Education is power and conservation billboards are providing local people with important information to safeguard the first panda.
The Pathibhara Devi temple is a renowned religious site located in eastern Nepal’s Taplejung district. The route to the temple passes through high-mountain forests of the Himalayan ecoregion: prime habitat for red pandas. Plentiful foraging spots and water sources near the Pathibhara roadside make this area appealing to local wildlife, including red pandas.
“One fine day, while I was driving to Pathibhara temple with passengers, we saw a glimpse of a small reddish animal crossing the road. Shortly thereafter, a series of billboards with a picture of the same elusive animal caught our attention. Thanks to those billboards, we learned about the endangered red panda. Now we always make a conscious decision of slowing down our vehicle and honking our horn while traveling through red panda habitat,” said Purna BK, a jeep driver, who makes multiple trips to Pathibhara temple every year.
L video: A red panda crossing a newly constructed road in Olangchung Gola, Taplejung © RPN/Tseten Tashi Sherpa.
R photo: Red panda crossing Pathibhara road. © RPN/Ramesh Rai
Every year thousands of people visit the Pathibhara temple on foot and by vehicle. There is a high risk of wildlife-vehicle collisions due to the concentrated movement of people and wild animals along the roadway in this area. Informed drivers who are conservation-minded will reduce the frequency of accidents.
“The destruction of natural habitats poses dire threats to wildlife survival. So, it is crucial for everyone, not just native communities, to understand and act responsibly to safeguard the forest and biodiversity of an area. Billboards are a powerful way to attract the attention of people while educating them on the importance of conservation.” Ramesh Rai, Program Coordinator of Himali Conservation Forum – a local conservation partner – expressed passionately.
Although legally protected in all its range states, the prevailing threats of deforestation – leading to habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation; illegal poaching, and trade of its pelts; as well as overgrazing and free-roaming dog attacks, are compromising the survival of wild red panda populations. This perilous situation for red pandas has been exacerbated by covid-19 lockdowns which are contributing to poverty among local communities and restricting the movement and monitoring capacity of enforcement agencies.
Red Panda Network’s (RPN) anti-poaching investigation and monitoring efforts show that twenty red panda pelts have already been confiscated by Nepal authorities in 2021. Other research suggests that the majority of incarcerated offenders are unaware of the importance of wildlife conservation as well the risks (fine, imprisonment, etc) of illicit wildlife poaching and trade. This discovery reveals that it is critical, now, more than ever, to reach red panda range communities with education and conservation programs.
RPN is raising red panda awareness among local communities in Nepal and around the globe through education and outreach initiatives. Billboards that display conservation messages have become a powerful medium to disseminate important information that encourages red panda stewardship.
To date, we have installed 154 conservation billboards in eastern and western Nepal with twenty-seven billboards installed in western Nepal’s Jajarkot, Kalikot, Rukum, Jumla, and Dolpa districts so far this year.
The billboard messaging focuses on red panda biology and ecology, threats to population viability, conservation importance, and RPN’s efforts to protect them. The threat of poaching and illegal trade is emphasized in the billboard content which includes information on laws that protect wildlife, as well as penalties and punishment for illegal hunting/poaching, trafficking, and trade of red panda and other wildlife.
“Following consultation with local council members and native communities, backed by field verification, we carefully choose a location for the conservation billboards that are visible and repeatedly observed by people”, explained Sunil Bantawa, Chief Executive Officer of Shree Deep Jyoti Youth Club – our local partner organization in Panchthar district.
The billboards convey the conservation message through a combination of text and pictures. They are installed in close proximity to red panda habitat in areas with high human population density and traffic. We also display smaller signs inside or near core red panda habitat — including eight boards in Rukum and Jumla districts so far this year — that alert pedestrians and drivers about the presence of red panda (and other endangered wildlife) and implore visitors to be cautious and keep disturbance to a minimum in order to preserve local biodiversity.
There are disasters that threaten the forests and biodiversity of red panda habitat in Nepal: wildfires. Earlier this year, a wildfire raged for sixteen days in the Pathibhara area of Taplejung district, destroying nearly 100 hectares of core red panda habitat in the Pathibhara Simbu, Sunpati, and Mayam Patal Community Forests. Another wildfire scorched parts of the Basapachal Jharna Community Forest of western Nepal’s Kalikot district. Research suggests that the lack of local awareness around fire prevention shares a role in this emerging threat.
One of our interventions was to work with respective Division Forest Offices and Community Forest members to install fire warning display boards in locations that are vulnerable to wildfire. The boards list prohibited activities and preventive measures to reduce the risk of wildfires; they also feature information on the causes and negative effects of wildfires on the local ecosystem and human communities.
Monitoring and evaluating the efficacy of our outreach and education programs can be challenging. We attempt to measure the impact of our billboards through visitor experience and perceived attitude changes.
The billboards have also sparked opportunities to collaborate with companies and organizations who share similar visions —
“I traveled to Nepal in mid-2018 to visit and monitor a school-sponsored by Nature Planet. During the visit, a big billboard with a picture of a cute animal installed outside the airport of Jumla (RPN’s project area) caught our attention. Though I couldn’t understand the text crafted on the billboard, I was elated to see the logo of Zoo Leipzig, which happens to be a dear customer of Nature Planet. Along with it was the logo of RPN. I quickly Googled and the conservation interventions RPN have been putting forward looked interesting to me”, communicated Anne Dorthe Hjort of Nature Planet in an email to RPN staff.
Anne continues: “Cut to two years later, while we were looking for a partner to collaborate for a worthy cause, I remembered RPN and that's how we got connected. I am very happy we are starting this cooperation as I have a lot of love in my heart for Nepal, your nature, your kindness, and especially your children.”
