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Q&A with Whitley Award winner Sonam Tashi Lama

Sonam Tashi Lama from Red Panda Network receives the Whitley Award from Princess Anne, patron of the Whitley Fund for Nature in London.

Sonam Tashi Lama from Red Panda Network receives the Whitley Award from Princess Anne, patron of the Whitley Fund for Nature in London. Image courtesy of WFN.

  • Nepali conservationist Sonam Tashi Lama has been named one of six recipients of the Whitley Awards, known as the “Green Oscars,” wins award for his grassroots work within conserving the endangered red panda.
  • He says the $5£40,000 cash prize will be invested in improving the animal’s habitat and increasing awareness about poaching.
  • It’s estimated one red panda is killed every 10 days, mostly for its pelt, Although research shows there is no market for its pelt, a red panda is killed every ten days in Nepal.

KATHMANDU — Nepali conservationist Sonam Tashi Lama from the Red Panda Network is one of the six global conservation leaders to win this year’s prestigious Whitley Awards, which carries a prize of 40,000 British pounds ($50,000) for each winner from U.K.-based conservation charity the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN).

According to the fund, the award, often referred to as the “Green Oscars,” was conferred on Lama as recognition for his work training citizen scientists to help restore the habitat of the red panda and helping local people generate an income from ecotourism.

Categorized as endangered on the IUCN Red List and prohibited by CITES from being traded internationally, the red panda (Ailurus fulgens), native to the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China, faces a host of challenges. These range from habitat loss to illegal trapping and poaching, as well as snaring in traps set for other animals. Over the last 20-odd years, its population has declined by nearly 50%.

According to estimates, fewer than 15,000 individuals remain in the wild across the species’ home range. A recent study shows that although cases of illegal trade in red panda pelt is on the rise in Nepal, there’s little evidence of demand for it.

Mongabay’s Abhaya Raj Joshi spoke by phone with Lama, currently in London for the award, about his work and what the award means for him and for red panda conservation. The interview was carried out in Nepali and translated into English.

Sonam Tashi Lama holds a red panda in a forest in eastern Nepal. Image courtesy of Red Panda Network.

Mongabay: Could you please tell us about the work you do?

Sonam Tashi Lama: I work as program coordinator at the Red Panda Network. My job involves designing all fieldwork related to red panda conservation by working with our NGO partners, training our staffers in the field, and monitoring and supervising their work. I also prepare proposals and applications for grants related to red panda conservation. Recently, I was one of the six mid-career conservationists who received the Whitley Awards. According to the organizers, 100 people applied, 15 people made it to the shortlist and six were given the award.

Mongabay: When did you first come across red pandas?

Sonam Tashi Lama: My village lies in the easternmost corner of Nepal. As reaching the village from the nearest town was difficult, it was considered remote until the recent past. Things have improved a bit now. Red pandas live in the forests of our village, but I didn’t know what they were as I hadn’t seen them.

When WWF staffers came to our area to work on wildlife conservation in the Kanchanjunga conservation area, I realized and understood the importance of wildlife conservation. Then I thought I should also work in conservation. When I asked around about what I should do to start, I found that I needed to study forestry. The link with WWF helped me get enrolled in a forestry course.

One day, while reading the newspaper, I came across a report on an American, Brian Williams, who was doing research on red pandas, called habré in Nepali. I had heard the name of that animal before in my village.

I remembered that my dad had brought a red panda pelt to our home and used it as a scarecrow. That someone had traveled to Nepal from the U.S. to study red pandas made me think that red pandas must truly be an important species. I then contacted Brian Williams, who had completed his research by then and was preparing to launch a new organization called the Red Panda Network after finding out that red pandas were under threat in the region.

He had also noticed that there weren’t any organizations working to save the red pandas. I joined his team and we started working in a village in eastern Nepal’s Ilam district, called Maimajhuwa.

We organized a community workshop, trained the local people and selected “forest guardians” to lead the program.

A red panda found in a forest in Nepal. Image courtesy of Red Panda Network.

Mongabay: What was the people’s attitude to red pandas like before you started your work?

Sonam Tashi Lama: Even when I lived in the village, I hadn’t come across a live red panda. But villagers who took their cattle grazing in the jungle used to share their experience of spotting red pandas. Back then people were afraid of wild animals and would throw stones and try to drive them away. They thought that the animals would cause them harm. We never got to learn that we should love the animals.

Mongabay: Did the red pandas eat any of the farmers’ crops?

Sonam Tashi Lama: Red pandas never do that. They don’t cause any harm to humans. They are very quiet and gentle animals.

Mongabay: When did you first see a live red panda?

Sonam Tashi Lama: It was much later when I was working in Ilam when I saw a live red panda with my own eyes.

Mongabay: In addition to the challenges posed by human activities like the ones you mentioned before, what are some of the other threats these animals face?

Sonam Tashi Lama: The biggest challenge red pandas face in Nepal at the moment is their poaching. I think this is because people are not aware of the importance of this animal, and that there is no market for its pelt. If we are to go by official figures, at least one red panda is being killed every 10 days in Nepal. This is just the tip of the iceberg; we can assume that only 10% of the cases land in official records.

The second pressing issue is that of their habitat. As the human population grows, settlements are expanding and local governments are building roads. If these things are not designed in a sustainable way, they create challenges for conservation. They create isolated populations that don’t breed with one another.

