The founding fathers and heroes of Nepalese conservationism
It was a warm bright Septembers day, back in 2006; hopes and spirits were jubilant amongst the 24 faithful and distinguished passengers and crew boarding their helicopter for far-flung Tapeljung, under Mt. Kanchenjunga’s glare, in eastern Nepal. The long worked Kanchenjunga Conservation Area Project was about to be handed over to the management of local communities. It was to be one of the first national parks in the world to do so, in the world’s third highest ecosystem, under the world’s third highest mountain
For this world-prototype Nepal’s founding conservationist, naturalists and environmentalists, as well as international dignitaries, government ministers, institutionalists and press were all aboard the Russian manned helicopter.
With the handover completed, the faithful Shree Air helicopter and its passengers took off for home in bad weather and crashed into a cloud-covered mountainside, shortly after take off. All those aboard would not return, becoming one of the single worst losses for the nation in its history.
KCAP—A Brave New World
It was a brave new idea; communities as opposed to government would manage a national park. Although set up by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), under the charismatic leadership of Dr. Chandra Prasad Gurung and Dr. Mingma Norbu Sherpa; the Kanchenjunga Community Area Project had roots in numerous directions: USAID, the Finnish Embassy, Ministry of Forestry, Dept. of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and a multitude of local and international advisors. The disaster was not just a loss to countless families, but for the country and environment as a whole.
KCAP was in the planning for nearly 15 years, evolving from 1986s Annapurna Conservation Area Project; the first time in Nepal’s history where local communities played the most important roles. ACAP learned from mistakes made in Chitwan: Nepal’s first National Park (1972), in which all people from the parks area were removed, by the government.
KCAP was to go further than anything before; it was every environmentalist and conservationists dream.
As a global prototype, surrounded by two sensitive autonomous regions of Tibet and Sikkim, it had its work cut out. But when the handover time came KCAP had strong physical, legal and financial structure in place, for the communities.
What is most astounding about this tragedy is not that the helicopter tragically crashed or that countless valuable lives were lost; it’s that the show went on and grew. WWF Nepal, as an organization didn’t just freeze with the loss of so many high-echelon staff, it didn’t even regress, instead it flourished. It made me wonder why?
“Dr.’s Chandra Prasad Gurung and Mingma Norbu Sherpa were a most excellent team”, recounts Dr. Hum Gurung at Bird Conservation Nepal and President of the Chandra Gurung Conservation Foundation. Dr. Hum worked under what he calls the first generation of Nepalese conservationists. Chandra was versatile and charismatic, easily convincing you that anything was possible, he travelled over 60 countries and received his PhD in Hawaii.
Then Mingma was a pure strategist, who could figure out anything; he was the first to go to Lincoln University in New Zealand, with Sir Edmund Hillary’s help. Mingma’s father died, while Sir Edmund ascended Mt. Everest.
Both were highly educated and skilled men, from Sikles in the Annapurna’s and Khunde in Khumbu, both were mountain people understanding the value of communities.
“They had vision and foresight too, training us so well that when the time came, the next generation was ready to fill the vacuum, and did.”
Dr. Ghana Shyam Gurung, Conservation Program Director at WWF Nepal, says much the same, as he recollects how WWF didn’t just freeze in its abilities with such losses, but grew more than twice its human resources, coverage and finances.
I Lost My Soul Mates
Mr. Karna Shakya, a forester by profession and founder of Kathmandu Guesthouse, narrowly missed being on the helicopter that day. He was one of Chandra’s close friends and a personal advisor on planning KCAP. He first worked with Chandra and Mingma and many of the others who died, during the ACAP years. “Chandra, Dr. Harka Gurung and myself spent years: talking, thinking, drinking and analyzing KCAP.
Karna laments as he thinks of how he convinced Dr. Harka to get on the helicopter that day, as he was planning to open the Mountain Museum in Pokhara instead. “Because we worked on KCAP for so long, thrashing out the pieces, we felt he had to be there, we wanted to make it a big media day and of course you should have Dr. Harka Gurung. I got on the phone to Chandra and together we convinced Harka to postpone his event. But then the day before; unions wanted to have meetings over the staff at my hotel, I couldn’t just leave, they were difficult times in Nepal. Harka made me feel bad when I told him”.
The First Warden
When Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal’s first national park, was established in 1972, Dr. Tirtha Man Maskey became one of the nations first wardens. In 1978 he completed his Masters Degree from University of Michigan on Wildlife Management and did his PhD from University of Florida on Wildlife and Range Management a year later. He specialized on Gharial conservation. Back in Nepal Dr. Tirtha became active in making better anti-poaching systems and worked extensively on launching the Tarai-Arc Landscape Project, which today has helped western Tarai wildlife numbers bounce back.