The conservation billboards are constructed using local and sustainably sourced materials and are hand-painted by local artists.
“Through the billboards, we’re able to extend conservation messages to a wider audience, and at the same time, mobilize local talents while creating alternative livelihood opportunities among native communities,” adds Sunil Bantawa.
At nearly 100 years old, Auckland Zoo is a shining example of what it means to commit to global conservation and lead by example.
Located in Auckland, New Zealand, the Auckland Zoo is a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to building a future for wild animals and wild places. Their work is guided by a strong set of core values and key strategies, all inspired by their optimism for conservation.
The Auckland Zoo not only demonstrates stewardship towards wildlife and their environment through everything that they do, but they also educate and show their community how to do the same. Wildlife conservation is genuinely a global effort, and organizations like Auckland Zoo that invest in the education of their communities are driving forces in saving threatened species and habitats.
To achieve their goals as an active conservation organization, Auckland Zoo focuses on four key strategies: Care, Connect, Sustain, and Wild Work. These strategies are demonstrated daily in the care they provide for their animals, the connectedness they build with their colleagues and communities, the sustainable management of their resources, and the use of their skills to help wildlife in their backyard and overseas.
Through their Wild Work, Auckland Zoo participates in breeding, release, and rehabilitation of native populations and species all over the globe. To date, they have released 4,000 wetapunga (the heaviest insect on earth!) and 374 kiwi just to name a few. Their dedicated staff also spends an average of 6,000 hours per year breeding, rehabilitating, and releasing New Zealand wildlife. The conservation presence that Auckland Zoo holds in New Zealand is impressive on its own, but they continue to demonstrate their commitment by reaching even further. Luckily for Red Panda Network (RPN), that reach extended over 7,300 miles away to Nepal — creating a decade-long partnership to protect red pandas.
The partnership between RPN and Auckland Zoo goes back to 2010. It all started while the zoo was actively participating in a breeding program with the red pandas in their care at the time. The overall goal of these programs is to diversify the gene pool of animals in human care, provide animal ambassadors for visitors to create connections with, and in some cases have animals that can be released into their natural habitats. Auckland Zoo was preparing to send their female red panda, Khosuva, to the Darjeeling Zoo in India for participation in a breed-to-release program. In exchange, Auckland Zoo received a male red panda, Sagar, who fathered six cubs during his time at the Zoo and has contributed to the gene pool of red pandas all over the Australasian region. After chatting with a colleague at a nearby zoo who was affiliated with RPN, and Auckland Zoo’s active participation in a red panda breeding program, the Zoo decided to contribute to red panda conservation even further by forging a partnership with RPN directly to save this species in the wild.
Since 2010, Auckland Zoo has played an integral role in the strengthening of RPN’s Forest Guardian program. This program is on the frontline of RPN’s on-the-ground conservation work, employing local people to monitor red panda populations, protect habitat, report poaching, and educate communities. As of 2020, Auckland Zoo has provided $100,000 towards the support of the Forest Guardian program. In addition, their support helps fund non-invasive camera trapping: a critical component of monitoring red panda populations and the effectiveness of conservation initiatives in the area.
The year 2020 was a year of trial and uncertainty for all, but Auckland Zoo continued to show their dedication to saving red pandas and their habitats by donating $10,000 to support the purchase of two hectares of land in the Jaubari area of the Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung (PIT) corridor. The acquisition of this land was a huge step towards RPN’s goal of a community-protected wildlife corridor that will connect to the Singalila National Park in India.
Auckland Zoo provides funding to their conservation partners through their Conservation Fund, which was established by Auckland Zoo staff in 2000. These funds are generated by ticket sales and donations to the Zoo. So just by visiting, Auckland Zoo patrons are directly impacting threatened populations and habitats both in New Zealand and around the world. Since its conception, the Conservation Fund has provided over $4,000,000 to conservation initiatives!
While financial support is important, the expertise of Auckland Zoo’s staff has also proved an invaluable resource to RPN over the years. Multiple Auckland Zoo staff members have gone out to Nepal to support and observe the work of the Forest Guardians and even provide advice on safe animal capture and handling methods for Nepal’s first red panda GPS-satellite collar study. They have also supported RPN by sending a maintenance staff member to restore the Community Conservation Resource Center and donate an extra $10,000 from their contingency fund following a fire that destroyed the RPN offices in Taplejung in 2015. Staff members have even gone on their own time to participate in ecotours to see the red pandas in their natural habitat. Auckland Zoo’s dedication to their staff’s professional development and involvement in field work is admirable, and a partnership RPN is proud to be a part of.
Among those that have been lucky enough to travel to Nepal and see firsthand the work that Auckland Zoo is supporting is Kristin Mockford, Carnivore Keeper, who works directly with the red pandas at the Zoo. “I feel incredibly privileged to be able to discuss the involvement that our zoo has with RPN. Having seen the success of ecotourism and how knowledgeable the Forest Guardians are firsthand when I visited in 2019 has meant I can deliver this passion in our keeper talks,” says Kristin. For the red pandas in the collection at Auckland Zoo she says “it allows us to form a meaningful link between the breeding we do and the conservation work in the wild. To be able to send a red panda to Darjeeling to be part of a breed to release program is incredibly special and the male we received was a perfect gentleman and integral part of our breeding program here at the zoo.”
The Auckland Zoo’s commitment to conservation in their community and abroad demonstrates the level of impact a zoo can make and how important ex-situ institutions are to global preservation goals. As an organization that also focuses on community, sustainability, and stewardship of wildlife and resources, RPN is grateful to have a like-minded partner in the Auckland Zoo and hopes to continue this partnership for years to come. Click here if you would like to learn more about Auckland Zoo and their conservation work both in New Zealand and around the globe.
