• Menuka Bhattarai: The Firefox Guardian

    RPN's first female Forest Guardianand the focus of the award-winning documentary The Firefox Guardianshares her story and how she fell in love with the endangered red panda.

    Just over a decade ago, Menuka Bhattarai was walking through the forest in Eastern Nepal, when a colorful cat-like animal crossed her path and vanished inside the dense forest of bamboo, rhododendron and fig.

    “I grew up hearing stories about this fluffy cat-like/fox-like animal which locals believed was responsible for causing damage to crops and livestock. But, I hadn’t seen it myself until that day. I was delighted.” she said.

    Bhattarai, a thirty-year-old local from Phawakhola village in Taplejung, a remote hilly district in Eastern Nepal and one of the major habitats of endangered red pandas, shares that the locals—including her—had no idea what a red panda is or that it needed to be protected.

     

    Forest Guardian, Menuka Bhattarai.
    Forest Guardian, Menuka Bhattarai.

    According to Bhattarai locals threw stones to scare away red pandas whenever they entered the village or were spotted in the forest. “We were unaware of the importance of this creature,”.

    But things began to change over the years, thanks to the efforts of conservation stakeholders such as Red Panda Network (RPN) in creating awareness of red pandas and reducing threats caused by human disturbances.

    Himali Conservation Forum (HCF), a non-governmental organization based in Taplejung has led the charge in raising red panda awareness. Supported by RPN, HCF engages with Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs) in the district to educate locals on the ‘little known’ and ‘misunderstood’ red panda.

    HCF works with CFUGs in recommending some of its active members to RPN to be hired and trained as Forest Guardians (FGs)—and Menuka is one of them. RPN has hired 86 locals, including five females, as FGs who are paid to monitor and protect red panda habitat, as well as educate communities on red panda conservation.

    Menuka and FGs monitoring red panda habitat.
    Menuka and FGs monitoring red panda habitat.

    “I consider myself an animal lover. When I saw a red panda for the first time, I fell in love with this cute animal. Luckily, I got an opportunity to work as a Forest Guardian for red panda conservation,” Bhattarai says.

    Bhattarai joined RPN’s Forest Guardian team about six years ago. Back then, people would question Menuka and why she is saving an animal they considered harmful. “Poachers used to threaten me. They tried to convince me that there is no use for protecting red panda. Initially, I felt discouraged but eventually I got to know more about red pandas and wanted to work toward their conservation,”.

    She also added how she was taunted for being a girl. “You should be doing household work and helping your family and not walking in the forests for red pandas,” Bhattarai said, adding, “But, my family members were supportive and let me do my work without any question,”.

    Over the years, the perception among local people towards red panda has changed. Awareness campaigns have been organized, information boards installed, and forest users and school children have engaged in various outreach and education activities. In addition, RPN’s ecotourism initiatives have improved the economic status of community members, helping to mobilize them toward red panda conservation efforts.

    Participants of homestay training.
    Participants of homestay training.
    Red panda in Eastern Nepal.
    Red panda in Eastern Nepal.

    As an FG, Bhattarai has been monitoring local red panda habitat and raising awareness in the community and schools about the importance of preserving this endangered species.

    Pema Sherpa, RPN’s Conservation Coordinator in Eastern Nepal, emphasized poor representation of women in the conservation sector.

    “The family environment can be discouraging” she said. According to Sherpa, families are reluctant to allow their female members to work as a FGs as they think going inside the remote forests and walking for hours—sometimes staying overnight—is not something a woman should be doing.

    Bhattarai stresses the need for more women FGs to protect the forests. According to her, women are the primary stakeholders of the forests as they spend most of their time in the forest collecting firewood, fuel and fodder for their family.

    “I want more women to be part of RPN’s Forest Guardian initiative. They need to be trained and empowered to take necessary steps towards protecting forests,” she said.

    The Firefox Guardian has received many awards at film festivals all over the world.

