Cradled by India and nestled under China, Nepal boasts a wealth of cultural and biological diversity. Scarcely larger than Arkansas, Nepal has more than 100 ethnic groups and 92 unique languages and dialects. Its extreme climates range from subtropical to alpine due to its dramatic elevation variation, from 195 feet above sea level to Mt. Everest, at 29,000 feet. Nepal’s location in the transitional zone of the Himalayas provides space for 118 ecosystems and 35 different types of forest. Although its land mass makes up only .01 percent of the Earth’s surface, its forests contain eight percent of the world’s recorded species – more than the US and Canada combined.
Despite these impressive features, Nepal is in a precarious state. It is ranked among the poorest and least developed countries in the world, with almost one third of its population living below the poverty line; half of its citizens earn less than one dollar a day. Only in the last year has fighting between Maoists and government forces subsided, bringing an end to a 12-year civil war that has disrupted tourism, halted foreign investment, imperiled Nepal’s forests, and cost more than 10,000 human lives.
Entrenched poverty, compounded by years of political turmoil and soaring population growth, make Nepal an environmental trouble spot. Many animal species in Nepal are increasingly threatened as a result of grazing pressure, unregulated agricultural practices, firewood collection, and accelerated rates of deforestation. Of the 1,240 known amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles residing in Nepal’s forests, 5.6 percent are threatened or critically endangered.
One of these species is the red panda, also known as the lesser panda or firefox. Slightly larger than an ordinary housecat – with a raccoon-like face, a bushy ringed tail, and auburn fur – the red panda inhabits forested mountains, particularly areas with rhododendron and bamboo, its principal food source.
Although there is no exact data for its population, it is believed that only 13,000 to 17,000 red pandas remain in the wild. Threats to its survival include poaching, fragmented habitat, and the loss of the foods on which it depends. In Eastern Nepal, there may be as few as 200 red pandas remaining, creating a critical need for protective action.
Brian Williams got the idea for launching the Red Panda Project in 1997 when he traveled to the forests of Eastern Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer. A chance encounter with a tourist who had witnessed the poaching of a red panda prompted Williams to find out more about this endangered species. “I heard about the illegal poaching of red panda, and knew that I was going to work for its protection,” he says. In 2002, Williams returned to Nepal on a Fulbright scholarship and became one of only 10 people in the world to study the red panda in the wild, as well as the threats to its habitat.
In 2006, the Red Panda Project (or Project Punde Kundo) was born. The Earth Island Institute-sponsored project became the first community-based monitoring of red pandas in the world. Since then, it has grown to five full-time staff and 13 temporary staff in Nepal. In 2008, it changed its name to the Red Panda Network (RPN) to reflect not only its wider reach, but also to encourage linkages between other countries with red panda populations.
Among the most pressing threats to the red panda’s survival is the loss of its habitat as the forests of the Himalayan foothills are denuded. Between 1990 and 2005, Nepal lost 1.2 million hectares of forest – roughly a quarter of its total woodland. Primary forest, containing some of the richest biodiversity in Nepal, shrank by nearly 11 percent during that time. While overall deforestation rates have fallen since 2000, rates of primary (or old-growth) forest loss have increased at an alarming rate.
Until the late 1970s, the Nepalese government retained ownership of forested areas. Then the government agreed to hand over forest management to the local village councils, or panchayats, in an effort to improve their livelihoods. The 1989 Master Plan for the Forestry Sector and the Forest Act of 1997 refined the rules governing forestry and created what are called Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs) – self-governing, independent bodies that are the foundation of local conservation. More than eight million people – or about 13,500 CFUGs, ranging from 30 to 100 members – now collectively manage 1.6 million hectares of forests across Nepal. Though not without its problems, the system is one of the more successful development programs in Nepal, involving more than 1.5 million households.