Writing and Communications Volunteer
Red Panda Network
This Endangered Species Day, we have a creative solution to herder poverty and environmental degradation in red panda habitat.
For many generations, animal husbandry has been the predominant occupation for the high-altitude communities in red panda habitat. In our project area in eastern Nepal, each livestock herder has around 30 to 40 Chauri, Yak, horse or other livestock.
However, limited production associated with the traditional herding system and unstable market access for cattle-based products is restricting labor-intensive herding to subsistence living and unsustainable income.
Environmental consequences of traditional herding
In order to earn enough income to survive, herders have to manage large herds of livestock which requires multiple pastures and herding stations (between two and four stations) which they rotate seasonally throughout the year. Essentially, the more livestock, pastureland and herder stations there are, the more deforestation occurs as herders clear-cut forest to create grazing land and cut down trees to build their stations.
Maintaining the herder stations requires large amounts of lumber — up to 800 trees — and requires nearly 40 kg (88 pounds) of fuelwood every day for cooking, boiling, space heating, and cheese production.
Cattle graze in red panda habitat and will trample and feed on bamboo and other plant species that red pandas eat. Livestock competes with red pandas and other wildlife as they forage for food (bamboo and other red panda food species) in the forests.
The solution: Goth-stay tourism
We believe goth-stay tourism is the alternative income opportunity that unlocks the full value and potential of livestock herding in rural Nepal and leads to thriving sustainable livelihoods. Goth-stay tourism offers visitors a unique opportunity to experience the rich and authentic culture and tradition of nomadic herders. They will be able to be involved in milking livestock, make and taste organic milk, butter and cheese (chauri); tourists will also have opportunities to ride a horse, learn a new language and experience the rustic, humble-yet-exciting life of a high-mountain herder while appreciating an exclusive experience of local biodiversity.
The success of the goth-stay tourism program is dependent on a sustainable supply of products and services. Thanks to the support of our members and partners, we were able to provide livestock herders with portable canvas tents and improved cookstoves which will support goth-stay operations and sustainable livelihoods as well.
We were also able to enhance the capacity and skills of potential goth-stay operators. One three-day training event was organized in Sombare, of eastern Nepal's Panchthar district, which was attended by fifteen livestock herders who learned basic cooking and hospitality, safety, health and cleanliness, and goth-stay tourism management and marketing strategy. A forest conservation workshop was also conducted to educate seventy-eight livestock herders!
Livestock herders in red panda range have to live nomadically, moving between higher pastures in summer and lower valleys in winter. This means they have to live a simple lifestyle with limited resources which creates challenges in accommodating visitors. So, to encourage livestock herders in adopting goth-stay tourism as a new form of income, basic accommodation materials such as kitchen utensils were distributed to five potential goth-stay operators of “Falelung Chauri Palak Samuha”(translated as “Falelung Livestock Herders Group”) which comprised of twenty-nine livestock herders. Three sets of equipment were also handed over to the group to construct a trekking trail that connects the livestock shed/goth to the main village road.
Goth-stay tourism will benefit herders by creating diversified income streams and sustainable livelihoods. The increased income will allow herders to reduce their herd size — demanding less pastureland — while no longer having to rotate between multiple pastures and stations. Goth-stay tourism also encourages herders to build one permanent shed with all basic facilities to accommodate tourists.
Sonam Tashi Lama, the Program Coordinator for Red Panda Network, provides some insight into the situation in eastern Nepal: "They don't want to harm the forest or its inhabitants; herders want to protect the natural world they grew up admiring. This is an effective and responsible way we can give them that opportunity."
Red panda habitat will be protected and ecological integrity will be maintained as herders limit their livestock numbers and seasonal movement which mitigates deforestation and illegal resource harvest.
Our ecotrips are slowly returning in 2022. Learn more and consider making a "floating reservation" deposit to secure your place on a future adventure in red panda habitat!
Passionate about pandas? Support their long-term conservation through sustainable livelihoods of local communities by joining our Panda Guardian team!
Programs that foster sustainable livelihoods and alleviate poverty among local communities are essential to saving red pandas in Nepal. Thanks to Nordens Ark, our impact will be bigger than ever with the Sustainable Living Center.
Situated on nearly 1,000 acres of historic land in Sweden, Nordens Ark has been working tirelessly to ensure endangered animals have a future both at home and abroad. Their strong focus on rear and release, conservation, public education, research, and training have benefited a wide range of species — from fast-flying peregrine falcons in the sky, all the way down to smaller invertebrate species such as beetles. Their holistic approach to conservation and stewardship for wildlife and resources makes them an exciting partner to work with!
Nordens Ark believes “that endangered species should attain viable populations in their natural environments and that biodiversity is preserved”. They are supporting an impressive variety of conservation projects benefiting a huge number of species in the wild including frogs, bees, and red pandas!
In addition to their dedication to preserving species and stabilizing their wild populations, Nordens Ark places a high priority on reducing their overall environmental impact in everything they do. These efforts can be seen across the organization; they are constantly looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Their Environmental Diploma with the Swedish Environmental Base, which they have held since 2010, also reflects their commitment to upholding a high standard of environmental management guidelines in their operations. With a dedication to saving species, their habitats, and ensuring sustainability for humans and the animals around us, Nordens Ark makes the perfect partner for The Red Panda Network’s Sustainable Living Center.
