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2022 Whitley Award
Sonam Lama Nepal Terrestrial
People and Red Pandas: Mutually Beneficial Conservation in the Himalayas

Eastern Nepal is home to Mt. Kangchenjunga, the world’s third largest mountain. It is also the residence of one of Asia’s most charismatic species, the red panda, though its future is uncertain in the face of habitat degradation and an increase in poaching.

THE FIRST PANDA

Endemic to the eastern Himalayan broadleaf forests, the red panda is a herbivorous carnivore. Shy and charismatic, they are globally endangered and are regarded as a living fossil. The red panda is a flagship species, meaning that if it thrives, so will other species including the Himalayan black bear, leopard, and the Asiatic wild dog. Sonam’s team at the Red Panda Network operate across three districts whose collective habitat could form an important corridor linking conservation areas in India and Nepal.

PANDEMIC IMpacts

Habitat loss, degradation and poaching have been persistent threats to the species, with red panda habitat now so severely fragmented that it is separated into more than 400 isolated patches. Forests stand largely unprotected, and face overexploitation by market-driven land-use pressures. Here, rates of annual deforestation are more than double the national average. While illegal trade and poaching of red panda pelts have been negligible, COVID-19 has changed the status quo: in 2021, Nepal witnessed record seizures, with 37 red panda skins confiscated from the black market. With other livelihood opportunities in ecotourism extinguished by the virus, illegal activities have surged.

A MULTI-PRONGED STRATEGY

Sonam is committed to the conservation of red pandas and has led the longest running monitoring project for the species in the wild. Using a community-based approach, the team will strengthen conservation interventions in habitat management, and educate communities on the impact of poaching and the illegal pelt trade. Sonam will diversify livelihood opportunities for marginalised groups, with a focus on socially and economically at-risk women and youth; scaling up work to reach three new districts. Poised to expand, the project’s success has great potential for replication in other range countries.

Sonam and his team will:

  • Train restoration stewards and provide income-generating opportunities to families as nursery guardians, with an emphasis on up-skilling female community members and youth
  • Restore 100 hectares of degraded and isolated habitat patches, creating a corridor for the red panda and other wildlife
  • Establish 6 anti-poaching units and train 300 local conservation stewards on forest patrolling to reduce illegal poaching in community forests by 40%
  • Reduce the seizure cases of red panda pelts by 30% through education and awareness campaigns reaching 100,000 in communities where trade is prevalent

Top Facts:

  • The red panda was discovered almost 50 years before the giant panda
  • The internet browser Mozilla Firefox was named after the red panda, where Firefox was derived from its nickname
  • Studies indicate that one red panda is now being poached every 10 days in Nepal

“The goal of the project is red panda conservation – but it is equally important to address the livelihood needs of communities.” – Sonam Lama

Image credits: Pema Sherpa (landscape with hikers, fieldwork, red panda in tree), Janam Shrestha (headshot), Ashley Bowen (red panda close up)