Remembering Pat Guru

New Zealand professor Patrick Devlin taught a whole generation of Nepali conservationists

Patrick Devlin 1937-2023. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

Patrick Devlin who taught a whole generation of Nepali environmentalists at Lincoln University in Christchurch died on 16 August at age 86. 

Many of us Nepali students in New Zealand knew him as ‘Pat Guru’, a name that was a mark of our deep respect as well as the closeness we felt to him. For five decades, he was involved in training professionals in his home country as well as Nepal and other Asian countries.

Pat’s students now shoulder the burden of continuing his legacy in training national park wardens and professionals managing nature reserves.

When the history of the evolution of national park management is written, Pat will be remembered for his immense contribution to professionalising national park and reserve service in his home country as well as in Nepal and South East Asia. 

Among more than 50 of Pat Devlin’s Nepali students were Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa who helped establish the Qomolangma Nature Preserve in Tibet which shares its border with three national parks on the Nepal side, making it one of the largest protected areas in Asia.

Patrick Devlin
Patrick Devlin with Shailendra Thakali in Christchurch in 2010. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

Other students also hold important positions in international conservation organisations: Ghana Gurung heads WWF Nepal, Ang Phuri Sherpa is Executive Director of Red Panda Network International, and Hum Gurung is Asia Partnership Manager for BirdLife International.

Other Nepali Lincoln alumni that Pat tutored include Shankar Koirala who had a long stint with the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation and other ministries. Gopal Upadhaya, Megh Pandey and Phanindra Raj Kharel went on to head the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, and Mingma Norbu Sherpa was the head of WWF’s Asia Pacific Program.

Mingma Sherpa was among the dozen prominent Nepali and international conservationists, officials and journalists who were killed in a helicopter crash at Ghunsa in 2006 during the inauguration of the 2,035 sq km Kanchenjunga Conservation Area.

Prof David Simmons, another of Pat’s distinguished students, played a central role in establishing Lincoln University's Mingma Norbu Sherpa Memorial Scholarship with support from Pat Devlin, Mingma’s family, WWF Nepal, and New Zealand. Ten Nepali students who got the scholarship have so far graduated with master degrees from Lincoln. 

All national parks and reserves in New Zealand, and almost 70% of protected areas in Nepal were once managed by graduates from Lincoln University, Pat’s base camp to educate and train conservation professionals. He was the main supervisor for the majority of Nepali graduate and undergraduate students from the 1970 onwards. 

Patrick Devlin
Pat Devlin felicitated in 2013 during a visit to Nepal by the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation and the Lincoln University Alumni Association for his immense contribution to protected area management in Nepal.
Patrick Devlin
Pat Devlin with students he supervised at Lincoln University along with their families during a visit to Kathmandu.

 As a supervisor, Pat was very supportive but non-compromising when it came to the quality of work. Pat inspired his students to produce the best. I had the honour to be the last student he supervised when I went back to Lincoln University to pursue a doctoral program in environmental management in 2008. 

Pat Guru was more than a supervisor to me. Besides constant encouragement and support, he and his wife, Maureen, were great hosts. They were kind to me and my family as they had been to a generation of Nepali students, made sure we had comfortable and enjoyed our time and experience in New Zealand.

During the 1970s and 80s, the majority of rangers working for national parks and reserves in New Zealand had no formal degrees or training. They chose the career out of a love for nature and the great outdoors, and were happy to take remote postings. As national parks and reserves started to become popular, park management grew more challenging and complex. 

Pat was quick to realise this and devoted his entire life to developing and teaching parks and recreation courses at Lincoln University, and most importantly grooming and mentoring the next generation of managers.  

He was key to the design of ‘Parks and Recreation’ courses at Lincoln and also condensed the Parks and Recreation syllabus into six-week block courses for in-service park rangers that professionalised New Zealand’s national park and reserve services and management. 

Lincoln University under Pat also offered block courses to the Park and Forests service in Kuching in Malaysia. Pat also wanted to roll out his block courses in Nepal, but did not materialise. There is an urgent need in Nepal to include multidisciplinary teams to effectively manage emerging challenges related to tourism, buffer zone management, climate change, human-wildlife conflicts, and local aspirations.     

Patrick Devlin
Pat Devlin (with umbrella) in Chitwan National Park in 2013 with his wife Maureen, David Simmons and a park official in 2013. Photo: HUM GURUNG

Pat was modest and generous to a fault. Despite his accomplishments, he was not one to brag about them or seek the limelight. Always calm and composed, he took all challenges in his stride. 

My last meeting with Pat was in April this year. Despite failing health, he stood up, shook hands, smiled, tossed a drink, and made us feel at ease. He took immense pride in the achievements of his students, and kept in touch with them as much as possible right till the end. 

Patrick Devlin’s life work lives on in New Zealand, Nepal, Sarawak and around the world. His funeral will be held in Christchurch on 23 August.

Shailendra Thakali, PhD is a freelance consultant in environmental conservation, tourism and livelihoods.