Both Nordens Ark and Red Panda Network (RPN) recognize the importance of how intricately sustainable use of the Earth’s resources and human actions impact wildlife and their habitats. The Sustainable Living Center, located in Taplejung, Nepal, will serve as a central location for locals to learn about topics such as sustainable energy use, herding, and organic farming. The overall goal of the center is to alleviate poverty and create a multitude of sustainable living opportunities for the local people. Nordens Ark’s contributions to the building of this center support the community, their families, and the animals and plants who call this rich biodiversity hotspot home.
Nordens Ark has exhibited red pandas in their public park since 1989 and has always actively participated as a member of the European breeding program, also known as the EAZA Ex-Situ Programme (EEP). In 2013, the red panda EEP invited all red panda holders to assist in red panda conservation by supporting RPN and the Forest Guardian (FG) program.
The FG program employs local people to monitor and protect red panda habitat and help educate the local communities on the importance of conservation and sustainability. The support for the FG program from several zoological facilities has provided sustainable income and experience in environmental stewardship for over 100 people! The Red Panda Network is also committed to recruiting female Forest Guardians and empowering women to stand up for gender inequality in Nepal.
“The Red Panda EEP is the largest of the regional breeding programmes and the idea was that if each zoo gave €250 per year, the EEP could support more than 20 Forest Guardians,” says Emma Nygren, the Head of Conservation Programmes at Nordens Ark. “We at Nordens Ark thought the Forest Guardian program was a great initiative and started supporting Red Panda Network efforts through the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and the EEP."
Nordens Ark continued their support of this program for years but still felt that they wanted to do even more to help preserve red pandas and their habitat. They were in discussions with RPN regarding other projects they could help support when a great opportunity for funding presented itself via The Swedish Postcode Lottery.
The Swedish Postcode Lottery is Sweden’s largest lottery, with the objective of generating money for organizations in the nonprofit sector and creating a better world. They put out a call for grants to supply funding to qualifying projects, and Nordens Ark was quick to jump on the opportunity. “The grant criteria were a perfect fit to apply for the construction of the Sustainable Living Center. We were of course thrilled that we were successful with our application and are really proud to be a partner to The Red Panda Network on this amazing project.” Emma says.
With the funding and support of Nordens Ark — totaling $377,000 over a three-year period — RPN was able to start construction of the Sustainable Living Center in 2019. The expected completion of the project is sometime later this year, and like all RPN initiatives, the goal is for the Sustainable Living Center to be self-sustaining and locally operated down the road. The Center will serve as a hub for conservation, education, and sustainability, while also increasing the annual income of over 2,000 local families.
Red Panda Network is thrilled to watch this long-time dream of the organization come to fruition, and incredibly grateful for the support of Nordens Ark on this project as well as other key initiatives supporting red pandas, their habitats, and the communities who live alongside them.
Writing and Communications Volunteer
Red Panda Network
From household chores to entrepreneurship, women in rural Nepal find economic empowerment and environmental stewardship.
Gaura Neupane grew up in a small village in Kalikot district, western Nepal. This is a remote and rural place; a patchwork of agriculture and mountain forests make up the landscape.
The setting of this story is significant. Western Nepal constitutes more than half of the nation’s habitat available to red pandas, most of which is unprotected. For people, it is a place where poverty debilitates daily life while limiting opportunities for a better future. For women living here, gender stereotypes and inequalities are prevalent and deeply rooted; where a woman's voice and passion is often stifled.
As a child, Gaura was the second of eight siblings. She was married when she was only 15 years old.
Like other women in rural Nepal, Gaura’s life has been restricted by oppressive norms that say women can’t perform the same tasks and have the same responsibilities as men. Their role is often confined to household chores and child-rearing and women are often not involved in family or community decision-making.
Now, Gaura is forty years old. Despite her efforts to break through these cultural barriers and support her family, her options have been limited by a lack of education, economic, and leadership opportunities.
This is quickly changing for Gaura.
Red Panda Network (RPN) is committed to challenging gender injustices and providing critical livelihood opportunities for women in Nepal’s red panda range. We launched our campaign to Empower Women During Covid-19 in March of 2021 in celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD) and Women’s History Month. Thanks to our supporters, we have already been able to recruit four new female Forest Guardians in eastern Nepal!
Prior to the IWD campaign, in 2020, the project “Community Enterprise for Collective Vegetable Production and Marketing” was jointly initiated by RPN and the World Food Programme (WFP), as well as our local partner organization, in Palata-9 and Pachal Jharna-4 (Lafa), of Kalikot district.
The project area lies in the Karnali Conservation Landscape (KCL) which is critical to protecting a viable population of red pandas in western Nepal. It is also a place where climate-induced disasters — such as drought, landslides, and wildfires — can frequently occur. This impacts the disadvantaged rural communities of the KCL which are highly dependent on forest resources and ecosystem services for their well-being. Unfortunately, this dynamic puts unsustainable pressure on the environment and makes local people vulnerable when biodiversity is lost or when disaster strikes.
The goal of this intervention is to alleviate pressure on forest resources while building resistance in KCL communities. Central to our success are initiatives that provide opportunities for economic and social empowerment among local women who gain financial independence and increased autonomy. RPN, WFP, and local partners have provided financial and technical support.
Determined to achieve financial freedom, Gaura worked diligently to become the first female entrepreneur in her community. She began mushroom cultivation with no prior experience. RPN supported Gaura — and ten other local women — with poly-house material and training in fungiculture (mushroom cultivation) techniques and poly-house construction.
Now she is an agripreneur who sells 5kg of mushrooms a day! Gaura's sales have doubled since she started her business and she is organizing collectives and extending her market to reach bigger towns. From household chores to entrepreneurship, she proved her capability to thrive despite the adversity she faced as a woman in rural Nepal.
Gaura is a true inspiration to other women in her community. “Eliminating barriers and unleashing women's economic potential can have significant benefits throughout communities, fostering greater resilience and prosperity", Gaura states.
