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Mon, April 22, 2024

LEADING FOR CONSERVATION IMPACT

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Dr Ghana Shyam Gurung

Country Representative, WWF Nepal

  • Life of a child herder who now leads conservation efforts of WWF Nepal with compassion and clarity
Dr Ghana Shyam Gurung, Country Representative of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Nepal, has literally dedicated his entire life to the efforts of conservation of not just wildlife but the biodiversity of the country. As the head, he provides strategic direction to the organisation, raising funds for projects in Nepal, and ensuring conservation successes that contribute to WWF’s global mission to stop the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and build a future in which people live in harmony with nature. Gurung, who holds a PhD in Natural Science from the University of Zurich in 2006, has over 30 years of experience in species and people-centred natural resource management, ecotourism development, linking conservation with faith groups, policy engagement and project negotiations. He reveals that his career actually started when he was selected by late Sir Mingma Norbu Sherpa and late Sir Edmund Hillary for a scholarship to study in New Zealand after high school. “I was born and brought up in a remote village of Upper Mustang where I had to walk a day to attend school, two days to reach the district headquarters Jomsom and eight days to Pokhara to get my School Leaving Certificate,” he reminisces. Later, he decided to study Biology in Kathmandu after which he pursued his studies in Parks, Recreation and Tourism in New Zealand. “Prior to leaving for New Zealand I worked at the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation which is now called National Trust for Nature Conservation as preparation for my further studies,” he says. He candidly shares that from the age of 5 to 10, he studied Buddhism every winter and in summer he studied literature and then only went to school. “I was a herder back then and it is amusing now to think that I have been advocating about preserving the snow leopard which back then was like my enemy following me everywhere when I took out the sheep, goats and yaks to graze,” he smiles. While studying in New Zealand, Gurung learnt that snow leopards are found in only 12 countries and Nepal is one of them and that they are elusive and rare to sight. “But I had been living with them since my childhood,” he recalls on a note of irony. Though he did a project work on snow leopards, he shares his study mostly focused on biology, conservation and tourism because all the protected regions in Nepal have a deep interrelation with tourism. On returning from New Zealand, Gurung was employed at the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation and was assigned the first eco-tourism project conducted by Asian Development Bank. After six months he was made In-charge of the Sikles sector in the Annapurna Conservation Area. “From then onwards the journey has never stopped,” he says, adding, “After working for a few years there, I was assigned the responsibility to establish the Manasalu Conservation Area, a project that was initiated by the Asian Development Bank.” He was later hired by WWF Nepal for his body of work experience in the Annapurna and Manasalu conservation areas to establish the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area. “Our main objective was to establish community-based institutions under the leadership of the government and finally to hand over the area to the local communities of that region,” he recalls. Recently WWF Nepal celebrated 30 years of conservation work in the country, a significant part of this ongoing success is attributed to the keen efforts of Gurung whose life inspiration is based on the philosophy of coexistence. In this issue of Business 360, we spoke to Gurung about his work and life. Excerpts:
I was born and brought up in a remote village of Upper Mustang where I had to walk a day to attend school, two days to reach the district headquarter Jomsom and eight days to Pokhara to get my School Leaving Certificate.

How did you get into conservation as a career?

I think I was born a conservationist. During my childhood, I studied Buddhism where we are taught about interdependency and interconnectedness of all life forms. If we lose any connection, our dependency will be undermined. Every morning we always pray for sentient beings to be happy and be free from their sufferings and also the causes of their sufferings. In life, there is always suffering and this suffering actually paves the path to achieving 'Nirvana' if you know how to overcome such suffering. Fortunately, I was born in the Himalayas, where I had the chance to interact with nature and wildlife while herding my goats, sheep and yaks, and I am repeating it here, ‘the snow leopard which I am now advocating for was back then my enemy killing my sheep and goats’. Yet, I was always compassionate towards wildlife because I was trained as a Buddhist not to harm any species. Even when we are very angry about the wild animals killing our livestock, we never think about eliminating them. Today, if you scrutinise that particular teaching then it is actually the principle of coexistence which we should strictly adhere to.

When did you join WWF Nepal?

