Red pandas aren’t the largest in their class, but these nocturnal Asian mammals about the size of a house cat are big indicators of the health of their habitat.
Listed as “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, red pandas are what conservationists call an “umbrella species.” That means that, ideally, conservation efforts put into place to protect them also will protect other animals within their geographical area.
Native to the Himalayas, red pandas can be found in a disjunct range comprising Bhutan, Nepal, India, China and Myanmar. Within this territory, Red Panda Network (RPN) continues to set up the Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung (PIT) Red Panda Protected Forest in Eastern Nepal.
RPN believes that establishing this uninterrupted stretch of land measuring 11,500 square kilometers will also benefit other threatened and critically endangered animals on the Red List, such as the clouded leopard (“vulnerable”), the Assam macaque (“near threatened”) and the Chinese Pangolin (“critically endangered”).
Throughout the 20th century, conservationists informally used umbrella species to outline the size and boundaries of wildlife reserves, and the formal idea that one species could be used to protect others within its range didn’t take hold until the 1980s and 1990s, according to Tim Caro, a behavioral/evolutionary ecologist and conservation biologist at UC Davis. Caro has written extensively about the umbrella-species concept.
Recently, ecologists have begun to re-evaluate this theory. A 2018 study found that conservation interventions in Wyoming on behalf of the greater sage-grouse negatively impacted two other birds in the area, the Brewer’s sparrow and the sage thrasher.
In their paper looking at the usefulness of the umbrella species as a conservation tool, Jean-Michel Roberge and Per Angelstam concluded that some multi-species approaches, ones that included a “dream team” of focal species and took into account a variety of habitat needs and terrain characteristics, used in conjunction with other conservation methods could be the most actionable.
Carefully selecting that “dream team” is key to efficiently and cost-effectively preventing the extinction of threatened species, as the authors of a November 2019 study discovered. Researchers from the University of Queensland and various conservation groups compared the Australian federal government’s list of animals prioritized for conservation funding to the list of animals whose management their investigation found had most benefited other species within their ranges.
They determined that the Australian government could increase the protection of threatened terrestrial plants and animals from 6% to 46% by choosing more efficient umbrella species, such as the purple clover and the koala.
In the PIT corridor, the red panda is the ideal umbrella species because the basic requirements for its conservation results in the protection of many other species at the ecosystem level, said Sonam Tashi Lama, RPN’s Program Coordinator.
“The red pandas can't survive well in a fragmented habitat and require large intact temperate broad-leaved forests, which provide a home to the many other co-occurring species in the region,” Lama said. “The red pandas are the only species for the PIT corridor that could drive the attention of the conservation community and grab the sentiments of the local communities to conservation and help to bring the umbrella effect for the conservation of the ecological community in a landscape level.”
Want to help RPN continue its mission to build a protected forest for a “dream team” of species and their captain, the red panda? Learn more about the project here, and when you’re ready to pitch in, visit us here.
Writing and Communications Volunteer
Red Panda Network
She witnessed the forests being decimated; now, she fights to protect them as RPN’s first female Forest Guardian in Western Nepal.
Shanti Malla grew up in the rural hills of Dailekh district in Western Nepal. She remembers venturing into the forests to gather fuelwood and graze livestock. Sometimes Malla would cross paths with villagers who were hunting wildlife like barking deer, wild boar and ghoral for meat. The forests were essential to the livelihoods of Dailekh villagers.
At age 17, Malla got married and came to live in Mahawai village in neighboring Kalikot district. Once again, she found herself in a similar scenario where herself, and everyone around her, heavily depended on the forest for their daily needs.
“The forest is our lifeline—I cannot imagine our day-to-day lives without it,” says Malla, “At the same time, this kind of excessive use of resources contributes to forest degradation and loss of wildlife.”
The forests near Mahawai village—along with many districts in Western Nepal—were being decimated by Illegal logging and timber collection. Hunting of wildlife for meat remained unchecked and resources were being extracted at unsustainable rates. “Our water sources began to dry out,” Malla said.
Recognizing the problems, members of Him Kalika Community Forest (HKCF), which covers 241 hectares of land, took steps to revive the disappearing forests. They planted trees on denuded hilltops, appointed locals to protect the forests, and raised awareness about the importance of forests and how to utilize resources sustainably. The community also controlled the movement of people going inside the forests for timber collection and discouraged locals from hunting forest wildlife. Malla was one of the active members of Him Kalika Community Forest User Group (HKCFUG) in Mahawai Rural Municipality.