We're in the final weeks of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Red pandas may not be too happy about it.
If you’re reading this article, odds are that you’re a human (and if not, congrats on learning how to read, member of another species). One of the most interesting things about humans, and primates in general, is that we have adapted the ability to use tools and don clothing to survive harsh temperatures. However, this is not true of wild red pandas, who can face temperatures of -7 degrees C during a winter night. Fortunately, red pandas have some incredible and unique adaptations that help them survive the harsh winter weather they face!
Red pandas have a thick double-layer of fur. Much like humans who put on a sweatshirt followed by a winter coat, red pandas also use layers to stay warm! There is an incredibly dense undercoat of fur that is topped by an upper coat of thick hair. The two combine to create a lot of insulation for pandas, helping them fight off cold temperatures and even helping keep snow from reaching their skin. Also, the entire panda body is covered in fur except for their noses — even the bottoms of their feet!
Speaking of fur: babies are born with a full coat of fur, ready to face what the Himalayas throw at them from the start! That’s not all young pandas have going for them! Red pandas have evolved a trait known as delayed implantation. After mating takes place (usually between January and March), the fertilized egg will not implant in the uterus and begin developing until conditions are ideal; meaning that if mating takes place too early, the zygote will not start to grow until later in the season, ensuring cubs won’t be born in the harshest part of winter.
That adorable fluffy tail we all love so much is also an adaptation that helps in the winter. When pandas sleep, they are able to curl into a tight ball, and wrap their tail around themselves as an extra layer of protection from the elements. Pandas can wrap up incredibly well, including hiding their face under their tail if they are extremely cold. This form of thermal regulation is something pandas control extremely well, wrapping up tighter or looser as the elements demand.
As you probably already know, red pandas exist almost exclusively on a diet of bamboo; but it is often augmented with insects, lizards, small birds and mammals, fruits, and eggs. However, in the winter, most of these options disappear, leaving the panda with bamboo as the sole source of food. Pandas will often spend half their day gathering enough bamboo to eat during these lean times, and sleeping the rest of the day.
During the lean winter months, when food is scarce and diets are less varied, red pandas are able to slow their metabolisms down significantly. This low metabolic output allows pandas to not have to hibernate or migrate in the winter months. When the weather gets incredibly cold, pandas can slow their metabolic rate even further, similar to that of a sloth. During this time, the panda will become dormant — barely moving at all — while using its stored energy to keep its body temperature consistent.
Of course, we all know that red pandas are an arboreal species, with many adaptations that help them climb trees and live life high above the forest floor. But did you know that actually helps them in the winter as well? On clear winter days, red pandas will climb to the top of the trees to sunbathe! Thus, all of the adaptations pandas have for climbing and gripping such as the furry bottoms of their feet, pseudo-thumbs and retractable claws, and their rotating wrist bones that allow for climbing up or down headfirst...those adaptations all also help red pandas survive in snowy weather!
As you can tell, there are many reasons why red pandas are so perfectly adapted for the harsh winters they face in Nepal. However, some of these traits are also amongst the reasons red pandas are considered so valuable in the illegal wildlife trade. Hats made of those warm tails, or clothing made of the warm double layer of fur that is so necessary to keep pandas alive are considered extremely desirable in certain areas of the world. That is why it is so important to continue our mission to stop poaching and to educate people on the importance of this incredible species.
Red Panda Network is committed to recruiting more female Forest Guardians and providing educational scholarships for female students.
On International Women’s Day 2021, join us in Empowering Women During Covid-19! Our field staff had the pleasure of interviewing a few of our female Forest Guardians and we are pleased to share their courageous stories and experiences with you today.
The soothing sounds of mountain streams and birds chirping gently nudge Man Kumari Nembang awake on a cold, frosty morning. After she completes her morning household chores, she grabs her field monitoring gear, joins her fellow Forest Guardian counterparts, and sets out to patrol the forest habitat; navigating steep unforgiving terrain — in search of wild red pandas.
Man Kumari’s patrol requires her to note vegetation status, assess deforestation threats, scout for illegal poaching activities: footprints, traps, and snares; report her findings to enforcement agencies, and engage local communities to educate them about forest conservation. This is all in a day’s work for Man Kumari, the 45-year-old, single mother of three children, and one of the four female forest guardians recruited by the Red Panda Network (RPN).
Forest Guardians are critical to protecting red pandas and their natural habitat, and are at the forefront of RPN’s conservation efforts. Today, there are over hundred RPN Forest Guardians working in the Himalayas of Nepal. Although Forest Guardians are predominantly male, groundbreakers like Man Kumari are setting examples for other women who want to work in the field.
"A woman can excel in anything that she desires. She can do as much as a man does, and sometimes even do better. We’re here because of a passion and love we share for red pandas and we’re prepared to take action and urge others to do the same,” shared Bimala Moktan, another female Forest Guardian, and a “Green Soldier” as she likes to call herself.
These women are challenging and breaking existing cultural norms and finding new opportunities in male-dominated professions. International Women’s Day allows us to celebrate and share the fortitude and courage of these unsung conservation heroes. We hope it will encourage conversation and open doors for young aspiring girls who believe there are greater opportunities available to themselves.
RPN: What motivated you to become a Forest Guardian?
Man Kumari Nembang: A few years ago, illegal poaching and forest resource harvesting was at its peak in my village. At home, I had a 19-month baby, as well as two other children, and was concerned about their future on two fronts: the degrading village forest, and my family’s challenging financial situation. Becoming a Forest Guardian let me protect the forest and endangered red pandas, and at the same time, secure financial support for my family. I joined RPN four years ago and have never looked back.
