Interview: Dr. Pralad Yonzon

Features Issue 39 Aug, 2010
Text by Anita Lama / Photo: Naresh Shrestha

Dr. Pralad Yonzon has  made immense contributions to wildlife con servation. He is a Ful bright scholar, and a recipient of the Golden Ark, Mahendra Vidya Bhusan- First Class, The National Achievement Award, The Crown Prince Science & Technology Award, Joint-Doctoral Research Award (Hawaii) and Mary Totten Achievement Award (USA). Dr. Yonzon went to the most prominent universities in the US, all through Fulbright scholarships. He got his Ph.d on the study of the Red Panda from the University of Maine and his second masters in Wildlife and Ecology from Colorado State University. He also went to Stanford University, East West Center (Hawaii), through various other scholarships. He completed his first masters in Zoology from Tribhuwan University. Technically, Dr. Yonzon has nearly 30 years of experience in biodiversity/human-related field in Nepal, Bhutan, Indonesia and Vietnam. Professionally, he has been a consultant, advisor and surveyor in Nepal, Bhutan, Vietnam and Indonesia with emphasis on conservation, monitoring of large landscapes and integrated regional development. He is the president of the Asia Section of the Society of Conservation Biology. A 53 year old scholar who is deeply and passionately engrossed in the world of knowledge, Dr Pralad Yonzon talks to Anita Lama about his work experiences and his organization, ‘Resources Himalaya’.

How do you go about doing your independent research on birds?
Our bird survey is not about birds. We used a bird as a thermometer to a body called forest. So using this thermometer, which is an assemblage of many species of birds, we are trying to see what is happening to the forest in every two years. What we believe is that certain species of birds go away, but new ones take up their place. We are trying to find out if that is really so, we do not know for sure. I cannot say how many species have gone and how many species have been added. ‘Gone’ does not mean that they have vanished from the face of Nepal, but from that particular area. This is a 15-year research and is supported by ourselves. Many times researches are donor driven and I think it is good, but not always. Sometimes you also have to prove that you have a commitment.

Tell us about your work in Bhutan?
I usually do wildlife survey and design national parks. Design in the sense, we are trying to see whether the range allocated for wildlife is good enough or not. We did the survey for tigers and snow leopards in Bhutan. In Nepal, you cannot think of tigers and snow leopards in one national park, but in Bhutan you do. I was lucky that this is the way you do it. We also found a tiger at around 3000 metres and have photographic evidence. This photo is unique for two reasons; tigers have never been recorded at such a high altitude, and this is the first photo of a free-ranging tiger in Bhutan. For me, it was an outstanding contribution in wildlife.

Where did you go to do your research on the Red Panda?
I went to the Langtang National Park. I spent more than 2 years in a tent at 10,600ft, round the year. One time during the rainy season, we did not see the sun for 19 days. And in winter, snow piles up on the tent so you clear the weight with the spatula every now and then. As you get tired and sleepy, you hit out with the legs and by 2 in the morning you are so tired you don’t care anymore and in the morning you wake up around 7 to find snow and everything on top of you. But those are good memories.

Any major challenges you would like to talk about?
There have been many, some political and some physical. I have been washed away twice by the Rapti river while doing research for a Smithsonian institution, which is based in Washington DC. We had to radio-track tigers and the Rapti was flooded but still a job is a job and I tried to cross the river. Halfway through, the current was so strong that the elephant tumbled and was carried 400-500 metres away. I think we all have natural instincts for our survival, so I hung on to the rope underneath the elephant’s belly. So as the elephant tumbled, I too tumbled and I don’t know how many times I tumbled, but the elephant also has the instinct to survive. In another situation, our project chief, Dr. Kirti Thapa was mobbed by tigers. We were on two elephants and the tigers were with their cubs. We could hear and know they were very close but the grass was almost 3 metres tall and with grass that high, you can’t send signals. So he climbed up a tree, and in no time the tigers came and climbed the tree like monkeys and pulled Kirti down. This happened right in front of my eyes. And right after dropping Kirti off the tree, the tigers came to the elephant I was on. One time, in Dolpo area, we had to walk on the rocks as the footpath was eroded. It was almost a 30 degree slope and right below us was raging Karnali with a deafening sound. We had to be surefooted like mountain goats, and if you stopped, you would slide down into the river. Eventually, we got through but a guy from Namche was in front of me and he nearly fell off. If I had not pushed him forcefully, it could have been fatal for both of us. While I was writing a management plan for ACAP, we tried crossing the Kali-Gandaki river on a horse. This was in July/August, and the current was very strong and someone said that if we got washed away, our bodies would be found downstream. We thought it was a joke but halfway through, the horse went helter skelter. The difficult times teach you the field craft so well. It’s not in the books, you just learn by instinct. So five of us held on to each other’s arms and walked like a stick until eventually, we got to the other side. The guy next to me was so scared that even after reaching the bank, he was still clinging to my hand.