In 2017, Malla was elected as HKCFUG secretary and two later promoted to become the first female FG in Western Nepal. Red Panda Network (RPN), in collaboration with local partner organizations’ Himalayan Community Resource Development Center (HCRDC) and Human Rights and Environmental Development Center (HuRENDEC) selected Malla as a Forest Guardian (FG) to protect red pandas and their habitat in Kalikot.
We were informed that our forests were home to the endangered red panda, and that this species needed immediate protection,” Malla said. “I wasn’t aware of red pandas; I was curious to know more.”
Malla, along with nine other newly selected FGs (all male members) from five community forests in Kalikot district, took part in a three-day capacity-building training organized by RPN and partner organizations: HCRDC and HuRENDEC. Participants learned the importance of red pandas to the Himalayan ecosystem, wildlife monitoring techniques, and GPS handling. They were taught how to prepare blocks and transects for red panda monitoring. In April of 2019, the newly selected FGs from Kalikot established four monitoring blocks in four community forests.
“I’m really proud to be a part of the FG program. I hope to continue to work to protect forests and help save red pandas,” Malla said.
RPN’s national FG team consists of active members of Community Forest User Groups operating inside red panda range in 10 districts in Nepal. They support red panda conservation through multiple activities, such as monitoring red panda populations and habitat, education and outreach, forest protection, restoration and sustainable management; anti-poaching investigation, and threat identification and mitigation. Most of the forests they work in are located outside of protected areas in Nepal.
In April of this year, RPN celebrated one of the organization’s most significant achievements—reaching 100 FGs in Nepal! The celebration will continue with the replanting of 7 hectares of degraded core red panda habitat in Jajarkot, Jumla and Kalikot districts of Western Nepal.
Out of 100 members, only seven FGs are female.
“The involvement of local women in red panda conservation is pivotal to our success. Unfortunately, due to cultural constraints, we have not been able to hire more female FGs,” says Saroj Shrestha, RPN’s Project Coordinator in Western Nepal. “RPN is committed to changing this." Learn more in the article 'The Changing Role Of Women In Red Panda Conservation.'
Poverty is rife in the rural villages of Western Nepal. In order to support their family, male members migrate to neighboring India in search of menial jobs. This leaves women with the responsibility of taking care of the daily needs of their families.
“We protect forests and wildlife for our children. If there are no trees, there is no life” says Malla.
Click here for more information and opportunities to support our FG program—including sponsorship of Shanti Malla!
Do you love red pandas? Have a passion for photography? Then have we got a trip for you…
Introducing our new Himalayan Red Panda Phototrip. It’s like one of our ecotrips, but with an emphasis on photography. Whether you’re an experienced photographer or a novice looking to improve your skills, this trip offers a one-of-a-kind opportunity to get immersed in the distinctive landscape and biosphere of Eastern Nepal.
The Himalayan Red Panda Phototrip is provided in cooperation with Photofox LPG, a nature photography company that facilitates eco-conscious “photo adventures” worldwide. The trip will be hosted by Rafa Salvador, who has experience as a photographer in several countries including Costa Rica, Nepal, Scotland and Thailand. Rafa has organized trips for reputable wildlife organizations such as National Geographic, and with National Geographic Explorers, such as Molly Ferrill. We sat down with Rafa to discuss his background, how the phototrip came to be and what trip participants can expect.
RPN: Tell us a little about your background and how you became involved with photography.
Rafa: My background is in law. Through my journalism work, I naturally became inclined toward photography. After working as a sports photographer during my undergraduate years, I changed my focus to wildlife conservation. I became connected with a National Geographic photographer who was documenting wildlife tourism in Thailand. This rekindled my passion for photography, which led to the creation of photo tours.
RPN: What is main concept behind Photofox Adventures?
Rafa: The company provides full-immersion phototrips with an emphasis on education and ethical practices. Unfortunately, a lot of photography companies disregard animal welfare in pursuit of the “perfect shot”; likewise, nature tourism can have a negative impact on the environment when there’s a lack of knowledge and respect for nature. Our mission is to give people a chance to pursue their passion for nature photography in a more environmentally responsible way, and to educate them about animal welfare. In keeping with this ethos, we often partner with wildlife conservation organizations, such as Rainforest Animals Rescue Group and, most recently, Red Panda Network.
RPN: How did you connect with Red Panda Network?
Rafa: My interest in nature conservation led me to RPN. During a fundraising campaign to assist victims of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, I contacted RPN about the possibility of collaborating on a photo adventure. They were pleased with my experience organizing phototrips, wildlife photography skills and interest in protecting red pandas, and we decided to create the Himalyan Red Panda Phototrip.