I joined WWF Nepal in February 1998 and was assigned the responsibility to establish the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area soon after my joining. Once that was accomplished, I was again called to Kathmandu to manage all the northern projects of WWF. We then had projects in Sagarmatha and Dolpo and we also had projects in the Tarai but I was responsible for developing the mountain projects.

What are your greatest strengths as a conservationist and what’s the most challenging part about working as a wildlife conservationist?

I think the biggest challenge of conservation is making sure that the threatened species, especially the big carnivores like tigers and snow leopards, which are a direct challenge to people, are protected. The elephants too need to be protected because time and again they enter human settlements and destroy people’s lives and property. These species are so rare and so important for our existence they need to be protected and all efforts must be made together with people. We have to bring people from all walks of life together and make them understand the importance of preserving our wild animals and biodiversity. And along with this, comes the challenge of generating resources to invest in these conservation efforts. To be honest, there are so many challenges at the moment. People need to be made aware of the reality of these animals, the need to work and live alongside these animals and it is always an ordeal to make them understand that these preservation efforts are not only for the current but the future generations too. The other challenge is in protecting forest resources and water. Why don’t people understand that everyone needs water and natural resources? However, having said that I must mention it is relatively easier to protect forests and grasslands. The biggest challenge is protecting the large carnivores. There is so much development taking place and land that was once a forest or grassland or wetland is being converted for infrastructure development and this hampers wildlife. Another challenge that has consistently existed is the poaching of wildlife for their body parts. And not to forget the river pollution that is taking place at a rampant pace. Water is getting scarce and in the face of climate change, the biggest impact is on fresh water. We are losing water species so fast that you might not believe it when I say on a global average, we have already lost 82% of species in freshwater. For instance, look at our own rivers, the Bagmati and Bishnumati in Kathmandu to name but a few. Rivers or rather the water that flows in them need to be pure but we are dumping anything and everything in the rivers. Do you feel any living species, be it a plant or animal, will be able to survive in Bagmati today? We have noticed that in all the major rivers, dumping starts from the tip of the mountains due to mountain climbing all the way to the deltas. There is so much pollution it is killing all the aquatic species and it is getting more problematic with industries dumping waste into the rivers. I am very worried about Chitwan where the Reu and Rapti rivers flow and we have large settlements there. A lot of settlements are coming up in Madi and Sauraha areas. I fear that due to this increase in settlements dumping might start in Reu and Rapti rivers and if that happens like in Bagmati and Bishnumati, our fish species in those rivers will be dead if we don’t take timely action. Moreover, that will also mean we are killing our tourism industry.

How do conservation efforts help a nation?

Conservation is the biggest capital for a nation. If you do not protect forests, how are you going to breathe; they are the lungs of nature. Without protecting rivers and watersheds where are you going to get all your hydropower and your water for agriculture? How can you have irrigation if you don’t have any water? Water is something you cannot make through the use of technology. In fact, water is the only commodity that cannot be made with the help of technology and fresh water is very limited. We have become accustomed to pumping underground water but if you don’t allow the watersheds or aquifers to recharge, then we will soon run out of this resource. Also, when watersheds are not protected it gives rise to more floods and soil erosion and this subsequently will lead to erratic rainfall patterns thus hurting our agriculture. Natural resources are our capital and we need to adopt sustainable practices to preserve them. Nepal is such a beautiful country and within this small landmass, we have so much wildlife and biodiversity. We have been blessed with stunning landscapes and our climatic conditions are also so alluring for tourists. From the mountains to the grasslands to our indigenous cultures; if we do not protect them and they are lost then who is going to visit our country? Tourism is one of the economic pillars of the nation and tourism is directly linked with nature. Just take a look at Chitwan where thousands of people are employed in the tourism industry. The businesses are not just paying taxes but employing so many people too. Why do we go to Rolpo? To see the beautiful lake. Why do we travel to Bardiya? To look at the tigers. These natural resources are the biggest assets of the nation. Conservation directly benefits tourism and if we do not protect our natural resources then the tourism sector will gradually die out. The third most important factor is the ecological or environmental services. For instance, if we do not preserve then where are we going to get all the gravel and sand for construction activities. Without these materials, you cannot construct your house. If you look at it closely, we are extracting everything from nature and without these resources, we will not be able to sustain life. Conservation is the need of the hour and should be the common agenda of all people. It is not a luxury but an urgent need. We have to be aware that the population is continually going to grow and it has already touched eight billion. Our southern and northern neighbours have the biggest population size, almost one-third of the global population. Similarly, the impact of climate change is going to grow. And then the need for development, for infrastructure, roads, railways, irrigation canals, everything is going to grow. These things are going to grow and with that people’s aspirations for a better living are going to grow which means we are going to consume more resources; however, resources are limited. We just have one planet. So, we need to learn to conserve while consuming resources and adopt a sustainable lifestyle. For the last 70 years our generation has made the biggest mess and this generation has the biggest opportunity to reverse that and I believe we will start reversing that by 2030. We will start recovering lost nature and species and gradually we will become carbon neutral. Nepal too has a plan to become carbon neutral by 2045. If we are able to do that then I see hope that we can sustain life on earth and thrive.