    Gunjan Menon's The Firefox Guardian is a conservation love story:

    Red pandas are a species in peril. But there is a very special community in Eastern Nepal that has come together to protect them. A native of these forests, ‘Menuka Bhattarai,’ is one of only a few women working as a ‘Forest Guardian’ with the Red Panda Network. This is the story of Menuka—an unconventional wildlife warrior—who against all odds is following her heart to save the last of the red pandas.

    The Firefox Guardian is an award-winning film, and recently won Best Student Film at the Woodpecker International Film Festival. Menuka's voice has reached seven countries across the globe and has been creating awareness about red pandas.

    Watch:
    Trailer

    Related articles:
    Filming the Firefox
    The Changing Role of Women in Conservation 

    Learn more about RPN's Forest Guardian program and how you can support community-based red panda conservation!

  • RPN Supports Nepal’s First Red Panda Conservation Action Plan

    Red Panda Network (RPN) is providing key support for Nepal’s first red panda conservation action plan.

    The Ministry of Forests and Environment (MoFE) of the Government of Nepal has launched a five-year (2019-2023) “Red Panda Conservation Action Plan for Nepal” to boost efforts to conserve red pandas in the wild. This is Nepal’s first of such guidelines and will provide a thorough framework for engaging local communities and strengthening coordination among conservation actors at national and international levels.

    The guidelines were architected by a group of experts representing the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), Department of Forests and Soil Conservation (DoFSC), National Trust for Nature Conservation, WWF Nepal and Zoological Society of London. Red Panda Network (RPN) will provide technical and financial support. DNPWC and DFSC will take an overall lead in implementing the action plan.

    “The plan will help to mainstream conservation activities and guide grassroots efforts to ensure the conservation of red pandas in the wild,” said Ang Phuri Sherpa, RPN’s Country Director.

    “With this action plan, we aim to protect and manage red panda populations in Nepal by applying a holistic approach to conservation. Involvement of local communities has been prioritized in this action plan which I believe will be critical in achieving the plan’s targeted objectives for the next five years,” said Man Bahadur Khadka, director general of the DNPWC under the MoFE.

    The plan outlines five major objectives targeted to improve survival rates among wild red pandas. Objectives include increasing understanding of conservation status, ecology and habitat dynamics; curbing poaching and illicit trade;  protection and sustainable manage of habitat; enhancing and extending community-based red panda conservation initiatives; strengthening cooperation and coordination of red panda conservation programs at national and international levels.

    RPN's afforestation initiatives in degraded red panda habitat in Eastern Nepal.

    “My hope is this action plan will synergize the combined efforts of the central government, provincial and local governments, conservation partners and local communities to achieve the common goal of protecting red pandas,” said Ram Prasad Lamsal, director general of DoFSC under the MoFE.

    The presence of the elusive and endangered red panda, locally (in Nepal) known as ‘Habre’, is documented along the temperate bamboo forests in 24 districts and seven protected areas, totaling around 24,000 square kilometers. Besides Nepal, red pandas are also found in Bhutan, China, India and Myanmar with total range-wide red panda populations estimated to be less than 10,000 in the wild.

    Wild red panda populations face a host of threats to their survival including continuous degradation and fragmentation of habitats, as well as poaching and illegal trade. Rapid human population growth and development and conversion of forests to settlements and agriculture are causing deforestation in their Eastern Himalayan range.  Dog attacks in rural Nepal and transfer of diseases from livestock and dogs to these species—as well as climate change—are emerging threats to this endangered species.

    Community member and free-roaming dog in Eastern Nepal.

    This is all compounded further by the reality that 70 percent of red panda habitat in Nepal lies outside protected areas. Most of these habitats are managed as Community Forests where local communities are key stakeholders.

    RPN is addressing these threats through collaborations with Community Forest User Groups and stakeholders that include ecotourism, anti-poaching patrol units, citizen scientist and Forest Guardian program, and community and school outreach programs.

    Ang Phuri Sherpa is delighted with RPN’s leadership. “The Red Panda Conservation Action Plan is a first at the national level, and a big achievement for Red Panda Network. We are proud to provide key support for this important framework.”

