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Saving the endangered “barking deer” of Vietnam and Laos

This blog was originally published on the Conservation Careers website, which can be found here.

Written by Marie Conroy

It may seem strange that an animal only discovered by science in the late 1990s is now listed as Critically Endangered. But this is the case for the large-antlered muntjac, a rare deer species only found in the dense rainforests of the Annamite mountains of Vietnam and Laos.

Bizarrely, the species was only discovered when they were found as trophies in the homes of local people. Today, the animal is under severe threat from unsustainable poaching and without action, faces extinction.

A female large-antlered muntjac (a Critically Endangered deer species) stares curiously at the camera © Minh Nguyen’s CLP team/SWG/Asian Arks/Khammouane PAFO and DAFO.

The threat is so severe that Minh Nguyen has moved from her home country of Vietnam to undertake a PhD at the University of Colorado, USA. Her ambition is to help save the endangered animal and other ground dwelling animals that fall prey from the intensive poaching.

Introducing Minh Nguyen

CLP alumna Minh Nguyen grew up in Quangnam province in the centre of Vietnam before her family moved to Ho Chi Minh City. While living in Ho Chi Minh City – the largest city in Vietnam – she never forgot the natural beauty of where she grew up next to the Annamite mountains. It was in these mountains she first became interested in the natural world and spent hours in the local fields, wetlands and woods watching wildlife.

Minh Nguyen – a conservationist working across Vietnam and Laos – taking survey notes in the forest, aiming to save the large-antlered muntjac © Le Tan Quy.

Initially, a career in conservation wasn’t something Minh pursued, mainly because she was not aware it existed as a career. And, as a young woman, she was encouraged to study banking or medicine. But instead, she chose to study biotechnology because she felt it would have some biology elements to it, and in that way, she could get closer to her favourite topic – studying animals.

In Vietnam, your career chooses you!

One day an announcement from the biology faculty grabbed her attention. It was asking students to join a field trip to look for rare turtles in a forest. She quickly volunteered and from that experience Minh started to get involved with wildlife conservation and a career in conservation beckoned.

A male Large-antlered Muntjac (a critically endangered species) stares curiously at the camera © Minh Nguyen’s CLP team/SWG/Asian Arks/Khammouane PAFO and DAFO.

After her studies she became involved with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) – Vietnam program, and this gave her the opportunity to get to know Vietnamese wildlife better. And, while she was confident she would have a career in conservation, she explained to me that in Vietnam there is a belief that you do not choose your own career. She laughs as she says, that in Vietnam there is a saying that “the career chooses you, it’s not you that chooses your career. And I really hoped conservation would choose me”, she adds.

The barking deer

Minh’s next big step was to decide what to focus her efforts on. After some research, she discovered that a lot of attention was being given to Saola – Vietnam’s most critically endangered animal.

And, while substantial effort is needed to help save that animal, she realised that she could make a bigger contribution to conservation if she focused her attention on the plight of the large-antlered muntjac. The muntjac is an animal she knew from her youth and one that would become extinct without focused effort.

Her thinking on this proved correct when she spoke to conservation specialists who confirmed that to save the species there needed to be a more cohesive plan of action. This included raising awareness of the plight of the species and having a champion of the cause. With this insight, Minh spent the next two years developing her plan of how she could be most effective in preventing its extinction. She travelled deep into the dense forests and spoke with various experts to help bring her vision to life.

Driftnets of the land

As part of her initial research, Minh visited the mountains many times. During these visits she began to understand first-hand the extent of the threat from the snares which litter the landscape. A practice referred to as “driftnets of the land”.

As she explains: “when you look at the view and the hills, you would never imagine that they are covered in snares. Very few ground dwelling large animals can escape capture, as the snares are indiscriminate in what they catch. This is especially true for species like the large-antlered muntjac and saola.” This sad discovery strengthened her determination to act and help the muntjac and other animals.

A female Large-antlered Muntjac and her fawn foraging for food, unaware of the dangers posed by snares and illegal poaching © Minh Nguyen’s CLP team/SWG/Asian Arks/Khammouane PAFO and DAFO.

Specialised hunters

According to Minh, while some local people leave snares, the vast majority are left by specialised hunters and poachers who come from different regions in Vietnam to supply the illegal bushmeat trade. And while rangers patrol the forest and remove snares, there are simply too many to stop the mass poaching. And they struggle to monitor the activities in the vast forests.

Therefore, after two years of research, Minh is now undertaking a PhD so she can develop an effective strategy. She wants to focus on “something that is practical for conservation” not purely research. Her field-based conservation approach will determine how many snares could lead to the extinction of the animal and how many must be removed for the animals to survive. She also wants to develop a strategy on how to monitor and make the forest safe for the animals. And in parallel, consider a captive breeding programme, so the animals can be reintroduced and recover in the wild.

