Participating to save Kangchenjunga

Comunity discussion in Ghunsa. Photo: WWF NEPAL

Tucked in the sacred Himalayan landscape of the northeastern corner of Nepal, the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area (KCA)is home to the world’s third highest mountain ecosystem. It is also Nepal’s first conservation area managed by the local community.

It was declared as ‘A Gift to the Earth’ by the Nepal government in support of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Living Planet Campaign in April 1997, and has a long-standing history of perseverance, resilience, and of striking a balance between conservation gains for people and nature.

The KCA’s 2,035 sq km area hosts a vast assortment of biological diversity, it is part of the Eastern Himalayan Global 200 cross-border eco-region, and millions of people downstream depend on it and its water towers.

Recognising the significance of the region, there have been integrated efforts to protect its biodiversity and improve livelihoods of local communities. WWF Nepal’s engagement in the KCA dates back to 1995, when it first conducted a feasibility study followed by the inception of the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area Project (KCAP) in 1998.

It was rolled out in partnership with local communities under the leadership of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. After almost a decade, the government of Nepal undertook the historic step of handing over management responsibilities of KCA to local communitieson 22 September 2006 -- making it the first protected area to be managed by the local community in Nepal.

Community driven conservation hinged on the notion of increased community participation in decision-making and natural resource management, which has allowed the KCA to address key challenges such as forest degradation, human snow leopard conflict, and gender inequality.

These initiatives have been critical in promoting women’s empowerment by enhancing their role in nature conservation and decision-making, particularly in natural resource management. Since its inception, KCAP has supported 35 Mothers’ Groups and helped them secure a critical role in decision-making and management.

Starting off as a small network, the Mothers’ Groups have expanded to include a wide spectrum of activities including support for non-formal education to the older generation, and education for girls. There are cleanliness and health-hygiene programs, childcare, and initiatives to promote financial independence of women through saving and credit schemes.

The Mothers’ Groups are a model for translating the rights of the women over natural resource management into action, and provide scholarships to girls from low income families through an endowment fund of Rs5 million in each group. It supports income generation activities and provides scholarships for students, particularly girls from vulnerable households. So far, 206 girls have benefited from scholarships.

Community-based snow leopard conservation and prey monitoring has also begun in which citizen scientists have been trained to keep track of the endangered cats and their prey. This group uses a wide gamut of technologies from conventional sign surveys to camera traps, fecal DNA surveys and GPS collaring.

Already, the KCA’s presence is seen in increased forest cover, from 51,500ha in 1999 to 54,800ha in 2015. As a result, from zero snow leopardsin 1995, there were 293 of the animals moving between India, China and Nepal.  The return of the Himalayan wolfis also encouraging, as is the increase in population of blue sheep from 1,167 in 2007 to 1,638 by 2015.

While encouraging, there are still challenges like human wildlife conflict, especially with the return of the wolves. Even so there have been few retaliatory killings of wolves, with not a single case since the establishment in 2004 of Ghunsa Community Snow Leopard Insurance Scheme, supported by University of Zurich. There are four livestock insurance schemes with a revolving fund of Rs8.4 million, along with a Rs4.7 million crop damage relief fund.

KCA has earned national and international recognition for its conservation success and takes forward the legacy of the Conservation Heroes who tragically lost their lives in a helicopter accident in Ghunsa on 23 September 2006, just a day after handing over the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area to the local community.

KCA has come a long way in the 15 years since. There are challenges ahead: representation and leadership of women in the Management Council of the KCA needs to increase. The role of local governments in the Council also has to be redefined.

There is also the possibility of developing the Kangchenjunga region as a Tri-National Peace Park as a model of transboundary and regional cooperation for biodiversity conservation.

The community-based Livestock Insurance Schemes have proved to be a successful human wildlife conflict mitigation measure, but this activity needs to be scaled up and integrated with the government compensation mechanism.

Then there is the potential post-Covid boom to promote nature-based eco-tourism and green enterprises as alternative livelihood options for the communities.

Environment and wildlife friendly infrastructure have to be designed to maintain ecological connectivity in the region, particularly with the new roads and hydropower projects in the region. 

Ghana S Gurung is the Country Representative of WWF in Nepal and Snow Leopard Champion for the Global WWF Network. 

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