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‘Small mammals play a big role’: Q&A with Nepali researcher Dibya Raj Dahal

Dibya Raj Dahal.

Dibya Raj Dahal. Image courtesy of Dibya Raj Dahal.

  • Nepal is renowned for its tigers, rhinos and snow leopards, but the country is also home to a rich diversity of smaller, less-studied mammals.
  • These species have long gone overlooked and their research and conservation underfunded, even as they face threats from habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict and climate change.
  • In 2008, a group of young Nepali researchers founded the nonprofit Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation (SMCRF) to shine a light on these species.
  • Dibya Raj Dahal, a lifetime member of the SMCRF since 2009, is now its president, and shares the challenges the organization faces, as well as its hopes for greater recognition of the role of small mammals in Nepal.

Nepal’s diverse landscapes, from the lowland Terai Arc to the high Himalayas, are home to more than 200 mammal species. Beyond the iconic creatures like tigers and rhinos are the many small and inconspicuous ones — bats, rodents, small cats, martens, pangolins, badgers and even hyenas — all of which perform crucial roles in the ecosystems in which they live.

However, these small mammals often go overlooked and underfunded in conservation efforts. The country has yet to carry out a national survey of small mammals, even as they face various threats from habitat loss and degradation, to human-wildlife conflict, climate change, and the wildlife trade.

To address this challenge, in 2008, a group of dedicated young researchers fresh out of university established the Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation (SMCRF), a nonprofit NGO based in Kathmandu. Alongside its core focus, it also works to improve the livelihoods of local communities through conservation, policy formulation, multistakeholder partnerships, leadership development, and capacity building for young researchers and conservationists.

Dibya Raj Dahal, the current president of the SMCRF, has worked with bats for more than a decade, and now divides his time between teaching at a university in eastern Nepal and working on his Ph.D. He says that despite the many hurdles, he’s motivated to carry on to lay the foundation for researchers from future generations.

Dibya Raj Dahal in a cave.
Dibya Raj Dahal, the current president of the SMCRF, has worked with bats for more than a decade. Image courtesy of Dibya Raj Dahal.

Mongabay’s Abhaya Raj Joshi spoke with him recently about his journey as a wildlife researcher and conservationist, the challenges faced by researchers, and his vision for the future of small mammals in Nepal. This interview was translated from Nepali and lightly edited for length and style.

Mongabay: Could you please tell us how you got into a career in conservation? How did it begin?

Dibya Raj Dahal: I was born in Sankuwasabha in the eastern hills of Nepal close to the Tinjure-Milke-Jaljale region, also known as the rhododendron capital of the country. Despite being born in such a naturally blessed area, I didn’t know much about conservation and biodiversity until my university days.

While working on my master’s thesis, I came across seniors who were working on small mammals, and found their work interesting. I don’t know how, but as I spent time with them, I also decided to work on small mammals for my thesis.

I wanted to study squirrels for my thesis, but we didn’t have the equipment to do so. When I met my senior Sanjan Thapa, who was working on bats, he told me he had a set of equipment to study bats. So I decided to study bats.

If you talk about the SMCRF, it was founded in 2008 by a group of seven zoology and environmental science students, including Sanjan Thapa, to work on small mammal research. I joined it as a life member around the end of 2009.

Tail-less leaf-nosed bats (Coelops frithii).
Tail-less leaf-nosed bats (Coelops frithii). Image by 小工友 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Mongabay: When we use the term “small mammals” it sounds as if they’re insignificant mammals that are just there and that they’re less important than the “big mammals.” Don’t you think so?

Dibya Raj Dahal: There’s no universally acceptable definition of which mammal is small and which mammal is big. Some researchers argue that mammals that weigh less than 12 kilograms [26 pounds]  are small and those that weigh more are big. But in our context, we classify any mammal that hasn’t been studied as a “small mammal.” Many people might not know this, but bats comprise around 60% of small mammal species in Nepal. Yet they are very much understudied. Next come the rodents that are also understudied.

These animals may be small in size, but they have big roles to play in the ecosystem, such as the dispersal of seeds, pollination, and controlling of the population of certain insects.

Mongabay: The SMCRF has also been working with the government to carry out the national red list assessment of small mammals. What are some of the species that are the most threatened?

Dibya Raj Dahal: Our studies show that a lot of small mammals are under threat in the country. For example, red pandas, hyenas and pangolins face a host of threats. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, as most small mammals are understudied and we haven’t had a nationwide survey. We found during the assessment that most of the animals are data deficient.

Dibya Raj Dahal.
Dahal says that despite the many hurdles, he’s motivated to carry on to lay the foundation for researchers from future generations. Image courtesy of Dibya Raj Dahal.

Mongabay: Why so?