Cross border collaboration

Working alongside Minh on one of her most recent activities are her committed Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) project team members in Vietnam and Laos. She feels incredibly lucky to have their support and share the work between the two countries. As she says: “No one can work alone, it makes all the difference to have this co-operation”.

Minh Nguyen during a survey in Lao PDR with other Lao members of the CLP team, Olay and Hamnoi. Conservation in Laos and Vietnam © Bounthavy Phommachanh

In addition to her CLP team is the support from experienced conservationists and organisations including WCS, Asian Arks, Saola Foundation, Saola Working Group, Southern Institute of Ecology and Nong Lam University. “I feel lucky and proud that others are interested and bring many different perspectives that can help large-antlered muntjac conservation be successful,” she says. “It’s amazing the support they give me, helping me with advice and training for my development.”

Best part of conservation

One of Minh’s favourite activities is to be in the forest. “I love being in the forest. Seeing the animals. Sitting still as they forage for food and being able to quietly observe them. It’s a beautiful feeling.” But sadly, she also knows that their foraging on the ground will lead them into danger as they can get easily captured in the many snares. This risk drives her to study but also makes her impatient to get back into the field.

Tough working conditions

And while being in the forest is a beautiful experience for Minh, it does present tough conditions. The landscape is very steep and hilly. It takes a lot of energy to hike through it. And typically, it’s men in the forest, not women. This can make people concerned for her. But it doesn’t hold her back and she doesn’t feel unsafe. Instead, her focus is to ensure she is not a burden to the people helping her such as forest rangers and local people. “You need to be very independent and to be a really strong person,” Minh tells me. “It also helps to have a good natural instinct to work in the forest. To be able to move around and carry things quite far”.

Early breakfast in the forest before starting a new surveying day © Do Van Lam.

Finding your meaning

Considering her own journey into conservation, Minh shares her advice for other budding conservationists. “I often tell others, keep doing the things you like to do. But if you’re not clear on what you want to do, that’s okay. If you want to work in conservation, if you love wildlife, then try different things. There are many options. Find your talents and what gives you the most meaning. And if you have a strong desire and have a strong interest, then even if you do fail, you will stand up and try again.”  

As a young conservationist with little experience, Minh leans on the expertise of those around her. Which is another approach she recommends to other young conservationists. “Talk to specialists, ask questions, they can help hugely”, she says. “The people helping me are really wonderful and connect me with other experts. And then gradually you can develop your own ideas on what you want to do.

Building trust as a young conservationist

However, her lack of experience is one of the biggest challenges she faces in pursuing her ambition which is something she needs to build to succeed. As she explains, “Will I be trusted to go into the forest? Will they trust me enough to let me develop the project and to cooperate with me?” But she is showing them she can do this. Her experience working in the field, her ability to work deep in the forest and showing the result of what she has done so far is building the trust she needs.

And now, people are accepting the fact that she is working in conservation. But they do worry for her as a young woman, often working in the forest with only men. Surprisingly, this is something she sees as a positive as she is grateful for their concern, and it makes her feel part of a family: “It makes me feel like we are brother and sister”, she says. “They are supporting me, helping me manage the risks and trying to do something new that will be good for future generations”.

And is it worth it? “Yes” she beams, “I think that I’m very lucky to work in this field, because I can always see so many amazing, beautiful scenes and wildlife that most people never have a chance to see. So, I think that’s something that makes me very lucky”.

Feeling inspired?

If Minh’s story makes you want to follow in her footsteps, then why not apply for one of our 2022 Team Awards? You could gain funding for your conservation projects, access to mentorship and professional training, as well as opportunities to build connections with other conservationists around the world. The application deadline is 10 October, 2021, and applications must be submitted via our online portal. Find out more information about our awards and other projects we have supported in the past.

The Danube in the Iron Gates: Where bats and people meet!

This article was originally published on the lilieci.ro project website, and is also available to read in Romanian, Serbian and Hungarian.

If you ever stood on the banks of the River Danube in the Iron Gates region of Romania and looked towards the Serbian shore, it seems to be within arm’s reach. At some points, the Danube is just 150-200 metres wide. Now imagine that bats fly. They fly fast and with a purpose. They know the landscape better than anyone else. Country borders? Meaningless! A night-feast on the insects on the other side? Count us in!

The Iron Gates Natural Park, southwestern Romania © Szilard Bucs

Yes, bats migrate between Serbia and Romania, sometimes across the Danube. They spend the summer in Serbia, but hibernate in the caves of southwestern Romania. The first such observations were performed in 2014, in the caves of the Semenic – Carașului Gorge National Park. Since then, Serbian bats were observed to hibernate also in two other protected areas of Romania: the Nerei Gorge – Beușnița National Park and the Iron Gates Natural Park.

