[singlepic=639,250,,,right]Taplejung, Eastern Nepal, March 12, 2013. One of the toughest and highest altitude marathon races in the world raises the flag for red panda conservation and the unique biodiversity and beauty of the eastern Himalayas. Co-sponsored by Red Panda Network (RPN), its Disney Conservation Fund community conservation project, and four other partners, the Himalayan Guides Pathibhara Marathon 2013 is the highlight of the Pathibhara Tourism Festival in eastern Nepal’s Taplejung District. The highest point of the annual race is at the famous Pathibhara Devi temple on top of a 3,794 m (12,447ft) peak with panoramic views of three of the highest mountains in the world, located in the middle of prime red panda habitat. It is organized by the Pathibhara Devi Temple Area Conservation and Promotion Committee which is visited every year by more than 50,000 pilgrims from around the world.
The Pathibhara Tourism Festival opened last Sunday with a march by Nepal army and police and thousands of local spectators. For the three days leading up to the race the crowds are treated to a variety of musical and cultural shows.

[singlepic=646,250,,,right]Some 120 runners, about 20 of them women, are competing in the 2013 Pathibhara Marathon: They start from the Fungling market at 1,824 m (5,984ft), pass through the fragile red panda habitat zone and climb an elevation change of almost 2,000 m (6,400 ft) to the Pathibhara Devi temple and back down again, a total of 49km (standard marathons are 42.2 km/26 miles). The number of runners often increases just before the start as the registration is open until the race begins. The winners are announced on RPN’s website -> here.

The Red Panda Network is supporting the race and the festival with a variety of environmental awareness events as well as by sponsoring T-shirts for all runners. The educational program centers around a joint exhibit presented by RPN and the District Forest Office, WWF-Nepal, CARE, the Federation of Community Forest Users Nepal, and RPN’s Taplejung partner, the Himali Conservation Forum. A variety of non-timber forest products along with an information board about red panda conservation are displayed at the exhibit. More than 500 people visited the exhibit on the first day, and more than 5,000 will see it throughout the 3-day event. And all along the trail, Red Panda Network greets runners and spectators on banners with messages for the conservation of red pandas.

[singlepic=604,250,,,right]The Red Panda Network is an international conservation group with field offices in Nepal and partners in three other countries of the Himalayas. RPN is committed to save the habitat of the red panda, a charismatic species threatened with extinction which represents an indicator for the health of the Eastern Himalayan Broadleaf Forests that stretch from Nepal in the west through Bhutan, via Northern India and Myanmar, to Sichuan Province in South-Central China. The IUCN red list estimates there are less than 10,000 remaining wild red pandas, some say as few as 2,500, spread thinly across this huge region.
The 2013 Pathibhara Marathon and RPN’s year-around conservation efforts create awareness and enable the local population to stop the massive deforestation, mostly for firewood and livestock that has decimated the habitat and the red pandas by 50% over the past decades. In some areas the red pandas are already extirpated and most of the remaining isolated groups are estimated be too small for long-term genetic health and survival.

[singlepic=599,250,,,right]In RPN’s Community Conservation Training Center along the trail to the Pathibhara shrine local community members are trained as ‘forest guardians’ and villagers learn about improved cash crop revenues from cultivation of medicinal and aromatic plants, fuel efficient wood stoves that can reduce firewood use by more than 50% and avoid respiratory illnesses, proper house insulation, solar and other renewable energy. RPN is currently raising funds to rebuild and expand the center.

[singlepic=221,250,,,right]The area along the race trail can also be visited with the help of the Red Panda Network, whose forest guardians in eastern Nepal provide one of the few opportunities to view this shy and rare species in its natural environment with a high likelihood of success. Organized with responsible and sustainable practices, these EcoTrips provide income to local communities that otherwise have few incentives to maintain the forest and its endangered species for future generations.

To contact RPN visit www.redpandanetwork.org
Email: communications@redpandanetwork.org
Phone: +1 (877) 584-6056
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Co-authored and photos by Damber Bista, © Red Panda Network