Done any interesting fieldwork recently?

In 2003, we found out that black neck cranes migrate from Tibet and come to one particular valley called Phobjikha valley in Bhutan. The question is, how long will they continue to come back? And we found out that they will continue to come back as long as the farmers cultivate potatoes. So that means potatoes contribute to the conservation of these black neck cranes. 41% of Bhutan’s total potato yield is grown here as they can’t cultivate other crops due to the cold. But agriculture has been mechanized, so large fields produce potatoes, which is the best, viable and economical way. While the potato is being cultivated, it is so cold there, that all the villagers go down and leave the field open to the cranes. Going by the thumb rule, humans have been known to encroach and bring damage to wildlife conservation, but there are also cases where humans have contributed to conservation and this is one good example. Another factor is that during summer, people come to farm the potatoes in the field and their cows and horses graze extensively and when the cranes fly, the ground is so flat, they can see far and wide. In Tibet the habitat is very similar, so they really enjoy coming here and their behaviour enjoyment comes out of security. If you had tall grass, the cranes would not stay, fearing that predators were hiding behind the grass.

As chairperson of Resources Himalaya, how have you led to carve a niche in your field?
In August 2004, we turned into a foundation, so we no longer make money. We have been in research for the last 20 years and we are considered one of the outstanding independent research organizations in biodiversity in the Himalayan region, as we have that expertise. Our organization is based on three things: good science (accuracy), clear politics and local sensitivity. We the people in research have been so science-based, that we are like watertight compartments, so much so that we don’t care who does what, and I think this is inherently wrong. Then we become like scientists talking only about facts and figures on wildlife, and it just becomes natural history and romancing with nature. I think these things must trickle down to where political decisions are made and see that the information is accurately handled by policy makers, because this in turn will make the fortune or the future for the local people. Three years back our government made a decision to have more elephants inside the Royal Chitwan National Park. From the east to the west of Nepal, the total population of wild elephants is just 108. But if you take one national park, you find there are already 178 tamed elephants. The Ministry of Forests and Tourism want to pack it even more. They call it eco-tourism, so eco-tourism will destroy itself and on the other hand, poor people cannot afford to own elephants, so who benefits from eco-tourism? Eco-tourism makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, so there is a huge gap. We went toe to toe with the Ministry of Forests and I think no other organization in Nepal has that capability or guts to do that. Our point is that we will not bring you down, but your ministry is my ministry and you must respect the information that we are giving for free to the nation. A minister may not think likewise, but we are independent, so we don’t have to please the government. We call a spade, a spade, and sometimes we run into problems by being bold and truthful. Many people keep their mouths shut and get by; we don’t. We are outspoken and we want the coming generations to know 30 years, 100 years later, that there were a bunch of people who spoke at that time and they knew what they were talking; that they were intelligent, experts and they knew about their land and people. I don’t think we will win the war, but we have to get into the battle and I think we enjoy that. I got more energy out of the troubles that I went through.

How would you best describe yourself?
I got my first master’s 30 years back and I am still struggling, still learning. I consider myself a student of conservation biology. I don’t think I have mastered yet and I think I never will, because there is so much new knowledge to be found in Nepal, in the Himalayas and I think I need a hundred reincarnations to grasp all this knowledge. I think I never will.