Bimala Moktan: I always had a deep passion, empathy, and fascination for nature and the environment which continues to bloom today. Growing up, I witnessed strong gender inequality - my father, uncle, brother, and all the men would do outdoor work and my mother, sister, and I were confined to household chores. I wanted to change that thinking and encourage positive and sustained gender representation. Through the RPN Forest Guardian program, I can enhance my skills, knowledge, and understanding and use it to protect red pandas and their habitat, and also amplify and empower female community voices. Being a Forest Guardian has enabled me to live up to the vision and the values I treasured.
Dipa Rai: As cliche as it may sound, being the guardian of our forest and wildlife is thrilling and indulging. I remember one day, we were conducting forest habitat monitoring, and a wild boar appeared in front of us out of nowhere. I was terrified and just ran with all my courage. It still gives me goosebumps! The forest acts as an antidote to stress and apprehension. We rely on the forest for everything from the food we eat, to the air we breathe, to the wood we use. Realizing the central role of forest, its species, and ecosystem in sustaining livelihood made me adore it even more. However, witnessing escalating illegal wildlife poaching and degrading forest habitat over time made me worried. Many youths are leaving the village for foreign employment, so the onus of protecting red pandas and their habitats lies on people like us.
RPN: What are some of the particular challenges you have faced as a woman who wants to work in conservation?
Man Kumari Nembang: The challenges with patrolling red panda and forest habitat in the deep bamboo forest with deceptively slippery terrain, worsened by harsh unpredictable weather are pretty obvious, but my strong zeal and passion for red panda conservation drives me to keep moving. Initially, people doubted my intentions and even thought I was an illegal poacher, but the scenario is different now. Moreover, I am a single mother, so juggling household chores, taking care of kids, and monitoring the forest around the clock can sometimes be daunting and taxing, but I enjoy every bit of it.
Bimala Moktan: Initially convincing my family to let me step into the role of Forest Guardian and defy social norms was a challenge. Some people downplayed and doubted my ability, and also mocked and ridiculed me for joining male colleagues alone in the forest. However, matching my male counterparts while performing Forest Guardian duties has never been an issue for me. My physical appearance and strength has never been a barrier, as some people might mistakenly think. I firmly believe that the blend of both male and female skillset, experience, and diverse knowledge are critical to effective sustainable forest and red panda conservation. Over time, I've developed a resilient nature. The conservation work we do has made positive impacts on the community, and that has changed the way society perceives us. Now we're being heard and treated more equally. But despite progress, there is still more work to do.
Dipa Rai: Red panda monitoring in the dense bamboo forest is a physically demanding job. At first, I sometimes struggled with the pace of field monitoring. Moreover, accomplishing field monitoring tasks on time and navigating the way back home is often challenging, because of things like heavy fog, steep terrain and deceptive weather. The fear of wildlife attacks and unforeseen accidents is always there.
RPN: How has your role as a Forest Guardian helped you fulfill your dreams/goals of working in conservation?
Man kumari Nembang: I live adjacent to red panda habitats, so frequent encounters with red pandas were normal and that developed my deep attachment with them. But over time, I saw fewer red pandas and signs of their presence, so I wanted to protect them and their habitat but was clueless on how to proceed. Luckily, through the Forest Guardian program, I got the chance to acquire scientific and practical knowledge about red pandas, and enhance my skills and techniques for monitoring forest habitats. Today I have the knowledge, skills, and formal authority to stop illegal poaching and forest harvesting, educate local communities, and help protect red pandas and their habitat. I wonder what more one could desire.
Bimala Moktan: Early in my life, I realized that the survival of mankind relies on a healthy environment, forest, and nature. While many of my peers were leaving to work in other places, I wanted to do something in my village, and safeguard the forest and wildlife from further degradation. As a Forest Guardian, my responsibilities revolve around monitoring red panda habitats, educating local communities on conservation, patrolling to stop poaching, checking for signs of forest fire, and restoring conservation ponds. This is the conservation work I’ve always dreamt of doing.
Dipa Rai: Escalating illegal forest harvesting and wildlife poaching in my village has always been my concern. I wanted to do something to combat illegal forest activities, but I was aware of the degree of danger and conflict I must contend with. Through my four years’ experience of working as Forest Guardian, I am now trained with anti-poaching patrolling skills and well-informed of the existing laws and regulation concerning illegal poaching. Most importantly, I have the authority to fight against illegal loggers and poachers.
RPN: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your role as a forest guardian?
Man Kumari Nembang: Performing Forest Guardian duties while staving off infectious disease is challenging, especially with the limited access to preventive medical supplies including hand sanitizers, masks, and inadequate hygienic measures. In response to COVID-19, human movement in and from outside the village was restricted. As entry was constricted, sometimes forest monitoring equipment stopped functioning and it was difficult to get the new, replacement equipment from a nearby city. That potentially impacted our day-to-day forest monitoring activities. Moreover, with limited villagers’ movement allowed, it became more common for wildlife to venture into human settlements, so we rescued a lot of wild animals.
Bimala Moktan: As I reside in a small village with limited population far from the city, there are comparatively less visible impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. We are undertaking our jobs during the pandemic by adopting COVID-19 safety precautions and maintaining social distancing. However, some of our red panda monitoring blocks lie on the edge of the Nepal/India border. Travel restrictions imposed on the border made it difficult for us to patrol, inspect, and oversee the looming encroachment crisis and potential illicit logging or poaching activities.
Dipa Rai: Reverse migration, loss of livelihood means, and confined human movement engendered by COVID-19 pandemic have enticed people to illegally poach wildlife and encroach forest habitat leaving red pandas in a more vulnerable state. The rise in illegal poaching demanded our intense presence and frequent patrolling. In response, we scaled down and halted conservation activities that require social gatherings, and emphasized forest wildlife patrolling and heightened vigilance.
