May 19, 2018, is the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Nepal country office of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). They’ve been supporting Nepal’s conservation efforts for even longer than that, though. From their pilot project in the Annapurna Conservation Area to the many ways they are involved today, WWF has been investing in Nepal since the organization’s establishment, even before they set up a country office here. Their commitment to Nepal’s wildlife, conservation, development, and people has made them a powerhouse in their field, and a strong advocate for many causes. Dr. Ghana Shyam Gurung, the new country representative, sat down with ECS Nepal to discuss their past successes, and the challenges still ahead.
Dr. Gurung has a long background in conservation. He was born in a small settlement called Dhi in Upper Mustang; at the time it had only twelve households. As a young child, he studied with his uncle, the head monk of one of the large monasteries in the area, and also helped his grandfather herd sheep and goats, before moving to the kingdom of Lo Manthang at age ten to continue his schooling. His quest for education would necessitate his continuing to relocate, first to Jomsom, and later to Kathmandu, where he planned on studying medicine. But, fate had other ideas in store, and he met the noted conservationist Mingma Sherpa, who told him that the Annapurna Conservation Area was being established and would need local managers. Mingma Sherpa suggested the young Gurung apply for one of the scholarships that was being offered to study park management in New Zealand. He jumped at the chance, and after many rounds of exams and interviews, including some by the late Sir Edmund Hillary himself, he was accepted along with several others.
He recalls one of the questions during the final stage of the process: “They asked me, ‘The snow leopard is a very rare animal, and it gets killed in your villages in the mountains. If you are here to protect it, how are you going to do it?’ and I said, ‘I need to learn the science and the value of it, and I need to learn the tools to protect it, and once I learn that from my education, I can come back to my village and talk about it. I will be able to convince people how rare, how important it is to maintain it, both for its own existence and our own life support system.’” It was a challenging, practical question, and in answering it Dr. Gurung demonstrated his openness and willingness to learn, a skill that has clearly served him well as he’s continued his career.
“So, that’s how I got into conservation, from meeting Mingma Sherpa, then a park warden, and I would say, one of the first generation of modern conservationists. He believed that I could do it and be a good conservation leader,” he explains. He completed his first degree, and later, a master’s, too, working under another noted name in Nepali conservation, Dr. Chandra Prasad Gurung, on an eco-tourism project in Ghandruk, and later helping to develop the Manaslu Conservation Area in 1997 before moving to WWF to help establish the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area, all while finding time to complete his PhD, as well.
In 2006, the helicopter crash that killed so many of the country’s noted conservation figures, including several of his mentors, changed the landscape in profound ways, but those that remained were even more devoted than ever to the mission of safeguarding Nepal’s nature.
What, I ask, would Dr. Gurung say has been the WWF’s biggest achievement in Nepal?
The first, he feels, is, “Believing in people and starting with people’s participation as a key primary factor in conservation and sustainable development—creating a conservation area that’s managed by the community, and helping the government to actually hand over the management responsibility to local people.”
Second, that WWF has always supported the government with innovative approaches led by science, for instance, in creating more protected area systems based on connectivity issue studies, leading to the formation of the Terai Arc Landscape in 2002. “A landscape approach to conservation is one way in which I think we made a huge difference,” he says. “Practically, there's now a contiguity and connectivity of forests. In the Terai, there were some disconnected places between north to south, now tigers and rhinos [can] move between them.”
It’s fascinating to hear about, and of course, it makes sense that the animals would need a way to move from jungle to grassland, what with all the cities, towns, and villages that have proliferated. Apparently, in some areas that connectivity can also come from community forests, plantation sites, sugar cane fields, and so on; not necessarily always wild landscape, but anything that the animals can move safely through. Passages also connect to the Indian national parks, so the wildlife can move back and forth across the border, as needed, for their natural movement and migration patterns.
“We can make ecological services for people and wildlife so much better. The water table has to be maintained, agriculture productivity has to be maintained. So, a landscape approach to conservation is so important, so that if wildlife stray from protected zones they are still safe. There’s a place to roam and breed and move, and thus there’s genetic dispersal,” he continues. Genetic dispersal is something I’ve been hearing more and more about lately. It’s a huge boon to wildlife conservation, and the lack of it has at times been the death of a species, even when numbers were adequate for breeding programs, but lacking in the genetic diversity to produce healthy offspring.