    Pragati Shahi
    Communications Officer
    Red Panda Network

  • Free-Roaming Dogs: a Major Threat to Red Pandas

    On a daily basis, red pandas face an uphill battle for survival. They are threatened by habitat destruction and fragmentation, illegal poaching, haphazard development work, and untimely weather affecting the flowering of their primary food source, bamboo.

    Another threat has emerged: numerous free-roaming dogs within the red panda habitat, and they appear to be triggering high mortality rates of red pandas.  

    The presence of free-roaming dogs can cause wildlife to move away from an area, either temporarily or permanently. Wild animals (including red pandas) become less active during the day in order to avoid interaction with the strays. Free roaming dogs can kill wild animals and spread diseases such as rabies and distemper. They can also pollute water sources and transmit parasites to both animals and humans.

    Neutering is the primary solution to reduce the long-term dog population. But, where to implement such a program? Neutering requires veterinary professionals, resources, and a population of humans willing to participate.

    Participants of dog nuetering service.
    Participants of dog nuetering service.

    Tourists and pilgrims are also often targeted by free-roaming dogs, and the Ilam and Taplejung Districts, located near the Indian border, are major tourists destinations. A neutering agreement was made with the District Livestock Service Centre: Ilam and Taplejung for their medical services. News about the neutering and vaccination program was broadcasted on local radio and letters were delivered to respective Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs).

    Initially, the response was muted as locals were unsure their dogs would survive the operation. There was also misconceptions about whether the neutering process would make their dogs lethargic. Generally, villagers prefer vaccines and as well as birth control tablets over neutering.  

    A team of technicians performed operations on 200 dogs between the ages of 8 months to 9 years, benefitting 156 households of 8 CFUGs from Ilam and Taplejung (Choyatar CF, Nunthala CF, Kalikhop dadeli CF, Chipchipe CF, Laliguras mahila CF, Pathivara simbu CF, Mayampatal CF, Phurumbhu kharka CF). 53 dogs received rabies vaccinations.

    Two weeks after the operations a few people complained their dog’s healing process took longer than expected. No other problems were encountered, though several people reported some neutered dogs had become excessive barkers.

    Local community member and dog.
    Local community member and dog.
    Red panda cub in Eastern Nepal.
    Red panda cub in Eastern Nepal.

    Street dogs are a desired target for neutering, but unfortunately, they are very difficult to trap, and require technicians, and equipment. A dart method can be used to sedate the dogs prior to operation, but this is expensive and requires a high level of expertise. Challenges remain in keeping free-roaming dog populations from becoming a larger problem.

    RPN recommends additional scientific research to understand free-roaming dogs’ impact on red panda survival and conservation. We also strongly support working with local professional organizations who can ensure veterinary professionalism. RPN will continue to work with local communities to ensure red panda populations, and the communities that support them, remain healthy and strong.

    Pema Sherpa, Danielle Lippe, Mark Hougardy & Terrance Fleming
    Red Panda Network

  • Himalayan Red Panda Phototrip: Q & A with Trip Host Rafa Salvador

    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.

    Rafa Salvador

    Phototrip leader, Rafa Salvador. 

    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.

    Forest Guardians

    Forest Guardians of Eastern Nepal. 

    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.

    Green-tailed Sunbird

    Green-tailed Sunbird. 

    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.

    Photo by Rafael Salvador during 2018 Phototrip to Nepal.

    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.

     

    Photo by Rafael Salvador during 2018 Phototrip to Nepal.
    Photo by Rafael Salvador during 2018 Phototrip to Nepal.

    For more information about the Himalayan Red Panda Phototrip, visit our general trip info page.

    James Florence
    Writing and Communications Volunteer
    Red Panda Network

  • Improved Cookstoves for Red Panda Stewards

    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.

    Dobate Village in Ilam, Eastern Nepal

    Dobate Village in Ilam, Eastern Nepal

    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.

    traditional stove

    Local woman preparing rice on traditional stove

    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.[1]

    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.[2]

    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.

