Nepali conservationist among Rolex awardees

A new generation of Nepali environmental activists is filling the void left by the tragic 2006 Ghunsa crash that saw the loss of many pioneering conservationists including Harka Gurung and Chandra Gurung.

Rinzin Phunkjok Lama, the first graduate in environmental science from Humla district, is one of them. In an announcement on Monday, Lama was named among five laureates of this year’s Rolex Awards for Enterprise for his role in promoting local initiatives for biodiversity conservation in Nepal’s trans-Himalayan region.

Born and raised in one of Nepal’s remotest regions, Lama was inspired and mentored by 1981 Rolex Laureate, wildlife biologist Rodney Jackson, who spent four decades of his life protecting the threatened snow leopard, and initiated the first-ever radio collar study on the big cats in western Nepal 40 years ago.

But Lama has taken a step further making it his life’s mission to protect not only the snow leopard, but other threatened high-altitude species like the Himalayan wolf, Himalayan black bear, wild yak, Tibetan argali, musk deer that live at altitudes from 3-5,000m.

“The trans-Himalayan ecosystem which includes most of Nepal’s highland is very fragile and increasing human activities are threatening it constantly. Thus, there is an urgent need for a conservation project which addresses an integrated approach to conservation and livelihood,” says Lama.

Humla district in Nepal’s northwestern corner bordering China and India has long suffered from state negligence, and is one of the least developed parts of the country. Only 1% of its land is suitable for farming, leading to one of the highest rate of food insecurity in Nepal. Economic opportunities are hard to come by.

Now, the climate crisis has added to the challenge. Lama’s long-term solution to overcome the threats to this biodiversity is to engage local people from Humla, particularly young environment graduates and empower communities to become the stewards of the land.

The young scientist plans to enhance and enlarge current conservation activities to promote local leadership in conservation. One of the priority areas is educating and training people in law enforcement to discourage illegal hunting, logging and forest fires. Lama’s other focus is developing livelihood for communities.

Lama is collaborating with a herbal and agricultural products company in Humla to develop a model for technical support to local residents who want to establish small businesses. He is also conducting a feasibility study of potential trekking trails to promote ecotourism and working with local women skilled in making the traditional attire to generate jobs.

Lama’s project is science-based and uses field surveys and camera trapping techniques to establish the baseline number of mammal species, while supporting the development of new enterprises that will expand the possibilities for local people’s source of income. At the same time, Lama will combine science with traditional knowledge and indigenous Buddhist philosophy to educate the citizens of Humla in environmental conservation.

“I want to show that, if given opportunities, local people can lead exceptionally and are capable of managing large-scale conservation projects and community engagement as real stewards of the land.”

Since 2014, Lama has been actively involved in research and conservation of high altitude wildlife in Nepal. In 2015, he won a Wildlife Conservation Network scholarship and was the recipient of the WWF Nepal Conservation Award in 2020.

Lama obtained a master’s degree in International Nature Conservation from the University of Göttingen, Germany, and Lincoln University, New Zealand. Currently, he is a conservation biologist and Conservation Program Director at Third Pole Conservancy and an environmental adviser to Humla’s elected representative.

Other recipients of the Rolex Awards this year are American Felix Brooks-church, working on malnutrition in Tanzania, Chad’s Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, linking indigenous knowledge to prevent climate conflicts in the Sahel, Gina Moseley from the United Kingdom who is looking into climate change in the Arctic and Brazilian Luiz Rocha who is exploring mesophotic coral reefs and their biodiversity in the Indian Ocean.

The five laureates will receive funding for their projects, and a virtual event celebrating the awards will be held at the end of year.

The Rolex Awards were set up 45 years ago to mark the 50th anniversary of the world’s first waterproof wristwatch, the Oyster. It supports exceptional individuals with innovative projects that expand the knowledge of the world, protect the environment – helping to preserve habitats and species – and improve human well-being.