© WWF Nepal/Mreedu Gyawali

Having gone through years of struggle, whether it was in the community that I lived in, or in my personal life, the transition from struggle to empowerment was a huge achievement for me. This feeling of empowerment was only possible after my association with WWF Nepal as the Terai Arc Landscape community mobilizer.

“She’s an outcast; she has no place in our family. Send her off somewhere before I get rid of her” were some common words that I was used to hearing from my mother-in-law, after I married my husband at the age of 13. 

In a society bound by class and restrictions, it was never permitted for my husband and i to get married simply because we belonged to different ethnicities. After marriage, I had to leave school while I was in the 8th grade and stay at home and look after my family; a family which was rather large by my standards, 26 members. While I did the best I could for my family, they never appreciated me simply because they had already developed a preconceived notion of me being an outsider.
Working for TAL starting in 2000, was a start towards a change that I wanted to bring in my life. When I started working for TAL, I didn’t even have a clue about what conservation was, I just knew that I needed to give my work the best of myself. This was when my work became my religion, and I, its follower.

© WWF Nepal/Mreedu Gyawali

I became a crusader for conservation in and around my community. Crusader is the right word for me because I was even willing to risk my life for the sake of my job. In 2000, right when I started working for WWF in the Khata corridor, there was a rumor going on that WWF was trying to make the Khata region a national park. Since I was on the front line and visible to everyone because I worked in the field, I was a prime target for the locals. I had to spend numerous nights in the jungles to escape from the constant death threats that I was getting. Finally, to get out of this dire situation, through numerous interventions, I persuaded the local leaders that WWF had no plans to declare Khata a national park. Only then was I able to escape from the constant threats.

In the year 2006, while on a mission to protect elephants, I nearly lost my life. For weeks, elephants had been coming to my neighborhood and eating the rice plants planted by my neighbors. Since everyone in the community knew that I was working for conservation, they always saw me as a threat. They blamed me for the elephants vandalizing their properties. The community members gave me an ultimatum telling me that either I should let them kill the elephants, or risk getting killed myself. If it was anyone else in my position, I am sure they would have given up rather than risk their lives. However, I wanted to challenge my community and turn them into conservationists like myself.

© WWF Nepal/Mreedu Gyawali

To solve this issue, several discussions with TAL project coordinators took place. In order to combat the ongoing problems caused by the elephants, we decided to introduce the crop “Mentha” to the locals.

Due its strong smell, “Mentha” is not preferred by wildlife, therefore, we suggested the locals to plant “Mentha.” After the locals planted “Mentha” along the vicinity of their rice plantations, the elephants stopped encroaching on their plantations.

Introducing the locals to “Mentha” was the biggest turning point in my life. After the community started planting “Mentha”, the locals saw me as their savior and started welcoming me into the Tharu community. Once my family found out that I was being appreciated by the locals for what I had done, they started seeing me in a different light. My mother in law, who was always against educating me, now wanted me to continue my education and find further growth opportunities career wise.

Today, not only am I a community mobilizer, but I also lend my hand towards various conservation activities. Currently, I am involved in improving the livelihood of 12 women in Dalla, Bardia. I am doing this by helping them market and sell a local handicraft product called Dhakia. Dhakia is a local handicraft product made up of plastic wires. The women weave their own Dhakias and my job is to encourage them and help continue this trend, which I believe, will eventually help them in improving their standard of living.

Change is inevitable, but if that change derives something good out of people, then that change is worthwhile. I want the local mindset to change in my village towards conservation, and I want people to include conservation in their everyday lives. I believe that if I keep on pursuing conservation and educating my community on conservation and its importance, all of us in our community will be conservationists someday.

Story By: Mreedu Gyawali