- Hem Sagar Baral is a renowned Nepali ornithologist and conservationist who recently retired as the country representative of the Zoological Society of London.
- In an interview with Mongabay, he talks about his experience setting up ZSL’s office in Nepal, the challenges and achievements of working with various stakeholders, and the role of NGOs in conservation.
- He also emphasizes that NGOs can’t replace the government’s role in conservation, but can only complement it by filling in the gaps and providing technical expertise.
KATHMANDU — Whenever a potentially undescribed new bird species is reported in Nepal, ornithologist Hem Sagar Baral takes the next flight to the location to assess the claim. The scientific community takes the claim seriously only when Baral, who has dedicated a career of more than two decades to advocating for the conservation of Nepal’s flora and fauna, passes his verdict.
Baral, who obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Amsterdam, was until recently the Nepal country representative for the Zoological Society of London. A winner of the Whitley Award, known as the “Green Oscars,” Baral has also co-authored several seminal books such as Important Bird Areas of Nepal, The State of Nepal’s Birds, Birds of Nepal Field Guide (in Nepali) and Mammals of Nepal. He’s one of the most-quoted biologists in the Nepali press, a testament to his wide-ranging knowledge and experience.
Mongabay’s Abhaya Raj Joshi met with Baral recently following the end of his ZSL role in September, and spoke about the experience of setting up ZSL’s office in Nepal, the role of NGOs in conservation, and balancing the need for development with the needs of nature. The following interview has been translated from Nepali and edited for clarity.
Mongabay: Could you tell us how you began your association with the Zoological Society of London?
Hem Sagar Baral: In 2009 I worked as a consultant for ZSL to assess the status of mammals in Nepal. The project culminated with a publication in 2011. Then we worked on the State of Nepal’s Birds series and produced a six-volume publication.
It was around 2013 when ZSL carried out a strategic assessment of its global impact and presence. It identified Nepal as a priority country and decided to open its country office here. It had already conducted a round of interviews to hire the country manager when I got to know about the vacancy. However, it decided to issue a second call as it hadn’t found the right candidate. My seniors and friends encouraged me to apply, and I sent in my application on the very last day. I was a bit reluctant as I was already in my mid-40s and wanted to promote people younger than me. But I was eventually selected for the job.
Mongabay: What were the challenges like in setting up the office and starting work?
Hem Sagar Baral: Those days were indeed challenging. We didn’t have an office or any staff. My job was to set up an office as well as get different governmental and nongovernmental bodies on board to start our work in Nepal. The National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) was very generous to provide us space to start our office in the early days.
The main challenge was to deal with the bureaucracy and the legal requirements such as opening of bank accounts. We also needed furniture for the office, so I invested money from my own pocket in the early days.
Things weren’t very clear, we hadn’t figured out what we would be doing and how our office would work. But soon, we moved into our own office and I hired an assistant, a finance officer and an office assistant to get things rolling.
The other challenge we faced was from other conservation NGOs such as WWF, who had been in the conservation space in Nepal for a long time. Just like our body’s immune system kicks in when it encounters a foreign body, they weren’t positive about our presence. But as I knew almost everyone at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, the government was very positive toward our work.
As for our standing with NGOs such as WWF, they weren’t very comfortable. But gradually they understood the value of partnership and they embraced us wholeheartedly. Yes, we compete with them for grants and funds, but we’ve had instances when ZSL has helped WWF with its technical expertise, and vice versa.
Mongabay: How difficult is it to get funding for activities in Nepal, where corruption has become so endemic? How do you convince donors that the money they are spending is making an impact?
Hem Sagar Baral: It is definitely difficult to convince donors that their money will make an impact. The international cost-of-living crisis and the slowdown in Nepal itself haven’t helped. Even before this, grants have always been highly competitive.
However, the faith donors that have in ZSL helps us to communicate with them meaningfully and convince them that their money will be invested transparently and efficiently to deliver a tangible output.
Mongabay: NGOs are accused of corporatizing conservation, promoting themselves when work is done through partnerships. What’s your opinion on this?
Hem Sagar Baral: I would disagree with such a description of ZSL. During the early days of my tenure, I visited HQ [in London] where colleagues gave presentations about our work. I was surprised that during the presentations, ZSL highlighted the work of its partners, rather than itself. For example, when talking about Nepal, it talked about the achievements NTNC had made in conservation, rather than talking about itself! It was then that I realized the core value of ZSL: to promote the work of our partners.