So far so good. Now a little bit of background.

All five European horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus) species are threatened by multiple factors, including direct disturbance in their roosts, which can be caves or buildings. Because of these factors, all five species have decreasing populations according to the IUCN. Méhely’s horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus mehelyi) is still classified as vulnerable. Blasius’s horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus blasii) is still the rarest horseshoe bat in Europe. The Iron Gates region is a sub-Mediterranean biodiversity hotspot, with several huge bat colonies of continental importance, both in Romania and Serbia.

However, despite the importance and size of these colonies, not much active bat conservation has been done here. In 2014-2015, a project aimed at improving the conservation of Rhinolophus species took place in the region, but only in Romania. New colonies were discovered, including that of Méhely’s horseshoe bat. Recommendations for protecting these colonies were made to protected areas. The project was funded by the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP), a partnership of global NGOs aimed at addressing the changing conservation needs of the modern world.

Enter 2018, when during a project funded by the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and aimed at cavers, the Romanian team captured in the Semenic area a bent-winged bat (Miniopterus schreibersii), carrying a Serbian ring. Apparently, not only Rhinolophus species migrate between Serbia and Romania. More and more colonies were discovered, but their protection still did not reflect their continental importance.

A bent-winged bat (Miniopterus schreibersii) carrying a Serbian ring – but captured by the team in Romania – revealed that not only Rhinolophus species migrate between Serbia and Romania © Szilard Bucs

Fast forward to winter 2021.

Full-blown pandemic. The media blaming bats or other wildlife. People prioritizing toilet paper and piling up food. But the bat researchers of Romania and Serbia have other business. They implement a new project in the Banat region. The Romanian-based Centre for Bat Research and Conservation, and Myotis Bat Conservation Group work together with Serbian bat experts from the Natural History Museum of Belgrade. They have just finished the winter fieldwork. All this in the frame of a project financed yet again by CLP, fittingly entitled: Transboundary conservation of horseshoe bats in the Romanian-Serbian Iron Gates.

For the first time since the 2014 discovery of bats carrying Serbian rings in Romanian caves, the bat researchers of the two countries now undertake synchronous fieldwork on both sides of the Danube. Their goal: to improve the conservation status of horseshoe bats in this whole region. Why? Because if there is indeed a significant bat migration between Serbia and Romania, then protecting colonies on just one side of the Danube is not enough. In order to reach such a goal in the future, the project will create the primary elements needed for such a transboundary conservation: (1) accurate scientific data about bat migration in the region, (2) concrete conservation actions at the most important bat caves, and (3) an engaged and well-informed public on both sides of the Danube.

Romanian winter fieldwork © Georgiana Cretu

Already during this winter fieldwork, the teams have made discoveries of new Rhinolophus colonies, and added to the growing number of Serbian bats with rings observed wintering in Romanian sites. This continued in May, during the spring fieldwork, where we discovered a new transitory colony of about 500 bats (R. ferrumequinum, R. euryale and maybe R. blasii), and recorded ultrasounds of Rhinolophus species on the islands along the Danube. Results are encouraging, to say the least. Currently, the team is preparing for the summer monitoring of nursery colonies in the Iron Gates region, while also searching for previously unchecked sites and new colonies. In all, already more than 50 sites have been either monitored (with known colonies) or checked for new colonies.

Implemented in 2020-2022, the project targets six major protected areas in the Iron Gates region, but also areas adjacent to these, as they may harbour bat colonies in buildings. Of course, the project could not be implemented without the help of local protected areas, as well as the caver clubs, which have specific knowledge about rarely visited caves. We are grateful for their efforts!

Visit the Lilieci.ro Facebook page for more information and snapshots from the project.

Iron Gates Natural Park, southwestern Romania © Szilard Bucs

Ten top tips for good project design

Last week, the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) hosted the first of a three-part public webinar series taking place throughout June 2021. In the webinar, experienced conservationist, fundraiser and CLP trainer, Maaike Manten, shared her ten top tips for designing good conservation projects. For those who missed it (or just fancy a recap), Maaike’s tips and the webinar recording are available below.

Trained as a political scientist in Amsterdam, Maaike Manten started working for BirdLife International (one of the three CLP partnership organisations) in 2000 – first in the UK and Kenya as the Institutional Fundraiser for Africa, then in Fiji as the Fundraiser for the Pacific. She now works in Rwanda as the Regional Implementation Team leader for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF)’s investment programme, previously in the Eastern Afromontane biodiversity hotspot (2012-2020) and currently in the Mediterranean Basin hotspot. Maaike has been working with CLP since 2009, providing project design, proposal writing and fundraising trainings to young conservationists in Far East Asia, Latin America, East Africa and Central Asia.