How does conservation contribute to tourism specifically?

I would say tourism is the biggest ally of our conservation efforts because tourists want to go to various places to see wildlife. Now to have wildlife we need to have habitat and to have habitat means you are putting stress on the conservation of grasslands, forests and wetlands or Ramsar sites, which basically translates to us protecting nature. Mountaineers from across the world come to Nepal to climb mountains, so to preserve them we have to fight climate change and make sure we adopt mitigation measures. We need to transform to 100% clean energy one day and we are taking the journey towards it. I am confident we will adopt 100% renewable energy in the near future. For any country to develop infrastructure is a must but we need to develop wildlife-friendly infrastructure. Irrigation facilities need to be wildlife-friendly and roads and railways must be constructed in such a way that they do not hamper the natural movement of wildlife. If we can do this, then not only will we have infrastructure but also protect nature. Development must take place because once tourists disembark at the airport they need to be transported to their respective destinations. My only concern is we should adopt renewable energy and develop infrastructure that is climate-smart and environmentally friendly. If we are able to do all these things, we will definitely have a better tourism industry because tourists want to see clean environment. They want to see wildlife in the wild state. They want the mountains to be crystal clean when they climb them. They want to see clean Ramsar sites where water is inspirationally clean and blue and not polluted muddy rivers. Tourists want to do rafting in clean blue rivers and not amidst plastic and other garbage.

What is the overall national budget allotment for conservation and sustainable practices and is it enough?

Even if you look at the latest budget, I think the Forest Ministry has been allocated the lowest amount and that budget too goes into recurring costs like administration expenses. Very little budget is allocated and I think this area needs more investment in terms of making sure that conservation efforts are far reaching. We need to invest to maintain a natural state of the environment because that will generate plenty of benefits for us as that will generate domestic resources for people. I believe the budget is very limited at this stage but we understand there are other needs of the country like infrastructure development. However, we need to make sure that there is environment-friendly infrastructure development and this necessarily does not have to come through the forest ministry. If it comes from the development sector also it will be great but I just want the environmental factor to be integrated with the development process.

There have been incidents of human-wildlife conflict in recent times. How can we best manage this situation and foster coexistence?