A survey we conducted in 2016 on the habitat and distribution showed that red pandas are found in 25 districts in Nepal. But wherever they are found, their populations are spread over 400 isolated groups. This has implications for the genetic diversity of red pandas and their conservation.

In light of these challenges, we decided to invest the amount we will receive from the Whitley Awards toward addressing these problems. But it’s not easy to do so. We understand that people’s livelihoods should be connected with conservation as people can’t take part in conservation on an empty stomach.

When we start our forest restoration work, we plan to provide at least a few months of employment to the local people, either in plantation or in nursery keeping. We need to plant trees on large plots of land. In addition to this, we plan to use the data we have on the seizure of red panda pelts to identify districts where poaching is more rampant and focus our programs in such areas by targeting the youth population.

Mongabay: Most of your programs have been focused on eastern Nepal. But most of the seizures have been made in the west.

Sonam Tashi Lama: Getting outputs in conservation programs is painstakingly slow. We have spent more than a decade in the east. We are just getting started in the west in seven districts, but the level of awareness is still nascent in the area and it might take time.

Sonam Tashi Lama from Red Panda Network receives the Whitley Award from Princess Anne, patron of the Whitley Fund for Nature in London. Image courtesy of WFN.

Mongabay: Some studies also indicate a high prevalence of gut parasites in red pandas due to their proximity with cattle. Does this add a challenge to their conservation?

Sonam Tashi Lama: Yes, it has definitely added a challenge. Our research shows parasite load in red pandas. We also believe that they may be infected with viruses as well.

To address this problem, we need to manage our cattle and dogs better. We are working with communities to vaccinate dogs and keep them on the leash. We have also been lobbying for sterilization of stray dogs, but with limited success.

Mongabay: In Nepal, megafauna such as tigers and rhinos get all the attention from policymakers and conservationists. How does this affect red panda conservation?

Sonam Tashi Lama: Yes, definitely. Small animals like red panda don’t get priority in terms of funding and government programs. But we are doing our bit. Nepal’s forest and wildlife departments are increasingly aware of the need to conserve red pandas. When we started our program, they didn’t know much about the issues facing red pandas. But these days, they are implementing small-scale red panda projects. This is a good development as it shows that red pandas are getting attention. But it’s true that the majority of the funding still goes to rhino and tiger conservation programs.

Mongabay: Red pandas are found in countries ranging from Nepal, India, Bhutan, Myanmar to China. Do the range countries collaborate on their conservation?

Sonam Tashi Lama: We have always been emphasizing collaboration between range countries. Last year, we helped the government of Bhutan’s rangers survey the habitat of the red panda, we trained them and helped prepare their red panda conservation action plan. In Nepal, the first country to prepare such an action plan, we helped do that a few years ago.

In India as well, we are starting to work with local NGOs. In Myanmar, however, it has been difficult to find partners to work with. The Chinese government, meanwhile, has done a lot of work in conservation of red pandas.

We were planning to organize a regional symposium and invite policymakers and conservationists from range countries to discuss ways to conduct joint programs and share data. However, it had to be postponed to the pandemic.

Mongabay: Are red pandas in range countries moving across political borders?

Sonam Tashi Lama: We can see that red pandas in Nepal and India can easily move from one country to another. Similarly, I think the population in Bhutan and India also have shared habitats.

Mongabay: You said that you want to use the prize money to improve connectivity between habitats in Nepal and India. Could you please describe how you plan to go about it?

Sonam Tashi Lama: Yes, in Jaubari, Ilam, we have bought around 1,000 hectares [2,500 acres] of barren land connecting the habitat in India and Nepal. That is where we will conduct our restoration work. This program will be internationally significant as it will help increase the genetic diversity of isolated populations.

Mongabay: In addition to the cash prize that would be used for your work, what do you think will be the other benefits for the red panda cause?

Sonam Tashi Lama: The Whitley Awards is not just about funding, it’s about building a profile and training for global conservation leaders. Sir David Attenborough is its trustee and Princess Anne is its patron. The award brings with it a lot of attention from the media as well as the public. In addition to that, it has an alumni network committed to conservation globally. All these things will help our endeavor to conserve the red pandas.

Banner Image: Sonam Tashi Lama from Red Panda Network receives the Whitley Award from Princess Anne,  patron of the Whitley Fund for Nature in London. Image courtesy WFN.

Citations:

Bista, D., Baxter, G. S., & Murray, P. J. (2020). What is driving the increased demand for red panda pelts? Human Dimensions of Wildlife. doi:10.1080/10871209.2020.1728788

Badola, S., Fernandes, M., Marak, S. R., & Pilia, C. (2020). Assessment of illegal trade-related threats to red panda in India and selected neighbouring range countries. Retrieved from TRAFFIC webtsite: https://www.traffic.org/publications/reports/illegal-trade-of-red-pandas-in-india-and-across-borders/

Lama, S. T., Lama, R. P., Regmi, G. R., & Ghimire, T. R. (2015). Prevalence of intestinal parasitic infections in free-ranging red panda Ailurus fulgens Cuvier, 1825 (Mammalia: Carnivora: Ailuridae) in Nepal. Journal of Threatened Taxa7(8), 7460-7464. doi:10.11609/jott.o4208.7460-4

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