Around 350 people registered to attend Maaike’s CLP webinar on June 11, 2021. This was by far the highest number of registrants we’ve had so far for such an event, reflecting the importance and relevance of the topic being discussed. As Maaike commented at the start, “A lot of you are probably waiting for ‘silver bullets’…those top tips that will turn your project designs into fundable proposals.”

Maaike recommends applying all ten of her ‘silver bullet’ tips to your project design, to not only help you with your fundraising efforts but also achieve better conservation impacts.

Maaike Manten’s Ten Top Tips for Good Project Design:

  1. Read the guidelines – and stick to them (make it more difficult for a donor to reject you)
  2. If you have no problem, you don’t need a project (think about ‘why’ before ‘what’)
  3. If you have a problem, fix it (make sure your ‘how’ and ‘what’ relate to your ‘why’)
  4. Start with sustainability (it is not an ‘afterthought’)
  5. Use evidence, and build on science (don’t do the wrong thing, there is no time to waste)
  6. Monitor, Evaluate, and Learn (include MEL in your design!)
  7. Build on what you’ve got (and do a SWOT)
  8. Don’t go it alone (working together is cool)
  9. Write as clear as a window pane (Keep It Seriously Simple)
  10. Use the right words (speak your donor’s language)

For more guidance around each of these ten tips, you can watch the recording of Maaike’s webinar below:

Maaike also recommends using these three top tools:

  1. “Institutional Fundraising for Conservation Projects” manual, co-authored by Maaike and available to download for free on the CLP website (in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Portuguese). This manual offers a step-by-step guide to improve your success rate at institutional fundraising by showing you how to plan high-quality projects, how to translate them into excellent funding proposals, how to develop constructive enduring donor relationships, and how to draft short- and long-term fundraising plans and strategies. The manual provides a mixture of theoretical tools, practical examples and insightful tips based on years of fundraising experience.
  2. Science and evidence resource
  3. Monitoring and Evaluation toolkit

And finally – good luck!

Furry raiders: Saving the sacred langurs of Chamba

This blog was originally published on the Conservation Careers website, which can be found here.

Written by Marie Conroy

In this interview, communications specialist Marie Conroy speaks to Vishal Ahuja, a Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) alumnus and teacher turned conservationist, who has dedicated himself to protecting the sacred langurs of Chamba, an Endangered leaf monkey.

By studying their behaviour, engaging local communities and farmers, and restoring their natural habitats, Vishal tells us his story and why he is so passionate about conservation.

When the government of Himachal Pradesh, a state in Northern India, introduced a new land policy in 1968 to help needy people, little did anyone realise the impact this would have on wildlife. As a result of the policy, land was cleared of trees for agriculture and horticulture. At that time, the rezoned land was inhabited by many animals including the now Endangered Himalayan grey langur, a leaf monkey, also known as the sacred langurs of Chamba.

The Endangered Himalayan or Kashmir grey langur (Semnopithecus ajax) © HLP/WILD

With the loss of its natural habitat, the animals now frequently raid farms for food, resulting in conflict with local farmers, many of whom feel helpless against the furry raiders stealing their crops and impacting their livelihoods.

This is where Vishal Ahuja comes in. Teacher turned conservationist, Vishal has dedicated himself to protecting the sacred langurs by studying their behaviour, engaging local communities and farmers, and restoring their natural habitats for the benefit of all those who rely on it for their existence.

From the classroom to the forest

Vishal grew up in the village of Chamba, surrounded by mountains and forests. From a young age, he was fascinated by the beautiful natural world around him, often questioning why some areas had no trees, and what could be done about this.

Initially his first calling was teaching. This held his focus for some years, going to his classes and passing his exams so he could go on to become a teacher. Only after he graduated did he begin to really look at the natural world around him. “I started hiking around the mountains and I realised we have beautiful forests. I was fascinated by the forest and the wildlife”, he says.

Luckily for Vishal one of his teachers, Dr Bipan C. Rathore was studying conflict between Himalayan brown bears and migrating shepherds. Vishal started to join him when he visited a local wildlife sanctuary, the Kugti Wildlife Sanctuary, collecting data on the conflict. This experience changed him, inspiring him to pursue a career in conservation.

Getting to the root of the issue

When the Himalayan Langur Project was initiated in 2012 with support from the NGO, Wildlife Information Liaison Development Society, and a CLP Future Conservationist Award, little was known about the langurs and the cause of the conflict. The team’s first step was to establish distribution information, map conflict zones and identify other conservation threats in the region.

To do this, they visited over 240 sites on foot. This was difficult work, and they faced many barriers including poor weather conditions, which can lead to landslides, and many villages are under snow cover for months.