The third big win is how WWF worked with the government, even during the insurgency, to make saving the rhino a doable goal. Nepal has achieved zero poaching over a one-year period for the fifth time. The way they calculate this is when there has been a 365-day period without the loss of a single rhino—a feat which has been achieved five times now since 2011. In fact, another year had just been marked the day before I spoke with Dr. Gurung, on April 5,, 2018.
I find the optimism encouraging, but I want to hear about the other side, too. What are the biggest challenges that conservation in Nepal faces?
“The biggest challenge of all is that, Nepal is moving very fast in terms of linear infrastructure development. Every river is being planned for hydropower, lots of irrigation canals are being dug, roads are being built, railways being planned. Lots of trees will need to be cut for transmission lines. When environment impact assessment studies are done, the conservation people should not be seen as an impediment to development; they want development. They want to see Nepal prosperous, and with happy people. That’s what everyone wants to see.” But, it’s necessary to calculate the cost, and he believes development needs to be conducted with more of a long-term goal, to ensure that, for example, a road being constructed today is done well enough that it won’t just have to be rebuilt a short time from now. “Today’s cost should not exceed tomorrow’s cost. It’s not just about animal rights, its people’s rights in the long term. Impact assessment isn’t just a box to tick; you have to make sure you invest in it.”
In one example of how this partnership can assist infrastructure development in being more sensitive to the needs of nature, the WWF and their partners are able to determine where the movement of tigers and rhinos is happening, and where overpasses and corridors should be built for the wildlife to safely cross—because with the increase in vehicles and roads, road kill is becoming more and more of an issue, albeit one that has not been discussed very much. I had not heard of it here myself until recently. “We can provide the science, how the animals are crossing and behaving, so it will be a partnership.”
“The second challenge is to continue to keep the wildlife trade under control. If you don’t control the wildlife trade with a strong partnership with the Nepal police and Interpol, etc., no matter how much you increase the tiger and rhino numbers, they will be lost very quickly. We have done extraordinarily well; people are coming from Africa to learn how we’ve done it.” But, he warns, it’s important to keep up the momentum.
“We started with less than a hundred rhinos in the 1970s, and in the 80s and 90s they went up to 300-500, before falling during the political insurgency. But, immediately after, we pulled it up again, and now we have about 645 rhinos. When Nepal was totally forested, before malaria eradication in the mid-50s, Nepal was estimated to have 800 rhinos, max. Then, it went down to less than a hundred—yet now, we are getting close to that number again,” Dr. Gurung says.
What about the relationship between local people and animals in rural areas? Everyone’s read the stories in the papers about human-wildlife conflict, and obviously someone who lives side by side with wild animals will have a completely different perspective from those of us in the city. Dr. Gurung’s reply is that, if local communities are benefiting from the wildlife—such as through tourism—they will be more willing to put up with the hassles and possible dangers that come through living in proximity to them. Everyone should feel advantaged by the benefits of conservation.
“You have to negotiate that part rather than being emotional. I was a herder, and I know the pain of losing livestock to a snow leopard and wolf. Just the pain of seeing them killed itself was so traumatic, never mind the [economic] loss of it. I’ve seen that in my own life. You are losing your own livelihood; animals were the only cash in the bank you had in those days,” he tells me.
Snow leopards have been eating livestock for thousands of years, and will continue to do so. Farmers can tolerate a small amount of loss, but not much, before they retaliate. Some solutions have been to improve the corrals and guarding systems, but the biggest is probably providing compensation. The WWF has set up a grass-roots level insurance system in some of these areas, managed by the local people, citizen scientists who live on the spot. With the onus on them to identify snow leopard kills and arrange the insurance payouts, the process has become a lot more streamlined, quicker, and the whole system more successful. The trained villagers themselves make up the Snow Leopard Conservation Committee that determines eligibility, rather than someone attempting to mandate it from the far-off city.
It’s an example of a practical solution to the same dilemmas that Dr. Ghana Shyam Gurung faced in his childhood, an answer to the very question he was asked at the start of his journey: it’s come full circle for this herder from Lo Manthang.