    Women cooking in improved cooking stove

    Women cooking in improved cooking stove

    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.
      red panda on mossy tree

    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!

    Dawn Peterson
    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/

  • The Changing Role of Women in Red Panda Conservation

    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.

    Menuka Bhattarai and Forest Guardian colleagues during training.
    Menuka Bhattarai and Forest Guardian colleagues during training.

    “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.”

    Thread-making during nettle fiber extraction.
    Thread-making during nettle fiber extraction.

    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.”

    RPN Conservation Coordinator, Pema Sherpa, during national survey.
    RPN Conservation Coordinator, Pema Sherpa, during national survey.
    Local women with red panda posters.
    Local women with red panda posters.

    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.”

    Shane Downing
    Writing and Communications Volunteer
    Red Panda NetworkPlease check out Shane Downing’s work at  www.scdowning.com
    Twitter: @SCdowning

  • An Alliance to Stop Red Panda Poaching

    In the ongoing battle to save red pandas and their habitat, Red Panda Network (RPN) has added yet another weapon: an anti-poaching alliance.

    According to a 2014 RPN study, poaching and illegal trade are growing threats to red pandas. Their geographic location makes them vulnerable as it borders several known animal-trafficking routes.

    The anti-poaching network, which comprises RPN's 72 Forest Guardians (FGs), has the challenging task of curbing red panda poaching and trafficking in eastern Nepal. Recently, the FGs were trained in anti-poaching investigation methods, which include recording signs of poaching, dismantling traps, identifying wildlife body parts and reporting findings to local law enforcement agencies.

    Although habitat destruction is the primary threat to red pandas, recent data suggest poaching is on the rise, according to Damber Bista, Conservation Manager for RPN, Asia Division. The data is based on the number of hides confiscated by the field unit of the Department of Forests as well as the police in Nepal, he wrote in an email. The number of hides confiscated in the past five years has been as low as two in 2011 to as high as 17 in 2013.

    These may not seem like large numbers, but considering red pandas have been downgraded from "vulnerable" to "endangered" status on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, every death is significant.Demand for red panda skins comes primarily from parts of China, such as Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, where some local people believe wearing a hat made of red panda fur and tail during the wedding ceremony will ensure a happy marriage, Bista wrote. In addition,  some restaurants in China reportedly serve red panda meat.

    "But interestingly, we have no evidence of exporting red panda hides to China and any other country as most of those cases were from Kathmandu," Bista wrote. In Nepal, only grass-roots level people have been convicted so far, and none of those convicted had any idea where the demand for the hides came from, according to Bista. Locally, red panda hides can bring anywhere from NPR25,000 to NPR100,000 (about 230 USD to 920 USD).

    Poachers who are caught face a jail term of one to 10 years or a fine ranging from NPR10,000 to NPR75,000  (92 USD to 690 USD) or both. But the level of enforcement is moderate, wrote Bista. "Strictly following the rules and regulations will help improve this, and awareness-building of local politicians and other influential persons of the community will be helpful in establishing thorough enforcement."

    Conservationists and other stakeholders can further strengthen this enforcement by regularly following up on poaching cases, he added.

    Poacher caught on camera trap

    Poacher caught on camera trap.

    Anti-poaching efforts and education face other challenges. Although the Sherpa, who practice Buddhism, do not believe in killing any animals, some of the indigenous tribes living within red panda territory have adopted a hunting culture. "This is one of the issues that makes it hard to convince them," Bista wrote.

    Thanks to their training, the FGs now have a more systematic and scientific anti-poaching protocol - something they lacked in the past, according to Bista. "We still have to work a lot, especially in empowering and mobilizing the members of this network."

    An anti-poaching monitoring team.

    An anti-poaching monitoring team.

