough. Only with sound systems and mechanisms, a secure budget, networking, collaboration, education, job opportunities, and fulfilling the basic needs could lead to sustainable conservation of wildlife as well as the country.

About 90% of the districts in Nepal have incidences of human-wildlife conflict? What are the challenges to conservation?

Almost every country in the world hosts some form of human-wildlife conflict, and highly biodiversity developing countries like Nepal particularly struggle with this issue.  HWC causes a challenge to livelihoods as well as wildlife conservation. Due to lack of adequate food and safe habitat, wild animals pose a direct threat to the safety and livelihood of people. Animals kill livestock, damage crops or property, or even attack people. When such incidences become a recurring issue, retaliation against the species often ensues. The HWC also decreases the physical and psychological wellbeing of people which makes it very difficult to change their negative attitude towards wildlife and it drives them to crimes. Thus, coordinated, and collaborative conservation actions are required to deliver meaningful results and allow communities to shift from conflict to coexistence with wildlife by using smart technologies.

Is Nepal’s dream of infrastructure development an environmental nightmare?

Actually, no one opposes development. Both infrastructure development and environmental protection are necessary for the country. I do not think Nepal’s dream of infrastructure development is an environmental nightmare. It is caused by lack of well-planned, sustainable design, and no discussion between planners, developers and experts including conservationists and environmentalists.

Which organisations or countries do you think are setting good examples in the field of animal conservation?
I will vote for our country which has already set an example in animal conservation. With limited resources and facilities, Nepal has achieved a huge milestone by doubling its tiger population and making rhino poaching zero.

As far as the conservation of pangolins is concerned, Taiwan is the only country that has succeeded in shutting down its illegal trade and has increased its population due to effective and regular conservation initiatives, education of people (96.10% literacy rate), employment opportunities (96.34% employment rate), development of citizen scientists (more than 100 animal conservation organisations) along with the strict implementation of the wildlife act.

What do you think our earth needs now?

If we do not edit and correct our errors in time, our earth will blackout very soon. Please live by allowing others to live.

Ang Dolma Sherpa
Founder, Utpala Craft

Ang Dolma Sherpa is a social entrepreneur who won the top ‘ideator’ award at Idea Studio in 2019 for her concept of biodegradable khadas. The platform led her to initiate Utpala Craft in 2020, creating a shift from synthetic prayer flags to bio-degradable ones. These khadas and prayer flags can be buried and decomposed giving an environment-friendly option for a market of 2.5 million prayer flags. Her initiation is not only an idea but an influencing factor for going green while leaving an exemplary footprint for eco-minded entrepreneurs. 

Was there a certain turning point in your life that led you towards climate action?

In 2011, during my father’s cremation, I had a first-hand experience of an obnoxious smell coming out of a heap of khadas and prayer flags burning nearby while disposing them. These products are burnt due to the religious values it holds. My mom and I then decided to make our khada that could be easily disposed of without causing much harm to the environment and came up with the idea of biodegradable khadas.

The Tibetan prayer flags are symbolic meaning; do the biodegradable prayer flags hold a sustainable future?

Yes, it definitely does. Buddhist tradition was actually very environment-friendly from the beginning. Our elders, Buddhist leaders, and those who have done research on prayer flags remember prayer flags made from paper tied on a cotton rope. This later developed into white cotton cloth, stamped charcoal ink, and hung on cotton rope. Previously people used to mostly make their own prayer flags at home. Biodegradable prayer flags and khadas are not a new concept but a revival of our old practices. Slowly I believe people will start adapting to this concept of biodegradable prayer flags and khadas not only because of the trend of using organic, biodegradable products but also because one of Buddha’s important teachings is about being kind to nature.

You have initiated an eco-friendly approach to faith and spirituality to address climate change…

Climate change did not happen overnight. It is our ill actions and wrong judgment accumulated for years and years that is showing its effect now. The eco-friendly approach to faith and spirituality is just one initiative trying to bring the Buddhist community to take action and fight the global climate crisis culturally and religiously. Asian communities are strongly motivated by culture and religion. If every individual (community) starts acknowledging climate change, being aware of the fact that their daily actions might contribute to the climate crisis, and start taking positive actions even at individual levels, it will definitely address climate change to some extent. My initiative may not provide a concrete climate solution but it does have the potential to shift consciousness. While science is important, culture, communities, and religion play an equal role for change.

Which organisations or countries do you think are setting good examples in the field of climate change?

Among all the countries, I am amazed by the work and commitment of Bhutan, basing political decisions on the gross national happiness index and abandoning economic growth as their compass. It is the only country to make such a switch and has made huge environmental progress. Today Bhutan has become a carbon-negative country. This example of Bhutan gives me a lot of hope that if our government and people come together, and input work and laws toward conservation and climate change, it is still doable.

What do you think our earth needs now?

Our earth needs a more compassionate heart and mind with ecological awareness so that it can heal.

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