People Perception Survey © Vishal Ahuja

As they visited the villages and spoke with the farmers, they discovered that langurs were not the only raiders: black bears, porcupines and macaques were also destroying the crops.

People Perception Survey © Vishal Ahuja

During their work, the project team discovered that one of the causes of deforestation was a previous government policy introduced in 1968, called the Nautor Land Rules.

This policy allowed those earning less than 2,000 rupees to be given land for agricultural and horticulture activities. It also allowed local people to have land cleared of trees. The initiative allowed farming to flourish in the area, but not without consequence on the surrounding environment. There was significant habitat degradation and deforestation leading to fragmentation of the forest and destruction of the natural corridors which the animals relied on.

With the remaining ‘fragmented patches’ no longer capable of providing food for wildlife and their natural corridors destroyed, the animals turn to the farmed crops for food. As described by Vishal, “their natural home has been disturbed. With the loss of many native trees and typical plants, the langurs have to come out of the forest to find food”.

Crop damage assessment survey © Vishal Ahuja

This raiding behaviour led to conflict with local farmers. During Vishal’s visits he found the true extent of feelings against the langurs and the alarming situation that the farmers wanted them removed from the forest.

Fostering human wildlife co-existence

However, now almost nine years into the project, things are beginning to improve as a result of Vishal’s persistent hard work and support from the project founder and mentor Dr Sanjay Molur.

Vishal is working to restore the native forests by sowing wild fruit plants and trying to restore the natural corridors. But restoring lost nature does not happen overnight – it can take a decade or more to see any benefit.

He has built a collaborative relationship with the forest department, sharing expertise and recommendations about the forest. For example, he has highlighted where wild plants are lacking, and the forest department are providing them from their nurseries for Vishal to plant.

Plantation work © Vishal Ahuja

Even better for Vishal and crucial to the success of the project is that the local communities and farmers are now listening and beginning to understand the issue. As a result of numerous meetings, he has developed good relationships with them, helping to gain their confidence and build understanding.

While they once were telling him to take the langurs away, they are beginning to understand the need for co-existence. Vishal has helped them understand that the wildlife is dependent on the forest, and if they cannot get what they need from the forest, they will come to farms looking for food.

When I ask him, How does that make him feel? Immensely proud, it turns out: “The fact that they are listening, trust me, and understand the situation makes me very proud. And I feel very proud that the words we are saying are having an impact”.

So, is this a job for everyone?

According to Vishal, it’s not. While the project is yielding some results, it is extremely hard work, and it can take years to see real change. And while it may seem serene to be working in a forest it can be lonely.

And then there is the unpredictable weather. “Halfway to your destination it can start raining heavily and you have to turn back,” he explainsTo make matters worse, many villages are quite remote and on arrival, it can happen that either no one is home, or the head of the family and main decision maker is not home.

Not only does Vishal’s work take constant dedication. He often has difficult conversations with farmers who see their livelihoods being destroyed and as a result feel helpless and angry. But he knows it is core to the project’s success that he helps farmers understand what is needed for peaceful co-existence.

And this does not discourage him. In fact, he still says it’s his childhood dream come true. “The fact is, you’re working for the betterment of mankind. If you are passionate about conserving nature and wildlife, if you have that passion inside you, then you can tackle all the challenges”.

Grey langurs © HLP/WILD

To discover more about this project visit the project’s Facebook Page, the website for WILD  and the CLP project pages.

Uncovering the secret lives of lesser-known carnivores in Bangladesh

By Muntasir Akash

This article is adapted from a version originally published on The Revelator website, which can be found here.

The crab-eating mongoose is one of many elusive carnivores found in the protected national parks of north-eastern Bangladesh © Muntasir Akash

Years ago I decided to focus my research and conservation efforts on the smaller carnivores of Bangladesh. It was not an easy decision, as there appears to be a bias against studying these smaller species. Researchers in my country seem to be focused on saving larger, iconic species like tigers, leopards, bears and striped hyenas.

Although the smaller carnivores that roam the forests of Bangladesh do seem to appear frequently in stories told among my colleagues, they remain more elusive in the wild and are seldom the subject of published research — difficult to understand and rarely surveyed.

But there’s a lot to study. One of the smallest countries in Asia, Bangladesh provides habitat to 127 different existing mammal species. Of these, 21 were newly recognized during the latest Red List assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Perhaps even more surprisingly, Bangladesh boasts nearly half of the entire carnivore diversity of the Indian subcontinent. The 28 extant carnivore mammals represent six different terrestrial families: Viverridae (six species), Felidae (eight species), Herpestidae (three species), Canidae (three species), Ursidae (two species) and Mustelidae (six species). That’s impressive for a country that has less than 7% natural forest coverage and a population density of more than 1,000 people per square kilometer.