    Plans are for the anti-poaching network to grow to 100 individuals, serving the entire Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung Corridor as well as other areas of Nepal.Bista urges red panda advocates to support RPN in extending its outreach. "The poaching induced threat is very high in central and western Nepal, where there is very little effort put forth for the conservation of red pandas and other associated wildlife in comparison to eastern Nepal."

    red panda from below_night

    Red panda at night in Eastern Nepal.

    Dawn Peterson
    Writing and Communications Volunteer
    Red Panda Network

  • First National Survey of Red Pandas in Nepal

    Red Panda Network is excited to announce the completion of a national red panda survey in Nepal.

    The existing status of red pandas, Ailurus fulgens, is not well-known at this time. Studies in the past did not provide essential baseline data on the red pandas' distribution, the number of red pandas in each area, habitat quality, as well as deforestation and climate change in their region. In addition, previous studies were confined to the district and VDC (Village Development Committees) levels. This study is unique because it will evaluate the status of red pandas throughout their entire range in Nepal.

    Red Panda Range_Nepal

    Our national red panda survey was very extensive with a number of very important goals. The first goal was to identify past trends and the present status and distribution of red pandas in Nepal. In 1997, scientist PB Yonzon estimated the total population of red pandas in Nepal to be around 314 individuals, whereas scientist Sharada Jnawali's study in 2012 indicated the population to be somewhere between 237 and 1061 individuals. These studies were inconclusive because they were primarily based on habitat suitability analysis. Red Panda Network's study will provide reliable results through the use of reports, land use maps of the survey areas, as well as detailed information on red pandas using state of the art GPS technology, and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software.

    The second goal of this study was to identify existing and potential red panda habitat as well as corridors and population hotspots in Nepal. Land use maps were used to study the types of forest within red panda habitat which include: broad-leaf deciduous forest, birch and alpine scrub, fir forest, broad-leaf conifer forest, rhododendron forest, oak forest, and coniferous forest with bamboo. The land use maps were also used to study the elevation of the habitat survey area (2000-4000m). Special attention was given to both direct and indirect signs such as foot prints, droppings, scratch marks and foraging marks.
    RPN Conservation Coordinator, Pema Sherpa, during national survey.
    RPN Conservation Coordinator, Pema Sherpa, during national survey.
    The third goal was to identify both climatic and non-climatic threats to red panda conservation. This was accomplished through focus group discussions, key informant discussions, as well as meetings with local experts, communities and stakeholders. These approaches have helped assess the efficiency of red panda conservation programs in Nepal.

    The fourth goal of the red panda survey was to work with with non-governmental organizations and government agencies in reviewing current red panda conservation initiatives in Nepal. These initiatives and agencies were assessed for their efficiency and consistency.
    Red panda spotted during survey.
    Red panda spotted during 2016 national survey.
    The fifth goal was to recommend best management practices and measures for long-term red panda conservation at the program and policy level in Nepal. The best management practices were determined after completing the following activities: 1) Inception Workshop; 2) Consulation Meeting with Stakeholders; 3) Training of Field Biologists; 4) Field Survey and Sample Collection; 5) DNA Extraction and Assay Optimization; 6) Laboratory Processing; 7) Analysis and Report Preparation; 8) Sharing Workshop.

    The survey was conducted in June and July, 2016 and many of our findings are in the analysis phase. Forty field biologists participated in this project who traversed along 1,147km of transects, collected 625 red panda fecal samples and identified and catalogued 72 species of bamboo. During the survey we discovered, for the first time, the presence of red pandas in Lamjung, Bhojpur and Dolpa districts!

    Danielle Lippe
    Writing and Communications Volunteer
    Red Panda Network

  • Red Pandas Listed as Endangered on Red List

    Wild red panda in Eastern Nepal. Photo: Sonam Lama/RPN

    Once again, red pandas find themselves one step closer to extinction.

    For the second time in nearly two decades, their status on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species has regressed from "vulnerable" to "endangered."

    "This means the species is moving closer to a perilous state, and if it goes this way it could become extinct in the wild," wrote biologist Pritpal Soorae, via email. Soorae is program officer for the IUCN/Species Survival Commission's Re-introduction Specialist Group. "In most cases animals and plants go extinct due to human-induced reasons such as habitat destruction, illegal trade, etc."

