RPN's first female Forest Guardian—and the focus of the award-winning documentary The Firefox Guardian—shares 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.