Muntasir Akash and his team have recorded a variety of mammals in the national parks of north-eastern Bangladesh using camera-traps. Pictured (clockwise, from top left): golden jackal, northern pig-tailed macaque, yellow-throated marten and leopard cat © Muntasir Akash

How the smaller carnivores are faring in a land so challenging and crammed has been an enigma. Like a moth to a flame, I was drawn to find more answers.

In 2018 I led a small camera-trap survey in a 2.5 square-kilometer national park in north-east Bangladesh. What we found amazed me. Nearly 600 days of camera trapping yielded 17 different mammals, including ten carnivores. The study showed that the Asiatic wild dog — a globally Endangered apex predator with a wild population of only 2,215 known mature individuals — visits the park frequently, making it an important habitat for this rarely studied and little-understood carnivore.

In 2018, Muntasir Akash’s camera-trapping survey in a national park in north-eastern Bangladesh provided the first evidence that the Asiatic wild dog, or dhole, is a frequent visitor © Muntasir Akash

Not long afterward, in 2019, my team and I rediscovered the Indian gray wolf in Bangladesh after it had been considered extinct in the country for 70 years.

I was thrilled that these often-overlooked carnivores seemed to be clinging to life in their ecologically uncharted habitats — and eager to find out more.

After gaining my first international grant from the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) last year, I’ve been able to continue my research on small carnivores in three of the six north-eastern forest reserves. These semi-evergreen, undulating hilly swaths comprise 191 square kilometers of natural forests at the border between India and Bangladesh.

The wildlife here faces numerous threats, including conflict with people and loss of suitable habitat. Uncovering the secret lives of our country’s lesser-known and less-valued carnivores can therefore help protect them from these threats and engage others in vital conservation efforts.

However, pursuing unorthodox queries often comes with difficult hurdles. In addition to my ongoing studies in the parks, I recently co-wrote a manuscript reviewing the previous research on the mammalian carnivores of Bangladesh. This past August I received feedback from one peer reviewer who landed an unexpected blow, observing, “Small carnivores are rarely a subject of research, usually studied within the large-scale landscape-level projects.”

The idea that my research seemed to this reviewer as of little consequence hit me hard, and I sensed impostor syndrome creeping in.

I finally summoned enough confidence to defend the manuscript, mainly through support from peers I met while participating in CLP’s Conservation Management & Leadership workshop— many of whom are also working on species poorly known to the outside world that are rare and often very secretive. The manuscript is now published, and I’m continuing to try to shine a spotlight on the lesser-known carnivores in Bangladesh. I hope to push back against the apparent bias against them and encourage others to care about them through unique approaches. These include ongoing, systematic camera-trap surveys in my northeastern study areas, using scientific illustrations as a conservation tool, and sharing knowledge about camera-trapping with other aspiring researchers.

I feel even more compelled to act given the seemingly widespread belief that conservation of the smaller carnivores is somehow not viable or worthwhile.

The small-clawed otter, a globally vulnerable small carnivore, can still be found in certain protected areas of north-eastern Bangladesh. This is the first camera-trap image of the species from the region © Muntasir Akash/Northeast Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative

In fact I’ve realized that working to save less-understood species has a nobility of its own and has helped me to become a better scientist. In the coming years I dream of a generation of nature enthusiasts emerging from Bangladesh, represented by ecologists and citizen scientists acting as advocates for our lesser-known and less-valued species.

If those species are not “charismatic” according to the standards of conservation, they are nonetheless extraordinary to those of us who study them and critical to healthy ecosystem function. Every form of wildlife has its place in nature and must be appreciated without fear and treated with equal importance. There may be no group better poised to start that process than the lesser-known smaller carnivores.

About the author

Muntasir Akash is a lecturer at the Department of Zoology, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is focusing his career on the conservation of lesser-known carnivorous mammals. He was awarded a 2020 CLP Future Conservationist Award to support his camera-trapping work in north-eastern Bangladesh. He was one of the participants in CLP’s first-ever online Conservation Management & Leadership course in 2020.

Getting ahead of the game in conservation marketing

By Ellie Warren

This article has been adapted from a version originally published on the WILDLABS conservation technology platform, which can be found here.

In an interview with biologist-turned-social marketer, Diogo Veríssimo, WILDLABS explores his somewhat unconventional career path and gets his take on how tech mediums like mobile app games can lead to real-world impacts.

Kakapo Run is a new mobile app game developed to drive change in the conservation of New Zealand’s Critically Endangered kakapo © On the Edge Conservation

CLP alumnus Diogo Veríssimo is Director of Conservation Marketing at On the Edge Conservation. He is part of the team behind Kakapo Run, their new mobile app game, which promotes positive changes to protect New Zealand’s Critically Endangered flightless parrot – the kakapo.