RPN: How does attending the Himalayan Red Panda Phototrip benefit Red Panda Network and its mission?
Rafa: Your trip payment directly supports the community-based conservation initiatives of Red Panda Network, including the Forest Guardian program, which trains and employs local people as professional forest stewards. During the trip, you will have an opportunity to see firsthand how this is being carried out, as you visit villages and locations where the RPN is actively involved with red panda conservation and awareness.
RPN: Other than red pandas, what types of wildlife are trip participants likely to see?
Rafa: The mountains and forests we’ll be traveling through are home to a wide diversity of wildlife, including clouded leopards, Himalayan black bears, yellow-throated martens, Bengal foxes, golden jackals and Assam macaques, Additionally, more than 120 species of birds inhabit this region, including the Wood Snipe, Satyr Tragopan, Common Teal, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Maroon-backed Accentor, Green-tailed Sunbird, Rufous-throated Wren Babbler, and the Rusty-fronted Barwing.
RPN: What kinds of equipment should trip participants bring with them?
Rafa: You’ll need to bring two kinds of equipment: hiking gear and photography equipment. For hiking, we recommend an 80-100Lt backpack and a 30Lt daypack with rain cover to carry binoculars, water bottle and extra clothing. Regarding photography equipment, the short answer is that this trip can be completed with only a camera, a telephoto zoom, a wide angle lens, a tripod, rain protection and a cable release. However, if you can afford it, we recommend additional gear, as listed here. It’s also important to bring electrical adapters for charging your camera equipment, including “Type D” Indian BS 546 and “Type C” European CEE 7/16.
Please keep in mind that you should bring all your camera gear on board with you during your flight to Nepal. Never check your camera gear as hold luggage. Check the flight regulations of each airline company to make sure your camera gear bag is suitable for carry-on; I use a Lowepro 500 AW bag and have never had any trouble traveling with it, but I recommend double-checking regardless.
RPN: Do trip participants need to have a certain level of photography experience?
Rafa: No, not at all! Any person at any skill level is welcome, from amateur to professional. Even non-photographers can have a great time on this trip—we don’t want to exclude anyone that is interested in joining.
RPN: Is there anything trip participants should be prepared for in terms of physical challenges or environmental conditions?
Rafa: Yes, this trip requires a medium level of fitness, due to the fact that we’ll be hiking through a wide range of altitudes and terrain. Also, because we’ll be trekking to higher elevations than what many participants are used to, there is always a possibility you may experience altitude sickness. Our trip leaders do everything they can to avoid this, including gradual elevation to allow for acclimation, and making sure everyone is well-hydrated. In any case, this phototrip will be more slow-paced than a regular ecotrip, since we’ll be stopping frequently to take photos.
RPN: What kinds of knowledge or insights should trip participants expect to take away from their phototrip experience?
Rafa: All Photofox Adventure trips are educational in nature, not only in regard to photography but to the setting’s indigenous wildlife and people. On the Himalayan phototrip, you will learn about Nepali livelihoods and culture, as well the red panda, its habitat and the conservation effort on its behalf. In addition, you will develop your travel photography skills, as we demonstrate and practice techniques for capturing wildlife and shooting landscapes. Overall, the trip should be a fun, educational and rewarding experience for all participants.
In a tiny village near the Nepal-India border, a small innovation in cooking methods is making a big difference in the lives of red pandas and the people who share their home.
With the help of Red Panda Network, families in Dobate, a settlement of 11 households in Ilam district, began using metal cookstoves in December 2016. The appliances have improved fuel efficiency and reduced firewood consumption.
Deforestation and loss of habitat are negatively impacting the red panda population. While the causes of deforestation vary by locale, firewood consumption, cattle grazing and illegal logging are the leading drivers of it in Dobate. For families there, the forest is a source of firewood as well as timber for building fences and cow sheds.
Prior to last December, Dobate locals used traditional cookstoves composed of mud and stones, which required 33 kg of wood for fuel per day and produced large amounts of smoke.
The impact of this type of cooking and heating is not only environmental. The smoke has serious health consequences for the people who continue to use traditional cookstoves in poorly ventilated homes, according to the World Health Organization.
WHO reports that about 3 billion people worldwide continue to cook and heat their homes using either open fires or cookstoves that burn coal, wood or animal and/or crop waste. As a result, more than 4 million people die prematurely from illnesses attributable to the indoor air pollution arising from these cooking methods. Children are among those disproportionately affected. Soot inhalation from household air pollution is the cause of more than half the premature deaths due to pneumonia among children under age 5, according to WHO.
