Nepal conservationist wins Whitley Award

Nepali conservationist Sonam Lama of the Red Panda Network has won the prestigious Whitley Award worth £40,000 from UK conservation charity, the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN).

Lama was recognised for his work training 100 citizen scientists to help restore the red panda habitat and invested in the mammals’ eco-tourism to generate income for local people, and plans to use the fund to turn poachers into protectors and diversify sustainable income for communities.

"Future generations should have the right to see this charismatic species. I would love my daughter to know about red pandas, wouldn't you?" says the conservationist.

Listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list as critically endangered, the red panda has been seeing a record number of illegal seizures with its habitat fragmented into over 400 isolated patches. 

Lama is one of the six grassroots conservationists pioneering solutions to the biodiversity crisis recognised by the 2022 Whitley Awards who were presented with their prize on 27 April by WFN Patron, HRH The Princess Royal.

2022 Whitley Award winner Sonam Lama recieving his prize from WFN Patron HRH The Princess Royal. Photo: WHITLEY AWARDS

"As we emerge from Covid-19 and take stock of its impact on planetary health as well as our own, this WhitleyAward will enable Sonam to address issues that have arisen including the increased poaching of an already Critically Endangered species,” says Danni Parks, WFN Director. 

She adds: “The charismatic red panda is a much-loved local emblem as well as an international star, and importantly, this holistic project will also benefit the people with whom it shares its home in the forested foothills of the Himalayas."

The elusive panda of the Himalayas was discovered 50 years before the giant panda and is considered a living fossil. Endemic to eastern Himalayan broadleaf forests, with thick bamboo understories and consistently cool temperatures, red pandas are indicators of ecosystem health.

But the Covid-19 pandemic over the last two years has added challenges to their conservation and caused a surge in poaching with 37 pelts confiscated from the black market in 2021. Estimates suggest that 1 red panda is poached every 10 days in Nepal.

Habitat loss compounding conditions for the 10,000 adult individuals that remain, with rates of deforestation over double the national average and forests now so severely fragmented that genetic inbreeding is likely.

Lama’s Red Panda Network is leading the longest-running monitoring project in the world, with 10 wild red pandas successfully GPS-collared and studied. They have restored 400 hectares of habitat around the third highest peak in the world Mt Kangchenjunga, trained over 100 citizen scientists, and supported 100 school students with Red Panda Conservation Scholarships.

Lama will be using his Whitley Award to diversify income sources for communities, particularly women and young people, through forest conservation nurseries and restoration to create a wildlife corridor that connects the habitat for red pandas. He also plans to establish community-led anti-poaching patrols and awareness-raising campaigns. 

Poised to expand, Lama's project has great potential for replication in other countries. He adds: "The goal of the project is red panda conservation but it is equally important to address the livelihood needs of communities."

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