But Diogo hasn’t always worked in conservation marketing, having had what some might consider a more non-traditional career path. Starting out in the field biology side of conservation, he was previously part of two CLP-funded project teams: one in 2008, working to engage communities in the conservation of globally Endangered lesser florican in India and another in 2014, promoting sustainable logging in São Tomé. He also led two CLP-funded learning exchanges in which he mentored other conservationists in environmental education and flagship species selection in Brazil.

Experiences like these led Diogo to discover his ability to strategically communicate conservation messaging, and ignited his interest in the concept of social marketing for conservation as a vital part of public engagement and impact — something he explored in-depth during his PhD and postdoctoral research.

Commenting on Diogo’s subsequent career since joining the CLP alumni network, CLP’s Executive Manager Stuart Paterson said, “We’re delighted to see Diogo having so much success developing innovative digital marketing tools in support of conservation. He has become a recognised leader in conservation marketing and his work is generating more interest and support for threatened species.”

Diogo Verissimo (far right) participated in the 2010 CLP Conservation Management & Leadership workshop in Calgary, Canada.

In his WILDLABS interview, Diogo credited CLP’s professional development tools and mentoring as having a massive impact on his opportunities and goals. “Altogether the greatest impact [on my career path] was definitely that of the Conservation Leadership Programme,” he said. “It’s a unique network of people on the front lines of conservation, and I would recommend everyone to check them out if they’re interested in building a career in this field.”

One of Diogo’s first forays into the world of conservation marketing was his ‘Lost and Found’ digital project showcasing stories, comics and videos about the rediscovery of species previously thought to be extinct.

Turning his focus to games more recently, he and his team at On the Edge Conservation developed Kakapo Run – an “infinite runner” style game (i.e., players avoid obstacles and adversaries while running) in which the player helps the kakapo escape invasive predators such as rats and stoats. This was a logical game choice given that, in the real world, the main threat to the kakapo is that it cannot fly away from these predators.

One key thing Diogo learned from making Kakapo Run is that, in order to have a chance at success using this kind of outreach, “you need to be able to produce something that appeals even to those without a particular love of wildlife.”

According to Diogo, anyone in conservation considering the use of gaming and other non-traditional outreach methods must expect to make a substantial investment in terms of funds and bring together the right mix of people (tech, marketing, and conservationists) in the development.

And, as in more traditional field research, Diogo admits that it can be a struggle to translate data generated from online games into real-world results and impact. During the development of Kakapo Run, the bottom line for Diogo and the team was to drive change. For this reason, the game does not contain any adverts or in-game purchases, and focuses on a high-profile, flagship EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) species.

The kakapo (Strigops habroptila) is a Critically Endangered ground-dwelling flightless bird in New Zealand threatened by invasive predators, such as stoats and rats © Chris Birmingham (CC BY 2.0).

In perhaps the most robust impact evaluation ever conducted around a conservation game, the team also performed a randomised control trial. Over the course of a week, 100 New Zealanders were randomly assigned to play at least one hour of Kakapo Run, while 100 others played a leading game unrelated to conservation.

Afterwards, the participants were questioned on their knowledge, attitudes, social norms, and behavioural intentions related to conservation; for example, the likelihood that they would donate to conservation organisations and support policies to control invasive predators.

The preliminary results of the trial gave a pretty clear indication that beyond just increasing knowledge, players were also more willing to volunteer for conservation organisations and to adopt measures aimed at reducing predation of wildlife by pet cats.

“This is one of the first times that there is robust evidence of a game having impact at a behavioural level in a conservation context,” said Diogo.

However, the most valuable lesson Diogo has learned (in terms of conservation gaming) was that creating a great game is only the beginning, and probably the easiest part of the process. After the game is finalised begins the challenge of getting people to actually play it.

“We need to be strategic and resilient when it comes to the promotion of conservation games like Kakapo Run to ensure they get enough visibility for people to even realise they exist,” added Diogo.

While many in the CLP alumni network go on to work in the field as biologists and researchers, Diogo has shown that these are far from the only paths toward an impactful career in conservation. Particularly for those working with conservation technology, there are endless opportunities to use unique professional skills, develop innovate new ideas, and engage with conservation creatively.

Marketing may not immediately spring to mind when you envision a career in conservation – just as mobile games may not immediately remind you of conservation technology – but in all conservation career paths, the goal is the same: seeing results that benefit wildlife.

Read Diogo’s full interview with WILDLABS here.

About the author

Ellie Warren is a WILDLABS Coordinator, based at WWF Headquarters in Washington DC, USA. At WILDLABS, Ellie writes and curates original articles and case studies, organizes virtual events focused on conservation technology, and facilitates connections and collaborations within the WILDLABS community.

