The conservation connection helping to protect the Himalayas

New Zealand and Nepal share a close connection, largely through the work of Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay and their families. But for Rinzin Phunjok Lama there’s a different connection to New Zealand that has had a huge impact on his life – and on the wildlife of his home country.

Written by       Photographed by © Rolex/Marc Latzel

“The first generation of conservationists in Nepal were Lincoln graduates. They were the ones who were motivating, inspiring and mentoring us. When I was going to step into the sector, I didn’t know much about Sir Edmund Hillary, so I have more of a connection to Lincoln. They are legends.”

Since the 1970s, more than 50 Nepalese students have completed research-based qualifications at Lincoln University, and many of them were students from schools established by the Himalayan Trust. 

After a tragic helicopter crash in 2006 that killed 23 people with very strong links to Nepal’s conservation efforts, the government set up a scholarship in their memory. Lama was one of the earliest recipients of that scholarship and he spent a semester at Lincoln studying for a Masters in International Nature Conservation through the University of Göttingen. He became the first person from his region to receive a conservation degree. 

Rinzin Phunjok Lama and colleague Tashi check
memory cards from photo-traps to observe wildlife that
has passed through the area.

Lama’s work has largely been focused on protecting the snow leopard and, in collaboration with the Nepalese Government, he and his team have spent the past one-and-a-half years collecting field data to provide the first estimate of the snow leopard population in his home region of Humla (which is outside of the country’s protected areas). Camera traps are crucial for this kind of work because the animals are so elusive and the areas they cover are so vast. 

“We’ve been looking to do this for a long time and it was very costly and the geography and logistics were very complicated. Raising that money was not easy. ” 

Rinzin Phunjok Lama walks along a ridge with the
Annapurna summits I and II in the background, two of
the most famous mountains of Nepal’s Trans-Himalaya.

Winning a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2021 provided crucial financial support that “really helped put our programme in place on the ground” and offered important global visibility for the work, which also aims to protect the threatened Himalayan wolf, Himalayan black bear, wild yak, Tibetan argali, musk deer and other high-altitude species. 

“It was a real endorsement. Now we have access to networks, and it’s easier to connect to people. I never dreamed of this kind of recognition; that it could be possible in our work.”  

Lama’s integrated conservation programme combines observational science, education and community engagement and its guiding philosophy is ‘Leading by Locals’. 

Rinzin Phunjok Lama (left) meets herders in Nepal.
Persuading herders not to kill wildlife is an important
element of his conservation work.

“In Humla, the way we are working is a bit different. I’m a local. We designed the programme and implemented it from a local perspective. I put myself in the shoes of a farmer’s son, or a farmer, or a herder or someone who lives from the natural resources in the area and asked ‘what do they want?’”

Those who live in this poor, isolated and mountainous region generally rely on subsistence farming. When livestock that is essential to their well-being and income is killed by wildlife, it can lead to conflict, so his programme aims to create a balance between human activity and wildlife preservation. 

“You sometimes get a camera trap capturing someone with a gun and you know something has gone wrong. But the cameras can also deter people.” 

A herd of goats and sheep approaches a river in
Manang, a Nepalese district at an altitude of 3,500 m.

One of the questions locals would ask was ‘what do we get if we do this?’ In a region where just 1% of the land is suitable for farming, food insecurity has long been an issue, so creating opportunities for locals to be involved in conservation projects gives them more prospects and helps to diversify their income. 

“When we speak about sustainability it’s important to lay the foundations with the locals from the start so that it’s easy to sustain and they feel ownership of it.” 

By tracking animals, mapping different areas and showing locals where different species are interacting, he can help reduce the number of conflicts. And by keeping livestock fenced and using deterrents, farmers can keep their animals safe. This knowledge is also good for their own safety. 

“If we know the Himalayan black bear is more likely to roam in a certain area, we can put a sign up saying that you should shout or sing when you’re walking there. We can put information in different areas, but we may have had no idea before.” 

Rinzin Phunjok Lama presents photos of his
conservation work to introduces his project to school
students in the Nepalese town of Manang.

Right now, most of the people working on the conservation programme are environmental graduates – many of whom are from the region – “and they do a very good job when I’m not there”. But he wants to train more citizen scientists and nurture the next generation of conservation leaders through things like school programmes, community forests and other community institutions. 

“We want to teach them about biodiversity and conservation from a young age, and help them get into the sector.” 

Rinzin Phunjok Lama and colleague Tashi R. Ghale on
the lookout for wildlife at an elevation of 4,000 m. in
Nepal’s Trans-Himalaya region.

The job requires a lot of hiking through the high mountains of the Himalayas, “which is not very luxurious” but something he has been doing since he was a child, and as young people from remote areas are increasingly choosing the city over the village, it can be hard to find the right people. 

“But it is very rewarding doing this work. We look for the people who are really committed to the cause. And there are always people like that. They are really serious about nature conservation.” 

Lama says it can be hard to change engrained perspectives among the older generations. But one way to do that is by working with children.

“Many people may not like me, or the way I’m working, but when we train students to do innovation, maybe the parents see the innovation from their children and start to change what they think. That’s why we have a school programme and do lots of extra curricular activities.” 

Nepal’s high-altitude plateau of Manang is part of the
focus of Rinzin Phunjok Lama’s project.

The Himalayan ecosystem is already fragile and climate change is having a major impact, Lama says. Typical weather patterns are changing, there may only be snow on the mountains in the winter or spring when it used to be there year-round, water sources are drying out and there are more natural hazards as a result of more intense storms. 

“Water availability is one of the biggest issues in the high mountains. Water sources are often linked to the glaciers and they’re melting too fast, or the snow comes all at once rather than regularly throughout the year.” 

A herd of yak in Nepal’s Manang region. Rinzin
Phunjok Lama’s project is designed to protect the local
population’s agricultural resources, as well as wildlife.

This also means wildlife is losing habitat and as humans seek new areas for their livestock or agriculture, they are more likely to come into contact with wildlife.  

Despite the challenges, Lama believes his programme can turn locals into responsible stewards of the land and they can find ways to maintain their livelihood without affecting the local wildlife. Nepal’s Buddhist background means people tend to believe in love, compassion and action and that’s exactly what he’s tapped into in his efforts to maintain the country’s precious biodiversity. 

“It takes time. But I’m very happy about what we’ve achieved so far.”