Environment

Saving the Red Panda: Giant Steps by Tiny Hamlets

From banning tree felling to half yearly patrols, two villages in Arunachal Pradesh have it taken upon themselves to conserve the habitat of this endangered animal and others

A red panda in western Arunachal Pradesh. Credit: Anil Cherukupalli, WWF India/thethirdpole.net

A red panda in western Arunachal Pradesh. Credit: Anil Cherukupalli, WWF India/thethirdpole.net

In India’s northeastern corner of Arunachal Pradesh, the Monpas are a tiny community living in two villages — Lumpo and Muchut – in the Pangchen Valley. They are, however, taking huge steps to provide a secure habitat for the red panda.

The small mammal — cousin to the more celebrated giant panda — is listed as ‘vulnerable’ in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list of threatened species and also under schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972.

Found only in the eastern Himalayas, the red panda lives in deciduous and conifer forests mixed with bamboo undergrowth at an altitude of 2,200-4,800 metres. The two villages, located just south of China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region, and east of Bhutan, fall precisely within this range.

According to India’s 2011 census, Lumpo had a population of 254 while Muchut had 177. Still, tree felling used to be a major problem. Both villages are in the Tawang district, which is not connected to the national electricity grid. Power supply is both limited and erratic, so people use firewood for cooking and heating.

WWF India steps in

World Wildlife Fund India identified habitat destruction due to excessive extraction of wood for fuel as the biggest threat to the red panda habitat. This prompted it to initiate a conservation programme in the eastern Himalayas in 2005.

Two districts in Arunachal Pradesh — Tawang and West Kameng — were earmarked as focal areas. It was not just the red panda that was threatened. The habitat of the black-necked crane is also threatened due to a proposed hydropower project there.

WWF created awareness; then the villagers took over. They mapped the core zone where the red panda lives and a buffer zone around it. In 2007, the Pangchen Lumpo Muchut Community Area Conservation Management Committee (PLMCACMC) was formed. Pangchen refers to someone who has abstained from killing or sinning in any way.

Ngawang Chotta, the Gaam Budha (village head) of Lumpo, said, “We felt the need for conservation as our generation saw the decline in numbers and species over the years as we grew up. For instance, approximately, 20 years ago, snow leopards were commonly seen around the Shagro Delemzur grazing grounds. Not anymore.”

Ngawang Chotta, head of Lumpo village, who leads residents to protect the red panda Credit: Nivedita Khandekar/thethirdpole.net

Ngawang Chotta, head of Lumpo village, who leads residents to protect the red panda Credit: Nivedita Khandekar/thethirdpole.net

Since 2008, residents of the two villages have carried out joint patrols twice a year, with funds and technical help from WWF. For almost ten days, teams of 10-12 people scan every inch of the core and buffer zone forests, said Lham Tsering, coordinator of the WWF-India project.

A community effort

The area has seen rampant poaching of musk deer. Villagers blame outsiders. “Since we started conducting this half-yearly drill, we have seen a decrease in poaching activity. We keep small boards painted ‘Killing banned’ at several places in the forests,” said Degin Dorjee, a local school teacher who doubles up as community mobiliser for the project.

The villagers listed the biodiversity in the area with the help of GPS devices — animals, birds, medicinal plants. They found red panda, black necked crane, musk deer, blue sheep, monal pigeon, snow partridge, blood pigeon, leopard cat, golden cat and the Himalayan black bear. They made a separate list for trees and shrubs, especially medicinal plants.

The core zone is now a complete no-go area. The buffer zone has lots of oak trees and people cut these to heat their homes in the Himalayan winter. PLMCACMC plans to ban this as well once people get other fuel. It has already banned felling of trees around the 100 or so water sources in the area. “It is also proposed that a fine of 10,000 rupees will be imposed on the violator for collecting firewood timber from the buffer zone,” Chotta said.

A red panda in a typical western Arunachal Pradesh landscape Credit: Lham Tsering, WWF India/thethirdpole.net

A red panda in a typical western Arunachal Pradesh landscape Credit: Lham Tsering, WWF India/thethirdpole.net

The way forward

Dipankar Ghosh of WWF-India said, “We provided a lot of input to the draft management plan” so that the villagers’ initiative can be sustained. One option is to develop homestays — community-based tourism that enables locals to earn from those coming for a sight of the elusive red panda. “Two [homestays] are planned at Muchut and three at Kharman [another village nearby],” Dorjee said. “In total we have planned about ten.”

C.D. Singh, conservator of forests in the state government of Arunachal Pradesh, said the forest department could not interfere in any of this, as all the forests in Tawang district are legally classified as community forests. “We just help them spread awareness, especially among elders, who decide where jhoom cultivation is done.” Traditionally, farmers clear patches of land in the forest for shifting cultivation, called jhoom.

The forest department has got the Central government to sanction money so that the villagers can be given more fuel-efficient cook stoves at subsidised rates. The project will have to be implemented by the state government.

Ramesh Negi, chief secretary of Arunachal Pradesh said that apart from improved cook stoves that still use wood or biomass, “We have already recommended supply of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) cylinders to the remotest of villages to counteract the incentives to cut down trees for firewood. This has been incorporated in the Vision for North East released recently by the ministry of petroleum.”

The Monpas are not waiting.

Nivedita Khandekar is a Delhi-based journalist writing on environmental, developmental and climate change issues. She can be reached at nivedita_him@rediffmail.com. Follow her on twitter @nivedita_Him

This article was originally published on The Third Pole. Read the original article here.