As this was a project created by WWF-Nepal its list of attending dignitaries was wide and distinguished.
Chandra Gurung WWF-Nepal: Country Representative; Mingma Norbu Sherpa WWF-US: Conservation Director, Asia Pacific Program; Jill Bowling Schlaepfer WWF-UK: Director of Conservation Programs; Jennifer Lynn Hadley WWF-UK: Deputised to WWF-Nepal for Living Himalayas Projects; Mattew Preece WWF-US: Program Officer;Yeshi Choden Lama WWF-Nepal: Senior Program Officer
Loss For The Government
Gopal Rai: Minister for Forest and Soil Conservation. His wife Meena also died on the helicopter.
Dr. Damodar Prasad Parajuli: Acting Secretary, Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation. Parajuli also worked previously as Director General of Department of Forest.
Narayan Prasad Poudel: Director General, Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. Served with the government for 30 years and was one of the founders of Makalu-Barun National Park.
Sarad Kumar Rai: Director General of Department of Forest. Rai served the government for 30 years, mostly as a district forest officer. He did his Master’s Degree from Australia.
Loss At The Embassy Of Finland
Pauli Mustonen was the acting Chargé d’Affaires at the Finnish Embassy for over two years. Pauli specialized in development and the environment; as well as being responsible for handling all issues regarding Finland’s Presidency term of the E.U.
Loss At USAID
Margaret Alexander was in Nepal as Deputy Mission Director, having spent over 20 years with USAID, mostly as a lawyer. Previously Margaret served in USAIDS Regional Office for West Africa and was Assistant General Counsel for its Europe/Eurasia Bureau in Washington.
Dr. Bijnan Acharya was Environmental Officer at USAID, serving over ten years with them. He was responsible for all environmental impact assessments and coordinating with the NGO community.
Loss For Kanchenjunga
Vijaya Shrestha was a young man with a good head for business. The local community had a deep respect for the man who was Chariman of Taplejungs Chamber of Commerce and a Central Committee Member for the Federation of Nepalese Chamber of Commerce and Industries; responsible for the five districts of Mecchi Zone. He was also an executive member of Taplejung Red Cross. All this he managed while still running his business of tea and local foodstuff exports to India.
Dawa Tsering was an ex-army man, responsible for laying out KCAP with the local population. He was so highly regarded by them that in 2003 he was unanimously voted as the Chairman of KCAPs Management Council. He was considered as a conservationist hardliner, with his efforts previously recognized by WWF-Nepal awarding him their Abraham Conservation Award.
Remembering Dr. Harka Gurung, Namer of Nepal:
Dr. Harka was the man responsible for naming all the mountains of Nepal and for dividing the country into five regional zones. His knowledge of individual villages, rivers, mountains and anything to do with the nations geography was second to none—simply because he explored it all, keeping notes of his travels. He published a book about it all: Mallie Decko Nepal—I have seen Nepal. His image and memory is immortalized even further, by being on the five rupee stamp and has a mountain named after him: Dr. Harka Ghuidi (7,871m), rightfully so.
Karna still remembers clearly his daughter-in-law bringing the news that the helicopter went missing. How they stayed awake all night making rituals for their safety and worse how people came to congratulate his luck. “I felt numb, I didn’t know to cry or smile. I told people not to come near me with their congratulations; my soul mates were missing; even today I still can’t go to WWF, because of their memories”.
And now with time Karna feels that in a way they were lucky, those with nature in their blood, to have breathed their last breathe in such an amazing environment. In the depths of the very nature they loved, working vigorously to protect. “I don’t see it as sad for them, for the country yes, but not for them”.
The Phoenix Rises
The dent of this one tragic loss is recognized by the fact that every Asos 7 or September 22/23/24; is named as Nepal’s Conservation Day. It is a tribute to the nations loss of so many of its leading conservationists, environmentalist and naturalists.
Their memories, work and legacies actually flourished and that sadness has been turned into a positive energy, recounts Dr. Hum Gurung. In their names are a plethora of foundations and funds, continuing their visions with a host of programs and scholarships to help the next generation. These include Certificates, Bachelors and Masters Degrees at Nepal’s Institute of Forestry, two Degrees at University of Lincoln and many more in national and international institutes.
With such a strongly felt loss, reverberated around the globe, it’s a credit to the quality of those people who we lost; their qualities are beyond question.
Pat Kauba is a freelance storyteller with a love for natural heroes. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.