ZSL’s Nepal office believes that our work speaks for itself. You might be surprised that we don’t have a dedicated communications person or a website of our own. We rarely issue press releases. Also we don’t promote ourselves unnecessarily. For example, we prepared 40-60 posters to be used at the department of wildlife, but we only used the logos of government agencies, and not ours.
Mongabay: Then how do you show the donors that their pounds and dollars are making an impact?
Hem Sagar Baral: Around 80% of our budget comes from the British government’s competitive grants. Whenever our donors visit us, we arrange meetings with our stakeholders, who are always full of praise about our work. We don’t need to aggressively market the work we do, as long as we’re doing meaningful and impactful work.
I believe that the modality is similar at [ZSL’s] other offices in other countries. Otherwise, HQ would have prodded us to do more on getting better visibility.
Mongabay: In Nepal, conservation is often linked to the issue of human rights. Under the current model of conservation, local communities have been denied access to resources. There are also reports of human rights abuses in protected areas of the country. However, it’s said that NGOs don’t pay adequate attention to these issues. What’s your take on this?
Hem Sagar Baral: I think we need to look at the issue this way: ZSL’s home country, the U.K., is considered the mother of democracy and human rights. We value democracy and human rights, but unfortunately that’s not our area of work. Our work’s focus is on wildlife and biodiversity: we speak for the animals.
We are clear that the protected areas in the country have been established in accordance with the law of the country and everyone abides by the law. Also, there are other organizations that talk about human rights.
More than 90% of our investment is in the buffer zone [of protected areas] where we work with communities to support livelihoods. Our core area of work is to help people benefit from the ecosystem services. We do all this work in accordance with the law.
Mongabay: But there have also been times when NGOs have refrained from calling the government out on its ill-devised policies and programs, such as the recent comments from the forest minister that trophy hunting of tigers should be allowed.
Hem Sagar Baral: In Nepal’s context, we have seen that the bureaucracy and the politicians have lost their credibility, ethics and integrity. However there are two institutions that still hold these values. They are the Nepali Army and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. It is these two institutions that have crafted Nepal’s success story in conservation.
We are certain that these institutions will act as safeguards against ill-devised policies such as allowing hunters to kill tigers that might hurt conservation.
Mongabay: Coming back to the minister, he said publicly during the Tiger Day program that NGOs such as WWF and ZSL are spending their resources on small programs without any tangible results. What do you say to that?
Hem Sagar Baral: We need to understand that NGOs can’t replace the work the government does. The government is and will always be the biggest source of funding for conservation. NGOs such as ZSL can only contribute resources to fill the gaps in government programs and policies. We can’t replace the work the government does.
Therefore, our work will always be small compared to what the government carries out.
Mongabay: The COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian war in Ukraine showed that tourism as an alternative form of livelihood is very fragile. Most of Nepal’s alternative livelihood programs are based on tourism. When tourism doesn’t provide livelihoods, people are forced to go to the forest for resources.
Hem Sagar Baral: Yes, the pandemic definitely taught us a lesson. People living in the cities moved to the villages, where livelihoods were already under strain. This caused a spike in hunting and other illegal activities. This was indeed a difficult time.
We need to promote alternative livelihoods that are more sustainable and more localized. These kinds of goods and services can be consumed locally, regardless of the arrival of tourists. Hotels and homestays should also try promoting domestic tourism so that they aren’t overreliant on people coming from abroad.
Mongabay: What would be your biggest achievement in the 10 years you were with ZSL?
Hem Sagar Baral: There are many. ZSL now has more than two dozen staff, it’s become a place for young people to work on things they’re passionate about. We’ve been part of collaborative efforts to increase the number of tigers and gharials. We’ve also contributed to different species’ conservation action plans.
ZSL Nepal also assisted more than 10 scholars in their Ph.D. work and more than a dozen graduate students in their research.
Mongabay: What about the challenges facing the conservation sector?
Hem Sagar Baral: At a broad level, the main challenge is to balance the country’s aspiration for development with nature conservation. The gap between the two, in my opinion, is widening. For example, in the past we were OK with two-lane roads, now we need four-lane roads.
These are challenges beyond our remit. They need to be addressed at the prime ministerial or the national planning commission level.
Mongabay: Now that you’re retiring, what are your future plans?
Hem Sagar Baral: Even as I retire from ZSL, I won’t leave the conservation sector. I plan to work in the grassroots in the days to come.
Abhaya Raj Joshi is a staff writer for Nepal at Mongabay. Find him on 𝕏 @arj272.