Recently, Sonam Tashi Lama, a 2016 recipient of the WCN Scholarship Program, received a 2022 Whitley Award for his incredible work helping red pandas in Nepal. As Program Coordinator of the Red Panda Network (RPN), he has been behind many critical initiatives to protect red pandas from major threats, such as habitat degradation and poaching.
It’s estimated that red panda populations have declined by 50% in the last 20 years. This endangered species lives among the forests and peaks of the Himalayas, with their natural range stretching across Nepal, India, Bhutan, Myanmar, and southern China. They are primarily solitary and arboreal mammals, spending most of their afternoons navigating through trees in search of food, such as leaves, bamboo, insects, and fruit. Deforestation and urban development have fragmented the forests that red pandas call home, and 70% of their habitat in Nepal lies outside of protected areas. The COVID-19 pandemic also brought economic hardship to Nepalese communities, causing a harsh uptick in illegal activities like red panda poaching out of desperation.
Sonam uses community-based approaches to deter poaching and help defend red panda habitat from development and fragmentation. This includes involving local people in red panda conservation by providing them with income-generating opportunities and educational opportunities. Sonam also helped lead RPN’s initiative to fit 10 wild red pandas with GPS collars, the first study of its kind in Nepal, which helps RPN track the red pandas and gather data that is helpful in crafting conservation activities and policies. And to reach a larger audience, Sonam started a YouTube series highlighting red panda conservation from the field.
With the money from his Whitley Award, Sonam and RPN will restore and connect vital red panda habitat across Nepal and India. This will create a forest corridor for red pandas to safely travel across their range. RPN will also establish six new anti-poaching units to patrol red panda habitat in eastern Nepal, and new education and awareness campaigns will be launched for communities living in high-poaching areas. These campaigns will potentially reach 100,000 local people and promote red panda conservation. Sonam will also ensure that local women take leading roles in all of RPN’s conservation endeavors.
WCN is proud of Sonam Tashi Lama and will continue to support other WCN Scholars like him who are shaping the future of conservation and making the world safer for endangered wildlife.