In memory of our conservation heroes
The tragic death of 24 people on board the Shree Airlines helicopter that crashed in eastern Nepal on September 23, 2006 was a human tragedy and a blow to nature conservation in Nepal, and the world.
A year has passed since the death of these internationally renowned conservationists who were returning following their successful mission to hand over the 2,035 sq km Kangchenjunga Conservation Area (KCA), home to the world’s third highest mountain, to local communities. This groundbreaking initiative was
the first model of its kind
in the history of protected area management worldwide where local communities are entrusted as managers of natural resources and biodiversity. Their loss has not only left families and relatives devastated but has also affected the entire Nepali and conservation community around the world.
The void that has been left following the loss of many conservation scientists from Nepal, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the international donor community, will not be easily filled, and Nepal now faces a long wait to produce such high calibre
Himalayan conservation scholars. A WWF statement last year said,
“This tragic event marks the single greatest loss of life in the institution’s 45-year history.”
Many of the conservation heroes were among the world’s elite conservation leaders who advocated conservation as a people’s agenda. They trained many grassroots conservation workers to raise awareness of conservation making it a way of life for the people and designed as well as implemented several conservation projects including the internationally well-known and successful Annapurna Conservation Area Project. Through their efforts today they have made conservation movement in Nepal a people’s choice and their visionary conservation ideas have been adopted beyond the country’s borders. Nepal’s protected areas and community forestry serve as model projects for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development in developing countries. The Kangchenjunga hand-over made Nepal a global
leader in achieving sustainable conservation objectives. They showed the global conservation community that local community participation and their role in conservation are vital to safeguard the world’s most precious resource — biodiversity.
Conservation has often been regarded as a threat to livelihoods. To overcome such human challenges and ensure an equitable social justice, the conservation heroes introduced novelty ideas in conservation with a human face. They were a champion of community participation and charismatic leaders in convincing conservation partners and local communities to work together to achieve conservation objectives and sustainable development. Till their death, they actively promoted community-based conservation and played a crucial role for progressively decentralised management of the protected area system in Nepal through a series of policy and legislative changes. Together they worked selflessly to mobilise global resources and world opinion to promote pro-people conservation in Nepal.
The KCA hand-over was the most recent innovative strategy to achieve conservation and social objectives.
“This is a historic day for one of the world’s most spectacular natural treasures and WWF is excited to have been a part of it,” said late Mingma Sherpa, the then Director of
WWF’s Eastern Himalayas Programme during the ceremony.
“The hand-over will be held up around the world as a positive example of
people managing their natural resources and enable others to learn how to make conservation more equitable and sustainable,”
said late Dr Chandra Gurung, the then Country Representative of WWF Nepal Programme.
The journey of conservation heroes has fascinated the entire conservation community. Over three decades ago, they planted the seeds of a protected area in Chitwan, introduced and nurtured innovative conservation strategies in the Annapurna, they flourished conservation in the buffer zones of national parks and reserves and eventually dedicated themselves to Kangchenjunga — the five treasures of snows.
The conservation heroes spent their professional career passionately pursuing their conservation ideals until their death. Their death has orphaned many local communities who have been harvesting the fruits of conservation programmes in and around the protected areas. But the significant efforts of conservation leaders need to continue and the challenge is now to fill this conservation vacuum. Their dream of empowering local communities in biodiversity conservation needs to continue through remembering, honouring and celebrating their lives and achievements. Without the involvement of local communities conflicts between parks and people have resulted in ‘loss-loss’ situations in the past for biodiversity conservation around the world. They sowed the seeds for promoting a ‘win-win’ strategy for community-based conservation.
They left their vision and a legacy that will forever inspire conservationists around the globe. It is time to humbly salute all those conservationists who tragically lost their lives. Their conservation legacy is greatly acknowledged by the people of Nepal and the global conservation community.
Physically, they are no longer with us today to champion the conservation cause, but their wisdom, ideas and thoughts will help to shape a vision for conservation in the 21st century.
(Gurung is a PhD researcher at Griffith University, Australia)