• Human Lives Transformed Through Red Panda Conservation

    They ​are the heart of our community-based initiatives in Nepal. This is the tale of three Forest Guardians.

    It starts with Bimala Moktan.

    Bimala was 24 when she joined Red Panda Network's (RPN) national Forest Guardian (FG) team. Her uncle, Deu Prakash Tamang, had been an FG since 2006 and was among the first selected by RPN. In 2015, Tamang led a team of villagers to chase four poachers who had trapped a live red panda. They were able to free the animal from the poachers and release it back into the wild.

    Tamang later stepped down so a new generation could protect the forest, and Bimala wanted to follow in his footsteps.

    Bimala is from Prangbung village in Panchthar district, Eastern Nepal. Forests play an integral role in the lives of people in Prangbung. Villagers enter forests frequently to collect firewood for cooking, graze livestock and harvest medicinal herbs and Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs). Bimala began to notice the landscape that surrounded her village was becoming deforested and degraded.

    “The need to save our forests and the wildlife that lives there is no longer deniable,” said Bimala during an interview with RPN staff.

    ​Forest Guardian, Bimala Moktan.
    ​Forest Guardian, Bimala Moktan.

    Tamang later stepped down so a new generation could protect the forest, and Bimala wanted to follow in his footsteps.

    Bimala is from Prangbung village in Panchthar district, Eastern Nepal. Forests play an integral role in the lives of people in Prangbung. Villagers enter forests frequently to collect firewood for cooking, graze livestock and harvest medicinal herbs and Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs). Bimala began to notice the landscape that surrounded her village was becoming deforested and degraded.

    “The need to save our forests and the wildlife that lives there is no longer deniable,” said Bimala during an interview with RPN staff.

    Ngima Sherpa is from Dobato in Ilam district. Like Bimala, his village is remote, rural and heavily dependent on forest resources. It is also part of the Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung (PIT) corridor which is home to 25% of Nepal's endangered red panda population. This region in Eastern Nepal is where RPN has developed a community-based model for conservation and is establishing the PIT Red Panda Protected Forest: the world's first protected area dedicated to red panda!

    Ngima has been a member of our FG team since 2014. He's been instrumental in a number of projects including mammal camera trapping in the PIT corridor, Plant A Red Panda Home, and our GPS-satellite collar study as a red panda tracker.

    Forest Guardian, Ngima Sherpa.
    Forest Guardian, Ngima Sherpa.
    ​Red panda with GPS collar.  © James Houston/Red Panda Network
    ​Red panda with GPS collar. © James Houston/Red Panda Network

    The third FG is Menuka Bhattarai: The Firefox Guardian.

    Menuka is RPN's first female Forest Guardian and the focus of the award-winning documentary The Firefox Guardian. She is from Phawakhola village in Taplejung, a remote hilly district in Eastern Nepal and one of the major habitats of endangered red pandas.

    According to Menuka, locals didn't know what a red panda was; they threw stones to scare the animal away whenever they entered the village or were spotted in the forest. “We were unaware of the importance of this creature”.

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

    Menuka joined RPN’s Forest Guardian team about eight 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. “They want all women to work at home. They did not believe I could be a successful Forest Guardian just because I’m a woman,” Menuka shares in The Firefox Guardian film.

    Over the years — thanks to people like you — the perception among local people towards red panda has changed. RPN's outreach programs are informing people as to why they must protect this unique, important and endangered species. Our sustainable livelihood programs are fostering red panda stewardship with viable income streams.

    Now, with over 100 members, the FG program is a powerful example of how red panda conservation can transform the lives of people who live among them.

    Bimala is now 27. In addition to her role as an FG, she also works as a member of the Jaljale Pokhari Community Forest. In Panchthar district, RPN is alleviating pressure on red panda habitat — we are protecting the forests so important to Bimala's home — through distribution of improved cooking stoves, support of sustainable herding practices and nurseries that provide medicinal herbs and NTFPs for local families.

    ​Bimala Moktan and Dipa Rai during 2020 FG training in Panchthar.
    ​Bimala Moktan and Dipa Rai during 2020 FG training in Panchthar.
    The new generation of FGs during 2020 training in Taplejung.
    The new generation of FGs during 2020 training in Taplejung.