Saving cancer-treating yew trees in Nepal

By Kumar Paudel, CLP alumnus and co-founder & Director of Greenhood Nepal

Maire’s yew is a globally threatened tree with cancer-treating properties. In Nepal, the species is critically endangered nationally, with only a few hundred mature trees left in the wild. My team and I at Greenhood Nepal are currently on a mission to safeguard the future of this very special tree.

Maire’s yew (Taxus mairei) is critically endangered in Nepal, with only a few hundred mature trees left in the wild © Kumar Paudel/Greenhood Nepal

The bark, leaves and trunk of Maire’s yew contain a compound called Taxol that has proven cancer-treating properties, but this discovery has been both a blessing and a curse for the species. Locals have learned of its commercial value and are overexploiting it with very little consideration of its conservation status.

The problems facing Maire’s yew are of particular interest to Greenhood Nepal, an NGO I founded in 2012 with six other friends. From the beginning, our goal was to empower people across Nepal to respond to emerging conservation challenges to better protect and manage our natural resources.

In 2018, with CLP support, Greenhood Nepal began the first-ever population survey of Maire’s yew tree in Central Nepal, revealing very sparse numbers across its mid-hill forest range. We also spoke to local communities to try to understand harvesting practices—a difficult challenge considering most people here know very little about the yew.

There’s no doubt that Maire’s yew tree is facing a bleak future in Nepal. As a dioecious species (meaning the male and female reproductive structures are on separate trees), its natural regeneration relies on ‘males’ and ‘females’ being in close proximity so that pollinators can do their work. However, cross-pollination is now becoming increasingly unlikely given the sparse remaining population and uncontrolled overharvesting across the species’ range.

This very special tree is being driven to extinction in our country, by our hands.

Not to say that the destruction of our forests has been ignored. Quite the contrary in fact. Over the last 40 years or so, collaborative community forestry initiatives have helped protect our diminishing forests and even increased forest cover in some areas.

A typical forest area in Nepal. Community forest initiatives have helped protect Nepal’s diminishing forests since the late 1970s © Kumar Paudel/Greenhood Nepal

“Giving back to whom it belongs” was the central principle of these community forest initiatives, which sought to empower local communities to manage and use forest resources for their own benefit. Decision-making was handed over to local users, giving them an incentive to ensure sustainable forest use and be responsible for its management (under the supervision of government authorities).

What still concerns me is that these community forests – in Nepal, at least – focus more on forest management than on biodiversity conservation, and their contribution to the livelihoods of local people is still questionable in many areas.

Central to the issue is that our community forest users prepare management plans only every 5-10 years. These are often just a formality and are usually developed without consulting biodiversity experts, so they rarely address biodiversity conservation or conform to sustainable use policies.

In the case of Maire’s yew, our 2018 CLP project found that local people were illegally harvesting the trees from community forests and were not taking account of the health of the trees. Outside community forests, private cultivators were being encouraged by local authorities to grow seedlings obtained from stem cutting a single tree – a practice that could reduce the genetic diversity of the subsequent yew population.

Considering the urgency to save our few remaining Maire’s yew trees, Greenhood Nepal is working hard to sensitize local communities about the conservation importance of the species and the potential benefits they could gain in the future from its trade. I’m happy to say that the communities have already started to save the trees from stone mining and road construction.

CLP project lead Reshu Bashyal (left) and Kumar Paudel (second from left) talking with the local yew harvester communities in Kavrepalnchok, Nepal © Prakash Poudel/Greenhood Nepal

Apart from saving what remains right now, we are also working closely with local governments to restore the historically exploited population across its range in Central Nepal. We are in conversations with local nurseries and regeneration experts to enable its artificial propagation, to produce sex-balanced seedlings, and establish plantations.

The success of community-based conservation can be retained only if it benefits the people who are protecting it. Communities need to be aware of the species population, distribution, and sustainable harvesting techniques so they are engaged in its long-term conservation. As such, with the support of the Kate Stokes Memorial Trust, we have been developing sustainable harvesting guidelines for community forest users and testing these with experts and harvester communities.

Our dream is to ensure the long-term survival of Maire’s yews in Nepalese forests, while ensuring communities can benefit from sustainable harvesting and trade of the yew’s potentially life-saving properties. This will surely be a win-win for both yews and people.

Find out more in the video below:

About the author

Kumar Paudel is a conservation scholar-practitioner based in Nepal. He conducts research to understand species conservation problems and develop interventions on the ground. His work is mostly focused on wildlife trade, pangolins, plants, and conservation policy. He recently graduated from the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in Conservation Leadership and has now returned to Nepal to continue to work for Greenhood Nepal.