Nepali conservationist wins Whitley, again

Researcher Tulshi Laxmi Suwal is the recipient of the 2023 Whitley Award for her work in protecting pangolins and forests

Nepali pangolin conservationist Tulshi Laxmi Suwal has won the Whitley Award worth £40,000 from the UK conservation charity, the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN). This comes on the heels of Sonam Lama of the Red Panda Network who won the prestigious award last year.

Suwal has been recognised for her work in protecting the world’s most trafficked mammal and their habitat increasingly threatened by unprecedented forest fires, which also put at risk an ambitious reforestation program in one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change.

Nepal’s Suwal along with five other winners from Mexico, Madagascar, Cameroon, Kazakhstan and Kenya were presented with the award by HRH The Princess Royal on 26 April at the Royal Geographical Society, also marking the 30th anniversary of the Whitley Fund for Nature. The ceremony was live-streamed on YouTube.

“Over my 15 years in conservation, I have always felt a strong connection with the Chinese pangolin with its dark brown skin, a flat nose, carrying a baby on its back just like I did,” said Suwal at the award ceremony. “The recognition of this award will make all the difference for the sustainable conservation of these species and their habitat.”

Nepal is home to two of the eight species of pangolin, the Critically Endangered Chinese pangolin and the Endangered Indian pangolin. Both pangolins are on Nepal’s protected list and killing, poaching, transporting, selling or buying the scaly anteater is punishable with an Rs1 million fine and/or up to 15 years in jail.

Yet, Nepal is not just a source site but also the transit hub for transborder trafficking of the scaly anteaters from Africa to China and beyond. Some 100,000 pangolins are smuggled live into China from Southeast Asia and Africa.

Many Chinese believe the scales have therapeutic values, and pangolin meat is considered a delicacy. Some ethnic groups in Nepal also eat pangolins for their supposed health benefits, but most are now killed or trapped to be smuggled to China.

Suwal is the founder of the Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation (SMCRF) and has been involved in the research and conservation of pangolins for the past 15 years. She will be using the Whitley fund to conduct Nepal’s first impact assessment to focus on the effects of fires on Chinese pangolin across 4,000ha.

Read more: The routes for the world’s most trafficked mammal, Nepali Times

More specifically, the project will create ten sustainable Community Pangolin Conservation Groups in three districts in Bagmati province to monitor pangolin populations and their habitats, and equip them to manage fires and plant trees.

“Our major goal is to motivate local communities to take ownership of pangolin conservation at local levels,” says Suwal, adding that “local communities, especially community forest users groups, are now coming forward and are highly willing to conserve this species.”

Suwal’s project will support the livelihoods of local communities while assessing pangolin populations, implementing threat mitigation measures and restoring habitat by planting 20,000 local mixed broad-leaved trees. An awareness campaign will reach 200,000 people in households and schools.

A member of the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group, Suwal is also a role model for fellow conservationists and young students, being the only person in Nepal to have received a PhD on pangolins.

Read more: Protecting pangolins from being eaten to extinction, Sonia Awale