Yes, that definitely has become a challenge now because forest cover has increased and consequently wildlife numbers have also risen. As a result, human-wildlife interaction has increased which at times we call human-wildlife conflict. However, we need to think and devise ways for coexistence. To manage this situation, I think we need to look into five aspects. Firstly, we really need to develop stronger behavioural change campaigns which means awareness. Wildlife is not going to change its behaviour; they are wild but what we can do is change our behaviour. We don’t need to go throwing stones when we sight a tiger, so I would emphasise that we need to change. The second I would say is people should not enter forests where the wildlife is residing; we can develop alternates so that we do not have to enter forests. Thirdly, in areas where there are major human-wildlife conflicts we can put up plant barriers. We can put up biological or infrastructure barriers, so that we can minimise the conflict. The fourth important part is making sure we invest a lot in grasslands, wetlands and forest cover so that animals do not have to stray into human settlements. Lastly, for every loss that a human incurs, whether it be a human loss or loss of property or loss of crops, there should be relief mechanisms established. We need to develop quicker systems so that the relief reaches the affected people faster so that people feel they are looked after when such problems arise.
The government has also made substantial investment and almost 23% of the land is dedicated for conservation. Moreover, policies like 50% of park revenue being shared with the local community in the buffer zone is also a good commitment from the government.
WWF Nepal is working in some major areas. One is making sure we are going to develop a model in Nepal for human-wildlife coexistence. Second is we want to make sure that water resources are well protected. We need to make sure that watersheds and water springs get the time to recharge. Integrated river basin management is must and the government has to have a plan to manage this aspect. The third is we need to continue to control poaching and trade. Wildlife can be lost very quickly if we do not have stringent measures in place and then who is going to visit Nepal. For example, some people say there are too many tigers and rhinos in Chitwan. Now if you do not have them then who is going to visit Chitwan? Why would people fly hundreds of miles when they cannot see a tiger or rhino in its natural habitat? Of course, there are and will always be challenges but we need to manage them. Our job is to make sure that the conflict with people is minimised to the least possible and it is possible. When we set the aim of zero poaching of rhinos in 2006 no one believed us. During the Maoist insurgency, we lost many rhinos and there was a need to revive the numbers. After four years of working, we were able to achieve that target in 2011. However, we must not take the sole credit for it as there were a number of other stakeholders involved in this campaign. For instance, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and Nepali Army. We must also applaud Nepal Police for controlling the trade in wildlife body parts because once the market is killed off then there is no incentive for poaching. The local youths who went on voluntary patrols also did a tremendous job. Last but not the least, we must appreciate the local communities which have lived with the reality of conflict. These are do-ables; one has to have the dream to do it and the drive to achieve that dream. It is all about consistent efforts. Who would have thought one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world would be able to achieve this feat? And then we had just come out of a 10-year-long insurgency and then we had the earthquake and blockade. Also, with so much political instability in the country I doubt if anyone would have believed that we will be able to double our tiger numbers. In the last 12 years, we have nearly tripled tiger numbers. What we also have to keep in mind is that for any conservation effort, people have to be put in the centre of all your activities. If conservation does not bring any benefit to people, then what is conservation for? Who puts the value on tigers and lions? Who puts value on tourism? We have put a value on those natural assets. Whether it is wildlife or forests or a beautiful lake or mountain, we have put value on them. And because we have put a value on them, we have the responsibility to protect and conserve them. It has to be an inter-generational benefit. So, I believe that if we have that mindset and work together we will be able to develop a coexistence model in Nepal from which others can learn. India learnt from us and last year they had zero rhino poaching in Kaziranga National Park in Assam. There are things that others can learn from us too and not always the other way around. However, the biggest worry for me and which is giving me sleepless nights is river pollution. Once water gets polluted in the rivers you kill all the water species. Moreover, the big rivers flow through national parks and when the water is polluted animals can get sick sooner or later. Birds will not come in the winter if there is no fish and birds are important also for agriculture because they disperse the seeds. Just protecting the parks or natural reserves is not enough, even the water flowing through them has to be protected. And when there are no animals and birds left, I guess we will not have any tourists visiting those areas. We worked so hard with the government and the Coca-Cola Foundation and other stakeholders to make Chitwan National Park plastic-free but when there are floods then we see so much plastic waste in the river. So, what people have to understand, and quickly, is that this is not an issue of just the parks but catchment areas and the sources. The sewage that is being dumped into the rivers need to be treated right at the source. We need to monitor that. The municipalities need to have a treatment plant where the waste is treated before they dump the sewage into the river. Otherwise, the rivers are never going to be clean.

How do you view the commitment of the government to protect the environment and biodiversity?

I am happy with the government’s commitment. We are a small country but our efforts have been stupendous. We have so many Nepali Army personnel who dedicatedly protect the national parks and reserves from poaching and other illegal activities. They provide round-the-clock security and protection. Thousands of employees of the park department are working 24 hours a day. And there are many people from the forest department who have devoted their lives to conservation. The government has also made substantial investments and almost 23% of the land is dedicated to conservation. Moreover, policies like 50% of park revenue being shared with the local community in the buffer zone is also a good commitment from the government. What I would like to say is that the commitment of the government was there in the past, is there and I am very hopeful it will continue to be there. The issue now is how are we going to make that commitment to deal with the challenges of climate change, infrastructure development, poaching and trade, and the community’s aspirations for development. We also must deal with making tourism better by adopting sustainable practices and our focus should also be on clean transportation, solid waste management, wise use of water and most importantly proper sewage disposal.