To combat these negative impacts to human health and the environment, several countries are working together to encourage the adoption of clean cooking and heating methods. Nepal is a national partner of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership hosted by the United Nations Foundation that is working to create a demand for clean and efficient household cooking appliances and fuels. The alliance has set a goal for 100 million households to adopt clean and efficient cookstoves and fuels by 2020.
The Red Panda Network is helping make this happen. With funding from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), San Diego Zoo, Rotterdam Zoo and the Disney Conservation Fund, RPN worked with local families to design cookstoves that not only met their needs but also those of the environment. Each cookstove cost approximately US$490.
As a result of the installation of the new cookstoves in each household, RPN has seen a nearly 50% reduction in the consumption of firewood. The new stoves use 15 kg of wood per day as opposed to the 33 kg used by the older, inefficient stoves.
In addition, the stoves can burn unwanted litter, leaves and the fruit of trees, which were previously unused, wrote Damber Bista, Conservation Manager for RPN, Asia Division, in an email interview.
Other improvements include:
- reduced indoor air pollution as the ventilation system on the new cookstoves moves the smoke from the kitchen to the outside;
- reduced cooking time (from 17 minutes to 12 minutes to boil 1.5 liters of water);
- firewood collection time cut in half;
- improved indoor heating; and
- reduced demand for extra firewood for boiling water since the new stoves include a water boiling system.
According to Bista, families in Dobate were quick to adapt to the new cookstoves. RPN plans to promote similar stoves in rural areas of Ilam, Panchthar and Taplejung Districts in the future, he wrote.
Please check out this short documentary on our Improved Cooking Stove efforts!
Writing and Communications Volunteer
Red Panda Network
World Health Organization. (Updated February 2016). Household air pollution and health. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs292/en/
Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. (n.d.). About. Retrieved from Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves website http://cleancookstoves.org/about/
Out of the Red Panda Network (RPN)'s 72 Forest Guardians in Nepal, Menuka Bhhatari is one of four women. Despite the fact that women tend to be the predominant forest users in Nepal, getting involved in conservation efforts isn't always easy for them.
Bhhatari has been threatened by poachers who try and convince her that there’s no use protecting red pandas and she’s been challenged by the village elderly who think that, as a woman, she should resign herself to doing household work. “The work for boys and girls is differentiated by God and Nature,” they tell her.
Yet, according to Bhhatari, women should not be limited to household chores and are just as much a part of red panda conservation in Nepal as their male counterparts. Even though they aren’t yet well represented within the organization’s Forest Guardian program, women remain a focal point of RPN’s conservation efforts, and change is happening gradually.
“In Nepal, especially in the rural areas, women have always imposed a great influence on their surroundings,” said Damber Bista, Red Panda Network’s conservation manager. According to him, more than 90 percent of Nepali women in rural areas are involved with activities that affect the environment in some way, including cooking, firewood and fodder collection, and agricultural practices.
Bista admitted that it is a challenge for RPN to recruit women forest guardians. When the non-profit looks for new Forest Guardians, it asks local forest users and villages for their recommendations.
“They mostly recommend males,” said Bista, “even though we’ve been requesting them to recommend females. They say that it’s risky for females to go into the forest for the whole day. Even if some women dare to do this, some say it becomes hard to take care of their family at home.”
Just because it’s proven difficult to recruit females doesn’t mean that RPN is giving up, and has recently added three women to the Forest Guardian team. “Women remain one of the important target groups of our conservation program,” said Bista. “We believe that a well-educated mother can not only contribute to conservation, but also educate her children with good habits, which ultimately help to foster sustainable living.”
Red Panda Network has a number of programs and initiatives specifically targeted to women, including nature guide training, homestay management training, and nettle fiber extraction training. Additionally, two of the 32 RPN’s Community Forest User Groups are comprised entirely of women members.
According to Pema Sherpa, one of Red Panda Network’s newest members, the door is slowly opening to getting more women involved in conservation efforts. As RPN’s Conservation Coordinator, Sherpa helps to assist in implementing and coordinating various activities with the organization’s field partners in eastern Nepal.
“Women are not allowed to put forth their views when discussing conservation policy, and they lack [equal] access to forest conservation efforts, but the scenario is changing,” said Sherpa. “In the past, women were confined only to household chores and they were hindered to get involved in conservation efforts.”
