Ending the conflict

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Published:
22 Nov 2017
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5 min read
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From the Archive (Dec, 2016): Conservationist Dr Ghana S Gurung’s love of nature began from his childhood spent in the rugged, arid and haunting wilderness of Upper Mustang. Today, he is doing everything he can to end the conflict between people and leopards

Tell us about your childhood.
I come from a small rural settlement comprising a handful of houses in Dhee Village, Upper Mustang. Our agro-pastoral background: we were involved with growing crops and raising of livestock, with the latter practice being our main source of cash. Growing up in a relatively harsh and the remoteness meant we were dependent on each other, and having a close-knit circle of family and friends made for a happy childhood. I was especially close to my grandparents.

What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Nature was our playground; and I believe all of us can benefit from the elements of nature–no matter where we have chosen to live. Because I belonged to a herding clan, I would spend my summers in the Upper Mustang region herding the family sheep, yaks and goats. During the winter, I would accompany my father and grandfather to Tatopani, via Jomsom; we would saddle goats with salt in small homespun saddle-bags, and we would exchange the salt for rice and other products.

I heard that you also practised monastic rituals when you were young.
My uncle was a head monk at a monastery, and I was sent to him to learn how to read and write in Tibetan while learning the basic prayers and various monastic rituals. During the winter, the monks would retreat to caves—we would eat two simple meals a day and spend a good deal of our time memorising ancient texts, ranging from astrology to medicine. This spartan lifestyle I lived for four years also gave me a chance to pause and reflect on the important things around us.

From studying ancient texts to becoming a part of the modern education system—can you tell us about that transition?
My grandfather was bilingual—fluent in Tibetan and Nepali—and he was the one who insisted that I go to a proper school and get a modern education. I have many fond memories of being at a primary school in Mustang, especially of my teacher Man Bahadur Biswakarma. Because I’d earlier devoted myself to memorising Tibetan chants, I was pretty good at memorising texts, so I was able to catch up with the rest of the class in a few weeks. I was sent to Jomsom for my further studies, and it was then that I got to mingle with people from various backgrounds and ethnicities. Some of the students would call me names because of my accent, but I never took such things seriously; I just concentrated on my studies. My father used to sell a goat every month to meet my expenses, and I’ll always be grateful to my family for giving us the educational opportunity.

And later you made your way to Pokhara. How did you handle that?
If we, the kids from Dhee Village, were called pakhey, ignorant, in Mustang, then you can only imagine the treatment we got in Pokhara. Descending to the lake city was a complete shock to my system but a life-altering experience as well. The biggest challenge for me was to learn English, so I bought three guide books and learned its contents by rote for my SLC exams. I also had to learn how to cycle, as the school was quite far from where we lived. I have always maintained this—learning never stops. It was a huge deal back in my village when I passed the SLC with first-division marks; I was the second person from my region to graduate with a first division.

What were your aspirations when you came to Kathmandu?
I wanted to become a doctor, and I could have availed of the quota given to the King of Mustang, but since it meant going to Birgunj, I dropped the idea and decided to work here in Kathmandu. Imagine someone from the mountains seeking rooms to rent and facing constant rejection—the struggle began from the moment I landed in the Capital. I knew it would take a lot of work to catch up with the other students in Amrit Science College, ASCOL, but my upbringing had tempered my resilience in coping with life’s challenges. 

You sound like a person who has learned to embrace his struggles.
When I was studying in Pokhara, I would help my father sell herbs during the winter. It was during that period that I was awakened to the reality of racial discrimination: people wouldn’t allow us into their homes, and we were forbidden from touching food and water in some homes. I was a 15-year-old going door to door, lugging 50 kg of herbs on my back, and sometimes my neck would go stiff. That was when I realised the true worth of every drop of sweat you shed, and as a result, my respect for my father grew even more.

How did a herder’s son who regarded snow leopards as a menace learn to regard them in a different light?
My view of them started to change after I got accepted at Lincoln University in New Zealand. It was there that I got to view animals such as snow leopards through a completely new perspective; and the more I understood the part they played in maintaining the delicate balance of ecosystems, the more I felt the urgency to protect them. I once used to regard them as a menace because I was a herder; and until we address the cause of this conflict, the snow leopard’s existence is under threat across Asia’s high mountains.

How did you go about tackling this issue?
Conservation is only possible if the local communities perceive real benefit from such initiatives. Also critical to the success of snow leopard conservation was the insurance scheme that we started in 2004. This innovative initiative compensated herders for any livestock that they lost to snow leopards and provided them with the financial support they would need to cope with their losses, thus obviating retaliation killings. After working closely together, the communities eventually took ownership of the efforts to protect snow leopards, especially after they were provided with preventive measures to protect their livestock or with compensations when the inevitable happened.

How hard is it to convince people about the importance of conservation?
When people understand the importance of the relationship between different species and how some of them are endangered, they develop empathy towards them. It can be a long process, but our work shows how education can help in reweaving the fabric of our existence. If you go to Dolpu or Kanchanjunga, you’ll find that every house there has solar power, and it’s all due to conservation efforts. These efforts help boost tourism, which in turn uplifts their lives. Economic value is one of the driving factors in conservation, and people are getting into it more passionately.

How happy are you with Nepal’s conservation efforts to date?
We are doing great. Since the conservation efforts started in 1973 in Nepal, we have increased 45 per cent of forest coverage. This year also marks Nepal’s achievement of zero rhino poaching for two consecutive years, which has led to the increase in the population of the greater one-horned rhinos. This exceptional success was possible due to the contribution and active involvement of political authorities, the responsible park authorities—Nepal Army, Nepal Police, conservation partners—and most importantly, the local communities. Nepal has shown that we can bring a stop to poaching.

How did the 2006 tragedy change your life? 
The 2006 helicopter crash, on a high mountain ridge close to Kangchenjunga, was one of the biggest tragedies in WWF’s history. We lost some of our brightest and best-loved colleagues, along with some high-ranking government officials, representatives of other agencies, journalists and flight crew members. Everyone thought that this void left by the passing of our experts would result in a slackening in our conservation efforts. It was a challenge, but giving up was not an option. We were mentored by these great people, so we decided to give our 110 per cent, and today, I’m sure we have given them ample reason to smile.

What do you need to have to succeed in this profession?
The biggest challenge in conservation is to employ people who are passionate about it. It’s not enough to say you love wildlife and are determined to work in conservation—you need your experiences and skills to support this, and it can only happen with years of dedication. If you’re extremely passionate about conservation, you should have the time of your life in this field.