Could you tell us about the WWF Conservation Awards programme?

WWF Nepal was established in 1993 and in 1995 Nancy Abraham visited Nepal and went to Chitwan National Park. She was so amazed with the work of the frontline staff there, she decided to establish an award to recognise the efforts that the staff had been making on the field. So, she started the Abraham Conservation Awards to recognise exemplary individuals and organisations working in the field of conservation. After 15 years, she said she wanted to discontinue that but the award was such an encouraging tribute to people working in the field of conservation, we decided to continue it with the same constitution and called it the WWF Nepal Conservation Awards. The awards are judged by a very independent panel. We only do the processing work. There is a national-level committee including members from the political, bureaucracy, media, civil society and development sectors and they conduct a thorough investigation and research. The committee makes the final decision regarding the award and we at WWF Nepal only facilitate the process. The second award that is important I feel are the memorial scholarships which are awarded to young people involved in conservation. Till date, we have already provided 122 scholarships. We started that scholarship in 2006 after the unfortunate helicopter crash where we lost leading conservationists. I was also supposed to come back to Kathmandu on that same helicopter but I stayed back in Taplejung to write the press release. WWF then decided to honour the people who had lost their lives in that crash and it would also be a means to develop leaders in the field of conservation. At that time many had thought WWF Nepal would not be able to sustain because we had lost all the top leadership. We lost our support system. Since we lost Nepal’s conservation leaders many thought our efforts will dwindle. However, we thought that those leaders had built a legacy and now it was up to us to expand that legacy and we have been able to accomplish that. We initially thought of providing this scholarship for 10 years but our team thought of creating a fund and providing the scholarships till we are here to develop capacity. We have thus continued with the scholarships and many have gone on to hold leadership positions in the conservation sector.

If you had to name three conservation champions of Nepal, who are they and why?

I really don’t know whom I could specifically call champions in Nepal, I really cannot name any individual because it is teamwork. Everyone has worked relentlessly. There are many from the younger generation too whose contributions have been immense. So, if you ask me to mention names then I would not be able to because like I said earlier it is a collective effort. The zero-rhino poaching, doubling the tiger count, conservation of wetlands, for all these achievements I would say the present generation as a whole is the champion.

You have been involved in conservation for a very long time. Who or what inspires you to carry on day in and day out?

My inspiration is my basic philosophy of coexistence. It is due to my Buddhist learning that we need to look after plants and animals because they are a part of our existence. If we don’t look after them, we will not sustain and that is the biggest inspiration. We should all understand that we are interconnected and interdependent with nature. If we lose that connection, then it will be difficult to sustain. Losing any species of plant or animal or habitat should be taken as a threat to our existence. For instance, losing the Amazon rainforest is like losing the lungs of the planet. Losing the Himalayas is like losing the water for the millions of people who live downstream. That is what inspires me to do what I do every day. I want to maintain the connection we have with nature and also try to reverse certain things which have been hurting the environment. I have been in decision-making positions for the last 30 years and I have always given my best and I feel happy about that. We have given scholarships to more than 200 girls in the Kanchenjunga region and when these girls go on to do well in life what better inspiration could you look for. Education is very important because had I not been educated; I wouldn’t be here in the first place. We are making a difference in the life of future generations and that keeps motivating me. I come from one of the remotest villages in Upper Mustang and I have faced many hardships in life. However, I worked hard to get where I am today.

WWF has completed 30 years of work in the country. How would you summarise that?

If you want me to summarise 30 years of WWF Nepal, then first we have contributed significantly to protecting all the endangered species in Nepal. We have always developed innovative ways of conservation and we have also utilised the participatory method of work. We have contributed to stopping the illegal trade of wildlife and its body parts. We have been able to make Nepal a learning centre for conservationists from other nations. Another significant achievement is we have been able to build the next generation of conservationists in the country. And most importantly I would say we have contributed to making Nepal’s development process more sustainable. READ ALSO:
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MARCH 2024

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