Today, says Sherpa, women and girls want to get involved with Red Panda Network’s conservation efforts, even if some families won’t allow women to work as Forest Guardians. “Nowadays,” she said, “society respects working women.” Sherpa specifically commented that many women are interested in becoming involved with ecotourism efforts as a way to conserve their environment.
“We believe that women are the first teachers of every child,” said Sherpa, “and that children are the building stones of every nation. Therefore, the participation of women in red panda conservation is crucial.”
Fortunately for our friend Bhhatari, her family members are supportive of her being a Forest Guardian, and have been for the past three and a half years. “As a forest guardian, I have the chance to contribute my efforts to red panda conservation.”
When asked if she’d encourage a future daughter or a young girl in her village to become a Forest Guardian with the Red Panda Network, Bhhatari gave an emphatic “yes.”
“Even now,” she said, “I try to convince my friends to join because if we don’t take action now, red pandas will be extinct forever.”
Writing and Communications Volunteer
Red Panda NetworkPlease check out Shane Downing’s work at www.scdowning.com
Red panda pictures are easy to find on social media channels these days but where can you see real live red pandas in the wild? Red Panda Network (RPN) offers guided ecotrips in Eastern Nepal that make it possible to see red pandas in their natural habitat! Here are the top 10 reasons why you might want to add this to your bucket list:
1. See the red panda, a rare and elusive species, in its natural habitat! The number one reason most people go on an RPN ecotrip is to see red pandas in the wild. Thanks to our incredible Forest Guardians and ecotrip field guides—and rising red panda numbers in our conservation project areas—RPN has had a 100% success rate of red panda sightings during ecotrips for years now.
2. See dozens of bird species. Sightings of more than 30 bird species have been reported on RPN ecotrips, including: Fire-tailed Myzornis, the White-collared Blackbird, the Orange-flanked Bush- robin and the uncommon White-capped Water Redstart. Additional sightings of the Rufous-vented Niltava, Himalayan Griffon Vulture, a Steppe Eagle, an Oriental Honey Buzzard, the Asian Barred Owlet and a White-capped Water Redstart have been reported from past Red Panda Network ecotrip participants.
3. Amazing Adventure Red pandas are elusive and live in remote forested areas, so get ready for an adventure! The journey includes a long, bumpy jeep ride, modest accommodations and challenging hikes through thick vegetation and up or down steep ravines. Sometimes unpredictable weather can impact our adventure, as well as other unforeseen delays. But don’t worry! We’ve seen it all and done it all many times before! Get ready to work up a healthy appetite exploring the gorgeous scenery.
4. Spectacular Scenery in addition to searching for red pandas and other mammals and bird species, a portion of the trip is devoted to taking in spectacular views of Nepal’s forested ridges extending tens of miles into the distance, fading in the distant mist, rhododendron forests and breathtaking views of Kanchenjunga and Everest!
5. Unforgettable People From your tour guide to the Forest Guardians in charge of tracking the red panda in the wild, our RPN team takes pride in providing wonderful service. During your journey in Nepal, you will be connecting with amazing communities that are committed to red panda conservation!
6. Simple, Slow Food Leave your food habits behind and embrace the simplicity of the Nepali diet, which includes a lot of Dal, Bhat and Tarkari – (Lentils, Rice and Curried vegetables). You may be also be served combined dishes of dal-bhat tarkari. Breakfast might be something like sukkah roti, aloo-chana, noodles, omelet, jam and peanut butter. Tea and coffee are served any time. Lunch and dinner mainly consists of rice, Mo:Mo, Paratha and chapatti, which are served with daal (lentil soup) and vegetables.
7. Tea and Tongba! RPN ecotrips begin and end in Ilam, home to one of the oldest tea plantations in Nepal. Test the world-renowned tea and make use of this stop to purchase a few gifts. Once you reach the hills of eastern Nepal, you may also be offered Tongba (a popular liquor in the hills, made by pouring hot water into a pot of fermented millet and drunk with a bamboo straw). Cheers!
8. RPN ecotrips are very economical, once you get there! Our ecotrip packages include lodging, food, local travel, and experienced tour and field guides. Groups of 2-4 receive a %10 discount and groups of 5-8 get %20 off the total cost!
9. Conservation Travel Your payment will support RPN’s community-based ecotourism initiative which contributes directly to sustainable livelihoods. All food, lodgings and hospitality are provided locally, creating sustainable employment for the native communities that are alternatives to forest exploitation.
10. Channel the magnificence of the Himalayan region, home to Mount Everest and the highest mountains in the world!
Do you have questions about our ecotrips? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.