Nepal's 'Owl Sir' awarded

Raju Acharya wins the 2024 Whitley Award to protect the endangered nocturnal birds in central Nepal

Raju Acharya wins the 2024 Whitley Award to protect the endangered nocturnal birds in central Nepal. All photos courtesy of: RAJU ACHARYA

Raju Acharya from Nepal is one of the winners of the Whitley Award to protect owls in central Nepal after spearheading a government-backed ten-year plan to safeguard the birds which had been overlooked from conservation efforts.

Acharya is the founder of Friends of Nature, a Kathmandu-based environmental group and was instrumental in driving The Owl Conservation Action Plan in 2020 which addresses threats to owls from hunting, illegal trade, and habitat loss. 

The Whitley Award funding will help boost initiatives in central Nepal, home to the greatest density of birds and 19 of the country’s 23 owl species.

Acharya received the award on 1 May at the Royal Geographical Society in a ceremony that marks three decades since the very first Whitley Award was presented. 

Raju Acharya Whitley Award NT
Raju Acharya receiving the Whitley Award in London on Tuesday from Britain's Princess Royal for his work preserving owls in Nepal.

Sir David Attenborough, WFN Ambassador and a long-term supporter of the charity, said the growing network of winners represents some of the best conservation leaders in the world: “Whitley Award winners combine knowing how to respond to crises yet also bring communities and wider audiences with them."

Raju has spent decades shoring up support for Nepal’s owls which include the jungle owlet, rock eagle owl and Eurasian eagle owl – all of which are currently listed as Least Concern or Data Deficient under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. 

Raju’s work addresses the danger of focusing conservation efforts solely on highly threatened flagship species. Threats to the owls are significant: the birds are the subject of an illicit trade in central Nepal, with 1,500 owls hunted or traded each year in Nepal. 

Owls represent good or bad omens in central Nepal, with s Some people associate them with death, while in other areas, owl feathers are regarded as sacred objects that can ward off evil.

Owl conservation in Nepal

Hunting by teenagers using catapults and habitat loss are other threats to the owls amid the felling of old trees whose cavities are crucial nesting sites for the birds. Forest makes up one-third of this region. Older trees also act as roosting, den or hibernation sites for owls which struggle to find nesting locations in semi-urban areas.

Acharya’s project aims to build on Nepal’s success in conservation which has harnessed the proactive participation of communities. He aims to foster collaboration between the ethnic groups to foster a broader understanding of owls to reduce the use of catapults, discourage the consumption of owl meat and advocate for adherence to the government regulations which protect the birds.

His Whitley Award project will conduct training events to increase the capacity of law enforcement agencies, policymakers and “owl envoys” – local ambassadors for the owls - with a goal of reducing hunting and trade by 25%.

Acharya will also address the use of catapults by students who hunt the owls by creating five catapult-free zones. He aims to raise awareness among students and the public by creating 100 conservation camps. The abundance of birds significantly increases in those areas with larger numbers of old trees. His team will restore and rehabilitate 1,200 hectares of owl habitat by protecting 500 old trees and installing 100 artificial nests in semi-urban areas.

“The appreciation from local people and colleagues serves as constant inspiration for me to continue my work,” Acharya said.

At the forefront of owl research in Nepal and known locally as “Owl Sir” for his efforts to draw attention to the plight of owls, Acharya hopes to engage early career scientists to join him on his mission. 

Owl conservation in Nepal

He also brings out a digital owl newsletter called Hapsilo, Raju set up the Nepal Owl Festival eleven years ago. The festival has boosted eco-tourism to the region and become one of the country’s biggest conservation events despite owls being lower priority species than tigers and snow leopards.

The Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) is a UK charity supporting grassroots conservation leaders in the Global South. Over 30 years it has channelled £23 million to more than 200 conservationists across 80 countries.

The other 2024 Whitley Award winners are: Fernanda Abra from Brazil who is pioneering the use of low-cost canopy bridges over highway BR-174 in the Amazon rainforest to restore connectivity for tree-dwelling mammals and save them from road collisions

Naomi Longa from Papua New Guinea who is safeguarding coral reefs in Kimbe Bay and creating a network of marine protected areas led by local Indigenous women

Aristide Kamla from Cameroon who is restoring the African manatee habitat in Lake Ossa, addressing threats from invasive species and pollution

Kuenzang Dorji from Bhutan who is protecting the Endangered Gee’s golden langur and implementing solutions for farmers whose crops the primates are targeting.

Leroy Ignacio from Guyana who is leading an expansion of one of the country’s first Indigenous-led conservation movements to protect the Endangered Red Siskin finch.