One of the key aims of the RPN is to address deforestation of red panda habitat by establishing strong partnerships with these community-based forest groups. RPN’s forest-monitoring program includes 14 forest guardians in seven forests, mostly in the Eastern Nepalese districts of Ilam and Panchthar. The guardians are essential in monitoring red panda populations and threats to their environment, and also serve as an integral part of the communities, forging links between conservation goals and the needs of local villages to earn a living from forest resources.
“I think that the participation of the villagers is necessary for the conservation of the red panda,” says Purna Bahadur Rai, 36, a forest guardian in Todke Community Forest. “Villagers need to know why it’s important, because they make decisions every day that can help or hurt the forests.”
Most village districts have Community Management Committees (CMCs) that determine how the forests are used. They decide on firewood foraging, medicinal plant collection, fodder and grazing practices, and conservation. Surbahadur Gurung, chairman of the Chintapu Community Forest, says that collective decision making allows for a more thoughtful way of managing the forest.
“The wild boars used to come down from the forest and wreck the gardens and eat the potatoes,” Gurung says. “We soon realized that people had been picking a type of plant the animals ate in the forest, so they stopped and planted some back. We didn’t have problems after that.”
Working with other local and international organizations, RPN helps local leaders like Gurung involve villagers in conservation education, technical training, and livelihood initiatives. For example, RPN has started programs in medicinal plant cultivation, livestock management and breeding, and reforestation.
“There are ways to convince people to take care of their forest,” says Dilbahadur Gurung, CFUG president in the Pokhari Danda Forest. “I run a nursery that teaches local villagers how to cultivate medicinal plants on their own plots of land. That way they can earn a living and keep the forest intact.”
In regular village meetings, RPN staff and forest guardians discuss issues related to deforestation, particularly pertaining to the red panda. Arpana Rai, 30, a forest guardian, sees her job as critical to conservation of the area: “Monitoring is helping to reduce poaching and other problems of deforestation. I grew up here and love the forests. As a forest guardian, I can tell people what the problems are, and can mobilize a new generation of conservationists.”
In addition to sustainable forestry projects, some Nepali communities are pursuing ecotourism as a way to ensure forest conservation. “With the growth in tourists coming over the Indian border near Darjeeling, and increased security, we should also look at other methods to ensure protection of forested areas and increased income for people,” says Surendra Lal Karna, a district forest officer in Ilam.
While local conservation efforts are essential to safeguarding red panda areas, there is a danger that they will protect only a patchwork of forests, leaving the animal’s habitat fragmented. To address this issue, RPN is advocating for the creation of a contiguous stretch of protected land extending 3.5 million acres across India and Nepal. The Panchthar-Ilam-Singhalila Red Panda Protected Forest would connect the Kanchengjunga Conservation Area in Nepal with India’s Singhalila National Park and Barsey Rhododendron Garden. Although the red panda is protected in India’s Singhalila National Park, its habitat remains unprotected in much of Nepal. Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International are also working to promote this goal.
At the same time, the RPN is expanding its work in Nepal. In 2007, the network established a full-time field office in Eastern Nepal. A recent grant from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund will enable RPN to stretch into a third district, Taplejung.
Of course, all this work depends on the willingness of Nepalese communities to collaborate with international organizations such as RPN. Given the interconnectedness of the ecological, social, and political challenges facing Nepal, conservation efforts will succeed only with broad-based cooperation. Fortunately, many Nepalese are hopeful.
“I want to preserve the red panda so that future generations can see them alive – not only in photos,” says forest guardian Sange Sherpa. “As we take the benefits from the forests, we can’t forget our responsibilities.”
One of the Red Panda Network’s most successful efforts is its Adopt-a-Panda program. The Red Panda Network is also launching Adopt-a-Community Forest and Adopt-a-Forest Guardian programs, which will directly support Nepalese field staff. An average Nepalese family earns less than $1 a day, so your donation goes far in ensuring a future for the red panda and those who rely on the forests for their livelihood. Ninety percent of funds raised for this program go directly to Project Punde Kundo in Nepal. For more information, visit redpandanetwork.org.
For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.