    Ten red pandas were collared for Nepal's first-ever red panda GPS-satellite study and one of them was named "Ngima" by the research team. The name means sun and it was in honor of the FG that continues to monitor and protect the red panda's forest habitat in Ilam.

    Ngima stated: "I am very grateful to RPN for their continuous work in conserving endangered species and providing an opportunity to improve my economic level. Community-based programs like these are the future of red panda conservation."

    In Taplejung, Menuka has broken through cultural barriers as an inspiration to women in her village who are passionate about conservation. Thanks to the film The Firefox Guardian, her incredible story has been shared all over the world.

    We would say "The End" but — thanks to our dedicated supporters all over the world — this is just the beginning of people and communities coming together in Nepal to save the last of the first panda.

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    Bimala was featured in a campaign for our Panda Guardian team of dedicated donors whose monthly support creates sustainable livelihoods for the people living on the frontlines of red panda conservation!

  • Nim Sherpa—Red Panda Steward

    A woman in Nepal has some unexpected experiences that put her on a path to feeling better and environmental stewardship.

    Burning eyes. Headaches. Difficulty breathing. 

    These are some of the consequences of using traditional cooking stoves in poorly ventilated homes. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many people living in rural parts of the developing world. 

    According to WHO, about 3 billion people worldwide use either open fires or traditional cookstoves. Nim Dolma Sherpa was one of these people dependent on her mud stove for cooking and heating. 

    Nim is a 28-year-old woman of Dobato, Ilam. Her inefficient stove was part of a bigger issue that plagues much of the developing world: livelihoods that are severely limited by scarce income opportunities and poor access to modern appliances and technologies. 

    The setting of this story is in Dobato of Eastern Nepal’s Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung (PIT) corridor — part of a global biodiversity hotspot that is home to 25% of the country’s red panda population and one of Red Panda Network’s (RPN) priority conservation sites where subsistence agriculture and animal husbandry are common practices. 

    Local woman in Eastern Nepal with traditional stove.
    Local woman in Eastern Nepal with traditional stove.

    This is not a setting congruent with environmental protection. Some of the primary threats to red pandas in the PIT corridor are livestock overgrazing and agricultural conversions, including slash-and-burn.

    Traditional stoves can have devastating effects on the environment. They consume large amounts of firewood which causes deforestation and habitat degradation. The combustion process releases unsightly black carbon which affects local air quality and emits carbon-based greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. 

    Inside the kitchen, inefficient cookstoves produce thick smoke, soot, and unburnt volatile organic matter that tarnishes equipment, stains walls, and harms the resident’s health. 

    Nim’s life changed in 2017 when RPN launched an ecotourism initiative in Dobato to help boost the local economy and foster red panda stewardship among community members. Nim was one of the first to express an interest in running a homestay. 

    Nim had heard of red pandas; she was aware they were a local species but her knowledge beyond that was limited. This changed when she began the process of working with RPN to establish a homestay. Nim now understands the significance of red pandas as a flagship and indicator species of the Himalayan forests. 

    Ecotourism in Dobato was part of RPN’s over-arching sustainable livelihood program which also provided Nim with an improved cooking stove (ICS). This seemingly simple upgrade in a kitchen appliance had extraordinary impacts. 

    Nim Dolma Sherpa and her new ICS.
    Nim Dolma Sherpa and her new ICS.

    Nim used to be regularly afflicted with burning eyes, headaches and even had difficulty breathing. Thanks to the ICS, she no longer has these symptoms

     “I am so happy to have this new stove. I hope these become common and replace the inefficient ones,” she said. 

    Nim shared with our field team some of the other ways her life has improved, thanks to the ICS, including she has more time to spend on other responsibilities because her daily cooking time is one-third of what it used to be. 

    As indoor air pollution in her home has decreased, Nim has noticed an overall improvement in her health. The temperature inside her house also stays constant for longer periods which is very helpful in Dobato’s cold, subalpine climate. 

    The ICS supports Nim in her goals of preserving the surrounding forest. Her firewood consumption has been reduced by almost half. This is partially due to the stove’s water boiling feature that decreases the demand for extra firewood to boil water. 