RPN: Would you like to say something to those who aspire to become like you?
Man Kumari Nembang: Inspired by my efforts to protect the forest environment, my 16-year-old daughter aspires to become a Forest Guardian in the future and wishes to take my legacy forward. What could be more thrilling than that? Age and physical strength can never be a hurdle to the noble mission of protecting forests and wildlife. Passion and determination are what drives you.
Bimala Moktan: Protecting and maintaining healthy forest vitality is our shared moral responsibility. There will always be something that holds you back. Be brave enough to dream and engage in the offbeat unconventional job of being forest warriors.
Dipa Rai: With challenge comes change, never hesitate to take action in the cause that you truly believe.
Over the last few years, our Forest Guardians have created incredible change, restoring 66 hectares of red panda habitat, planting 400,000 trees in Community Forests, and working closely with local communities to help educate and create a greater sense of ownership. However, the impact from the Covid-19 pandemic has been significant, and women and girls in rural Nepal are disproportionately impacted by it.
Providing women with new, alternative employment opportunities can provide essential support, while also protecting red pandas. In celebration of International Women’s Day, our Empower Women During Covid-19 campaign will support our recruiting efforts to hire more women and offer educational scholarships for female students. Please help create gender equality in Nepal and save red pandas by donating to this campaign!
Red Panda Network
Writing and Communications Volunteer
Red Panda Network
As humans worldwide continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, so, too, must nature.
According to several reports Conservation International released in 2020, pandemic restrictions and lockdowns left wildlife and wildlands unprotected, resulting in increased animal trafficking and deforestation.
Unfortunately, red pandas and their habitat are not immune.
A Growing Center of Illegal Trade
While Nepal has seen population increases in critically endangered species, such as the tiger, elephant and wild buffalo, it “has become a thriving transit hub for trafficked endangered species from India, and even Africa, to China,” wrote Sonam Tashi Lama, Program Coordinator for Red Panda Network (RPN), in an email. “In Nepal wildlife trade is certainly increasing and trade junctions along districts bordering India and China are suggestive of a large, international market in most of the cases.”
The number of red panda pelts confiscated by authorities is fluid and changes from year to year, according to Lama. Between 2008 and 2020, authorities seized approximately 158 red panda pelts, with a one-year high of 27 seizures in 2016, according to one study.
“There can be several factors and situations contributing to the sudden rise in poaching activities,” Lama wrote. “We can take the example of this pandemic, while many countries were celebrating how animals from the wild are reclaiming the streets, incidents in Nepal reveal an entirely different tragic story of an elephant and three crocodiles being killed to (the) killing of one horned rhino after 41 months of zero poaching.”
Putting the Spotlight on Poaching
To help raise awareness of this issue, RPN looked to the stars — the movie stars.
Last fall we announced that acclaimed Nepali actor, director and playwright Dayahang Rai had joined RPN as a conservation ambassador and would take part in our anti-poaching initiative.
Rai is the right person for the job, as he not only hails from a remote village in eastern Nepal, but also has a huge, demographically diverse following on social media and beyond, Lama wrote. “As a national heartthrob with over 40 Nepalese movies, Mr. Rai has his fan base in even the most distant villages of Nepal. ‘Highway’ and ‘White Sun’ are Dayahang’s internationally recognized films, representing his international audience.”
Already, the partnership has proved successful. The first video of the campaign has reached 401,000 combined views through RPN’s and Rai’s Facebook pages, resulting in a higher volume of news articles, social media posts and information searches, Lama noted. “Therefore, we are hopeful and positive to reach a wider audience in raising national awareness for conservation of red panda and its illegal trade.”
RPN has a lot to overcome. “Poverty and unemployment is always associated with poaching and illegal wildlife trade,” Lama wrote. “The people involved in illegal red panda trade and poaching are below the poverty line across several metrics.”
Unemployment among young people is one critical driver of illegal wildlife trade and poaching, according to Lama. The International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency, reports that more than 63 percent of Nepal’s 26.5 million people are under 30 years old, and the unemployment rate among young people ages 15-29 is 19.2 percent — about seven times greater than that of the general population.
“Nepal remains largely incapable of capturing the potential of this huge young workforce,” Lama wrote. While the reasons are many and complex, youth unemployment continues to rise in both urban and rural Nepal. Declining industrial and service sectors, skill mis-match between job seekers and employers, and young people’s refusal to work in semi-skilled jobs are among the reasons, according to Lama. “In many rural parts of Nepal, there is a lot of social pressure for young people to go abroad for foreign employment (labor work), as it is seen as having a higher status than working in a low-skilled job back home.”
In it for the Long Haul
Convincing locals that red panda conservation is important has been a marathon, not a sprint.
RPN began establishing our red panda conservation program in the Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung corridor in 2007. Since then, it has expanded to seven districts of western Nepal.
Today, more than 100 locals serve as Forest Guardians, whom Lama calls the “soul” of community-based red panda conservation. Offering alternative employment options such as this, as well as teaching sustainable herding practices and providing safer, cleaner cooking appliances, have helped improve people’s lives, Lama wrote.
“Community-based conservation requires time to build trust and understanding of the nature of the people and the terrain. The habitat of red pandas is surrounded by the indigenous and marginalized communities in Nepal who are accustomed to a certain way of life: herding practices; their complete dependence on forest resources; and limited livelihood opportunities. For any conservation approach to thrive sustainably, it is vital to be accepted by the communities.”
Writing and Communications Volunteer
Red Panda Network
The popularity of red pandas will rise with the release of Pixar's "Turning Red." The film may also help raise support for the conservation of this endangered species.
