The Red Panda HouseNew building in Taplejung is not just a training centre, but a base camp for Kanchenjunga trekkers
While Dutch conservationist and architect Anne Feenstra was giving a presentation ten years ago at a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) event in Kathmandu, Ang Phuri Sherpa was fascinated.
This was a whole new way to design modern buildings in Nepal’s mountains that respected heritage, conformed to the climate, and conserved energy using locally available raw material.
Sherpa was working for WWF at the time, but when he became Country Director for the Red Panda Network (RPN) he remembered the presentation from all those years ago, and approached Feenstra’s Sustainable Mountain Architecture (SMA) to help design a new resource centre in Taplejung.
RPN has been working in Kangchenjunga Conservation Area in eastern Nepal to protect the endangered red panda, and its researcher Sonam Tashi Lama in 2022 won the Whitley Award for his work.
Feenstra and his Nepali colleague Sapana Shakya at SMA designed the Rs20 million two-storied building at Deurali near Taplejung airport which serves to provide information about the red panda and the need to protect its habitat.
The tastefully designed and functional multi-purpose resource centre is also supposed to pay for its own upkeep by offering accommodation and dining to trekkers, researchers, students and other visitors.
Since it is located on the route to Pathibhara, it could also be a comfortable stopover for pilgrims. And all guests will also automatically learn about the need to preserve the red panda habitat
Known as हाब्रे in Nepali, the red panda is critically endangered and lives on the canopy of broadleaf in mixed temperate forests from western Nepal to Sichuan. The mammal is not related to the giant panda, and is not a bear but is closer to racoons and squirrels.
There are now less than 10,000 wild red pandas, with 800 in zoos around the world. In Nepal, there are about 1,000 of the animals living in bamboo and rhododendron forests in 24 of the country’s mountain districts, mostly in eastern Nepal.
But their population is in decline because of poaching and habitat destruction. Despite not having any medicinal, cultural, or religious value, red pandas are being poached for their pelt.
Anne Feenstra has designed more than 50 similar sustainable buildings in mountain regions across the world in the past three decades, including a structure in an Afghan national park that is home to snow leopards.
“As a student of architecture, I have always been a proponent of climate-friendly construction,” explains Feenstra. “When rainfall, the sun, and other topographical and environmental elements are not taken into account, a building will not be sustainable.”
Indeed, Feenstra explains, every mountain region is different, and requires a specific building approach from the type of roof, windows and height of the ceiling based on local climate and available local materials.
The Red Panda Centre in Taplejung sits on a forested ridge 2,600m in Deurali near Taplejung. The wood-and-stone structure is conceptually modelled on a mountain lodge, is built to withstand heavy winter snowfall, and is earthquake resistant. The floor is made of local stone, while the second floor is timber. The roof is up-cycled tin coated in tar.
Feenstra and Shakya studied indigenous building materials and construction techniques which are disappearing because of cement and concrete.
“When we use indigenous resources, we must always pay the utmost attention to native skills and materials,” says Shakya, who helped design new school buildings in Makwanpur and other districts after the 2015 earthquake.
“It is the combination of local skill and resources that makes any building stronger,” she says.
For Ang Phuri Sherpa of Red Panda Network, the building is exactly what he had hoped for. He says the use of cement for construction would have been costlier and less climate friendly.
“The reduction of our carbon footprint and the use of local skill and resources were our primary objectives in the construction of this resource centre,” says Sherpa.
The research centre also serves as a place where knowledge about water harvesting, smokeless fuel-efficient use of firewood, and other techniques will be shared with local people who are suffering a scarcity of water in the dry season. As the number of trekkers to the Kanchenjunga region grows, villagers will also be given practical knowledge about running homesteads and promoting ecotourism.