Conserving the Red Panda: Creating Community Ownership
Kamal Thapa, Senior Research Officer at WWF Nepal, explains the significance of the red panda, “Although the red panda is classified as a carnivore, it has adapted to an almost completely herbivorous diet. In order to survive, the red panda relies on young tender bamboo shoots and leaves; a viable red panda population, therefore, is an indicator of a healthy forest.”
This almost total dependence on bamboo for sustenance is a major reason for the decline in red panda population numbers, with rapid deforestation and habitat fragmentation posing severe threats to its favorite food source. Dr. Shant Raj Jnawali, Biodiversity Coordinator for the Hariyo Ban Program at WWF Nepal elaborates, “The IUCN lists the red panda as an endangered species on its Red List of Threatened Species; it is also one of the focal species of the Hariyo Ban Program.” Estimates put the red panda population at less than 10,000 mature individuals worldwide. This is likely to decline even more in the coming years. As red panda populations tend to live in isolated pockets, the risk of inbreeding and local extinction are high. Although the species is not generally targeted by poachers, red pandas often fall prey to traps laid for other animals. Similarly, herding practices often unintentionally disturb or destroy parts of the red panda’s habitat.
As part of efforts to protect this rare species, the Hariyo Ban Program is supporting the establishment of a community-based red panda monitoring system in Langtang National Park and Buffer Zone. Aimed at building the capacity of local communities to detect and document red panda populations, the initiative was begun in the villages of Polangpati, Dhwache and Ghyangphedi. According to Kamal Thapa, who supervised the training in Langtang, “Local people have a considerable amount of conservation knowledge – this needs to be tapped to complement existing scientific knowledge. Making use of local knowledge in this way will help communities to really get involved in conservation efforts.”
A group of 11 people comprising members of the Community-based Anti-Poaching Operations Unit, and herders and staff from the Langtang National Park and Buffer Zone Support Project participated in the red panda conservation training. Suryakunda Buffer Zone Users Committee was responsible for the overall management of the event, while WWF Nepal and staff from the Langtang support project provided technical supervision. Participants learned to use GPS and to identify signs of red panda populations. They also received a range of equipment to support them in their monitoring efforts including camping gear, compasses, GPS devices, and measuring tapes. The newly trained monitoring team then set up a series of 12 transects at elevations ranging from 2600 to 3800 meters above sea level; altitude differences of 200m separated each transect. The heartening outcome of this monitoring exercise was the sighting of five red pandas and the recording of their GPS coordinates. Following this, the second level red panda monitoring was begun from 22 July, 2013 in the sub-alpine forests of Syafru and Ghyangfedi VDCs. The team members have established 14 transects between 2800 to 4000 meters above sea level.
Now that the Government of Nepal’s WWF-supported Red Panda Conservation Action Plan has been endorsed, the first requirement, according to Thapa is, “extensive research to determine the population and habitat of the red pandas.” The replication of community-based initiatives such as the one in Langtang is also crucial. “Once local people understand the need for conservation and acquire the skills needed to make it happen, conservation efforts for species such as the red panda become dramatically more effective,” states Gautam Poudyal, Field Project Officer at the Langtang National Park and Buffer Zone Support Project, WWF Nepal. Dr. Jnawali agrees with him, concluding that “threats to the red panda and other such species can be only be reduced if local communities are the owners and guardians of local conservation efforts.”
By Richa Bhattarai, Communications Associate, Hariyo Ban Program, WWF Nepal
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Disclaimer: The Hariyo Ban Program is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents of this article are the responsibility of WWF and its consortium partners and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.