    Nim never expected her life would take such a beautiful turn. 

    Credit: Kuniko Kai/RPN
    Credit: Kuniko Kai/RPN

    “I might not be directly supporting red panda stewardship but by using the improved metallic cookstoves, I am indirectly protecting their habitat,” she shared. 

    Like the other 135 people in the PIT corridor who have benefited from RPN’s ICS program. Nim now feels empowered to live in harmony with red pandas and the Himalaya’s magnificent biodiversity. Which will be easier without burning eyes, headaches and difficulty breathing. 

    RPN is thankful to all of our members and partners for helping people like Nim breath better and save red pandas in Nepal. 

    Interested in supporting programs like ecotourism and ICS distribution? Become a Panda Guardian and provide sustainable livelihoods in Nepal. 

  • Press Release: Ecotrip travelers see increasing numbers of red pandas in Nepal.

    Download the full press release here.

    Good news can be hard to come by for people working to save threatened and endangered species. That’s why the Red Panda Network (RPN) is delighted to share some heartening news worth celebrating: In 2019, there was a record-high number of red pandas seen on RPN’s ecotrip to Nepal. 

    Since 2011, RPN has offered ecotrips for travelers who want to immerse themselves in the world of red pandas; experience the culture, natural beauty, and biodiversity of Nepal; and take part in community-based conservation. 

    Ecotrips support RPN’s conservation efforts and give local communities added incentives to help preserve red pandas and curb habitat loss, which is the biggest threat to red pandas living in Nepal. RPN uses a multi-tiered conservation approach. Of these efforts, ecotourism is emerging as the most effective way to support initiatives, such as Plant a Red Panda Home, that protect and restore the Himalayan forest that red pandas need to survive. 

    For red pandas, the payoff of RPN’s ecotrips to Nepal is big. What began as one to three red panda sightings per trip, has increased over time. The success rate for seeing red pandas has been 100 percent for RPN ecotrippers since 2017, and eight red pandas were spotted in 2018. Then in 2019, a record-high of ten red pandas—a total of nine cubs (from different litters) and one female red panda—were seen on a 12-day trip. 

    The increased number of red pandas seen by ecotrippers, combined with reports of more red pandas and wildlife seen in habitat reforested with the support of ecotrip funds, strongly suggests that red panda numbers in Nepal are on the rise. 

    RPN offers a variety of ecotrips for small groups of travelers. To ensure that red pandas aren't disturbed during ecotrips, RPN follows strict red panda tracking protocols which include no trips during mating and birthing seasons and avoiding repeated visits to a red panda site. 

    Another tangible benefit of RPN ecotrips is the huge and positive impact it has on the local people and their country’s economy. RPN’s ecotourism funds RPN field research, habitat protection, outreach programs and sustainable livelihood-related activities. Yet, in terms of overall impact of ecotrip funds, the biggest benefit is to the local Himalayan communities. 

    Healthy red panda populations need to benefit the local people for conservation efforts to succeed. Thanks to RPN’s red panda-based tourism, local communities are able to flourish alongside the increasing red panda populations, so communities are supportive and actively engaged in RPN’s conservation program. Ecotourism gives local residents additional ways to make a living, and tourism-based activities, such as providing hospitality services and acting as nature guides, are the primary source of income for many Nepalese people.

    Last but not least, RPN’s ecotrips benefit the ecotrippers themselves. Tawnni Jensen, a traveler on RPN’s 2019 ecotrip, described the trip saying: “I would not have traded this experience for anything! Being among the wonderful people of Nepal and the amazing diversity of the Himalayan foothills was incredible! And ten pandas! Seeing these amazing animals, and seeing signs of a growing population, was unbelievable!”

    For lucky travelers like Jensen—and possibly you—a RPN ecotrip is the adventure of a lifetime! We hope you join us for an RPN ecotrip soon

    Holly Alyssa MacCormick
    Writing and Communications Volunteer
    Red Panda Network

    For further information contact:

    Terrance Fleming, Development Manager, terrance@redpandanetwork.org

    Learn more about RPN ecotrips