    The purpose of The IUCN Red List is to identify and highlight the animals and plants most at risk of extinction. An animal ends up on the list after it has been assessed and its status determined, Soorae wrote.

    IUCN has been tracking the conservation status of various species and subspecies worldwide for 50 years. The elusive red panda, whose range includes China, Myanmar, India, Nepal and Bhutan, was last assessed in April 2015, according to IUCN's website.

    Global red panda range on topographic map.
    Global red panda range on topographic map.

    Red panda expert Angela Glatston was one of the people who evaluated the red panda for the IUCN. "So when the red panda's status came up for review, I looked through all the literature - especially that produced since the last time that the red panda status was reviewed," she wrote via an email interview. "I contacted people currently working on pandas in the field for information. There is a structured form to complete which asks for information on distribution, numbers, threats, etc. Then I looked at the criteria for status. The information on red panda suggested endangered so that was my recommendation. This report and recommendation are reviewed by the IUCN, and in this case they were accepted."

    While Glatston estimates the global zoo population of red pandas to be 700, the exact number of them in the wild is unknown. Efforts to quantify the population have used differing techniques.

    But she cited habitat loss and fragmentation due to human activity, poaching, climate change and people moving into red panda habitat with their herds and dogs as being factors negatively impacting the red panda population and, therefore, justifying the "endangered" designation.

    Wood collected from local forest for fuelwood.
    Wood collected from local forest for fuelwood.
    Local community member and dog.
    Local community member and dog.

    "The significance of this change in status will hopefully make it easier for people to get money for red panda research and conservation," Glatston  wrote. "Also it hopefully will make people more aware of the species and its problems."

    The fact that the red panda population is under threat should alarm people, said Tara Easter, a staff scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, in a phone interview. The center is a nonprofit organization based in Tucson, Ariz., that works to protect endangered species through petitions and other grassroots efforts as well as legal action."One of the sayings that tends to shock people is we're in the beginnings of a sixth mass extinction," Easter said. "We're losing species faster than we can name them."

    In a research article published in Science Advances in June of last year, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich and others presented their assessment that the world's humans have begun to kill off species of other living things at a rate far greater than anything seen in the last 65 million years.

    "If the currently elevated extinction pace is allowed to continue, humans will soon (in as little as three human lifetimes) be deprived of many biodiversity benefits," the scientists wrote. "On human time scales, this loss would be effectively permanent because in the aftermath of past mass extinctions, the living world took hundreds of thousands to millions of years to rediversify."

    One of the benefits of diversity is wellness. How diverse an ecosystem is directly correlates with how healthy it is, Easter said. The more diverse the ecosystem, the greater the buffer it has to prevent disease outbreaks, she said.

    In scientific terms, this is known as the "dilution effect hypothesis." After analyzing data from more than 200 assessments of the relationship between disease and biodiversity, scientists in the July 2015 issue of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) concluded that biodiversity decreases the spread of parasites as well as animals' consumption of plants.

    While the outlook for red pandas may be bleak, the situation isn't hopeless, according to experts.

    Wild red panda in Eastern Nepal.
    Wild red panda in Eastern Nepal.

    "I think a lot of it comes down to our moral responsibilities," Easter said. Donating time and/or money to conservation organizations and getting involved in local and national governments in order to affect environmental policy changes are among the actions the public can take to help endangered species, she said.

    The red panda is particularly precious because it is unique, Glatston said via email. Losing it would be like losing an entire biological family, such as the cat family, she wrote. "All the cats - from the small wild cats right up to the lions and tigers."

    "Extinction is a natural process, but in cases like that of the red pandas, it is a process caused by human activity," Glatston wrote. "Without habitat changes caused by us, red panda numbers would be much higher. This is why we feel we should do something about it."

    Dawn Peterson
    Writing and Communications Volunteer
    Red Panda Network