When people think of red panda conservation, they often think of it as a battle on two fronts: in situ conservation and ex situ conservation.
In situ conservation is the work being done in the wild, including much of what Red Panda Network does. Planting red panda homes, tracking wild pandas, and our Forest Guardians in Nepal are all great examples of in situ conservation efforts. Ex situ conservation is the work being done away from where pandas live. This work includes the studies and breeding programs being done in zoos, as well as the preservation of genetic materials of endangered species. However, there is another area to consider when thinking about how we can save red pandas, and it’s an area where many people can help, and where a little studio known as Pixar is about to give us all a big boost! I’m talking, of course, about the media.
Let’s be clear: red pandas are awesome and adorable! They are practically the definition of the term “charismatic species,” a term conservationists use to describe megafauna that is particularly lovable or considered symbolic. It is significantly easier to convince people to care about a charismatic species than, say, the Eastern Hellbender, an endangered species that looks super slimy, has an unfortunate name, and is often referred to as a “snot otter.”
So the question becomes, if red pandas are so charismatic, why aren’t more people involved in saving them? And the answer is that there are still many people who have never seen or heard of a red panda! However, that’s all about to change! In 2022, Pixar is releasing a movie called “Turning Red.” It’s the tale of a 13-year-old girl who is just going through her everyday life and facing the challenges we all faced at that age…puberty, crushes, school work…but with one tiny difference. When she gets too excited, she transforms into a large red panda!
“Turning Red,” coupled with other recent red panda appearances in the media, bodes well for the popularity of the species. In recent years you can find red pandas in “Kung Fu Panda (Master Shifu)”, the second season of “His Dark Materials, (Pan),” and Pabu, who is a mix of a red panda and a ferret featured in the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” tv show. There are also well-known virtual clips such as the one featuring a red panda startled by a rock that gets spread around social media sites.
There are definitely people in the animal care world who are not huge fans of characters being based on the animals they love, and I can understand some of the arguments for this way of thinking. One of the biggest concerns is that animated animals are always subject to at least some anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics to non-human animals), which can lead people to think of animals in human terms rather than as their own incredible and unique species. This is a valid concern.
With that said, it is my firm belief that the benefits outweigh the costs when it comes to an animal like the red panda. Think about it. It is almost impossible to go to an aquarium nowadays without hearing every child (and plenty of adults) exclaim “Nemo!” or “Dory!” as they see clownfishes and royal blue tangs. These people care about these animals precisely because they first cared about Nemo and Dory. A movie like this can represent a major turning point for a species like the red panda.
Along with the actual movie, think about all the red panda merch we are about to see available at retailers like Walmart and Target! There are about to be a bunch of books, toys, and items of clothing featuring a member of our favorite species, and there are going to be a lot of children (and parents) that are reminded about them every time they walk through a toy aisle.
One need look no further than to the “other” panda out there, the giant panda, to see how important general awareness of a species is to its conservation. When the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) was founded in 1961, they decided to make the giant panda the symbol of their organization, and launched an incredible awareness campaign about the species. Citizens in the United States became particularly fascinated by the bears, and by the time President Nixon visited China in 1972 in an attempt to improve relations, his wife, Pat, was in love with giant pandas. At a dinner in Beijing, the First Lady mentioned her love of pandas to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who responded by saying, “I’ll give you some.” Two months later, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and it was national news. Ever since then, people from all around the country, and the world, have planned trips to D.C. just to see the pandas that live there, along with the ones in the few other U.S. zoos that have them (currently Memphis and Atlanta).
As the public’s awareness of panda bears grew, so too did donations to the WWF, the Smithsonian Zoo, and other organizations that were trying to help fight against the wild extinction the bears were facing. The combination of awareness and funding led to amazing work being done to save the giant panda, to the point that in 2016, their official status was changed from “endangered” to “vulnerable.” While by no means out of the woods yet, giant panda populations are definitely trending in the right direction, thanks largely to the effects produced by the mass awareness of this charismatic species.
And as for red pandas? Well, they share a name, a love of bamboo, and a pseudo-thumb with giant pandas. Why not share a growing population as well? “Turning Red” represents an amazing opportunity for the red panda conservation movement. A whole generation is about to learn what a red panda is from the same studio that has aquarium employees dreading the name Nemo now.
As red panda fans, it is important that we not only use this film for awareness, but for a true conservation education purpose. There is always the threat that increased awareness will lead to an increased demand for red pandas is the illegal pet trade. While Red Panda Network has taken many steps to curb the illegal panda trade already, there is still much work to be done. It is imperative that we use this movie to encourage a love of red pandas while doing as much as possible to tamper down any inflamed desires for pandas as pets, or for panda pelts.
And don’t forget, thanks to your Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts, you can all use your own social media to educate people as well. Share adorable photos and videos of red pandas that you take or find online! Share promotional images from “Turning Red.” Include a link to Red Panda Network, and use those moments to teach others about this incredible charismatic species we all love so much! In the process, make sure you aren’t just sharing the cuteness, but also important conservation facts. Use the hashtag #nopandapets to spread awareness about our No Panda Pets campaign. Include links not just to “Turning Red” trailers, but to pages that explain the importance of conservation efforts, and how seeing pandas in zoos, or taking a Red Panda Network ecotrip, is a better option than trying to have a panda pet.
We have all seen how effective awareness campaigns such as International Red Panda Day, and the incredible birthday fundraisers so many of you do for us on Facebook and across other social media platforms, can be. Let’s all unite and use the incredible opportunity presented by “Turning Red” to raise awareness for the conservation of red pandas!
Writing and Communications Volunteer
Red Panda Network