Dibya Raj Dahal: There are many reasons for this. Most of the reasons are connected to one thing: financial resources. When students choose their area of research, they also look at the financial aspect. In a country like Nepal, researchers need to choose an area where they can work and provide for their families as well. As there’s not much money going into small mammal research, students aren’t motivated to take up their study.

In addition to this, the faculty at our universities haven’t been able to explain the importance of small mammals to the students. We only have a handful of researchers working on small mammals.

It might sound a bit counterintuitive, but the smaller the animal, the higher the cost of their research and the more specialized the equipment they require.

Also most research requires capturing the animal. The government is a bit reluctant to issue permits for such research.

That’s why, until 2000, most of the small mammal research in Nepal was carried out by foreign researchers. However, after 2008, when the SMCRF came into the picture, more and more Nepalis are taking up the research.

Mongabay: You said that it’s difficult for researchers working on small mammals to sustain themselves financially. How do you manage? 

Dibya Raj Dahal: In addition to doing research, I teach at a college in Itahari in eastern Nepal. I also do some consultancy work. I use my income to provide for my family as well as contribute to the organization to carry out our research work. It hasn’t been easy, but we don’t have any other option.

Lesser Asiatic yellow house bats
Lesser Asiatic yellow house bats (Scotophilus kuhlii). Dahal says that although bats comprise around 60% of small mammal species in Nepal, they are very much understudied. Image by LiCheng Shih via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Mongabay: What motivates you to go on despite the challenges? Don’t you think that if you had chosen to work on tigers and rhinos, you could have landed a job with an international NGO and you would have been financially better off?

Dibya Raj Dahal: When I completed my thesis, I felt a sense of responsibility toward these animals. If I abandon them, then who is going to work for them? I need to carry on so that I can pass on the baton to the next generation.

If your seniors hadn’t done the required work for megafauna, their status would not have improved the way it has. So someone has to lay the foundation on which more things can be built.

Mongabay: Community-based conservation has been the buzzword for Nepal in the past few decades. The SMCRF has also adopted this concept. Why is that so?

Dibya Raj Dahal: The SMCRF has been working with the community since its early days. We believe that for any conservation work to become successful, the community has to take ownership. For example, we have worked with communities to conserve pangolins and reduce conflicts with monkeys.

Mongabay: What are some of the challenges in working with communities?

Dibya Raj Dahal: One of the major challenges is to provide immediate benefits of conservation to the communities. We work with community forests, where the leadership changes every three to four years. So when we implement an idea, the leadership wants to have something to show at the end of its term. But that’s not always possible as conservation results take decades to give benefits.

Also, the community expects some financial return from the work it does. As we ourselves are underfunded and resource-strapped, it’s not possible for us to provide any financial help to the community.

Mongabay: What about working with schoolchildren?

Dibya Raj Dahal: Yes, we also work a lot with schools. Our experience shows that the government needs to include conservation of local species, both plants and animals, in the school curricula, which is currently not the case. The children can play a big role in conservation.

Dibya Raj Dahal.
Dahal said many animals may be small in size, but they have big roles to play in the ecosystem, such as the dispersal of seeds, pollination, and controlling of the population of certain insects. Image courtesy of Dibya Raj Dahal.

Mongabay: How has the rise of social media affected conservation work in Nepal?

Dibya Raj Dahal: It has impacted conservation at a massive scale. For example, because people see social media posts of different animals being “rescued” from the jungle, they have developed a perception that whenever they encounter an animal in the jungle, they need to “rescue” the animal.

Small mammals are easy to catch, and they bring them to the community where they start “mini zoos” that don’t have adequate human resources and knowledge to deal with wild animals. More often than not, the “rescued” animal ends up dying.

We need to make the people aware that it is the jungle where the wild animals live and they don’t need to be rescued unless they are ill or pose a danger to human settlements.

Mongabay: The issue of monkeys has also added to the challenge of conserving small mammals. What’s your take on that?

Dibya Raj Dahal: Our organization believes that the human-monkey conflict can be minimized to a great extent. The main problem is that the monkeys aren’t getting enough to eat in the jungle and they look for easy food. That brings them to human settlements. If we can provide them with food in the jungle itself, they will not frequent human settlements. We have demonstrated this concept in a town in western Nepal. However, local governments in Nepal aren’t keen on implementing such solutions as they spend most of their time on planning new roads and bridges.

Mongabay: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Dibya Raj Dahal: The most important thing is that the government needs to take ownership of small mammals in Nepal. It needs to come up with a national policy and a periodic plan to specifically address the conservation challenges faced by small mammals. That will provide us with a platform to collaborate with international organizations and researchers to focus on the work we do.

Abhaya Raj Joshi is a staff writer for Nepal at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @arj272.

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