Imaginary borders and their very real effects

This article was originally published on Roundglass Sustain here.

By Imran Samad

International borders impact every species. What happens upstream to a river can affect river dolphins and other creatures even hundreds of kilometres downstream – a convincing reason to think of conservation as our shared biological heritage beyond political boundaries. 

An inhabitant of freshwater river systems, mostly in plains with slow-flowing rivers, the Ganges river dolphin lives in one of the world’s most densely populated areas. Photo: Ganesh Chowdhury

While travelling through Yanam town in Andhra Pradesh (a state in the south-eastern coastal region of India), I zipped past a nearly deserted petrol pump. Barely five minutes later, I came across another one where hundreds of vehicles were lined up for fuel. Perhaps there’s no fuel in the first one, I thought. Oh, how wrong I was! Yanam town, though inside Andhra Pradesh, belongs to the Union Territory of Puducherry, and so does the latter petrol pump. This means that fuel prices at the latter petrol pump are significantly lower than in the surrounding area, attracting crowds even from faraway places.

Wildlife across borders

The world is divided into political territories on paper, but on the ground, in most cases, even international borders lack a physical demarcation. On the other hand, laws and policies that govern the management of these territories vary greatly from one country to another. Such on-paper boundaries are “imaginary” to wildlife, yet these borders impact every species in one way or another. Let me explain this conundrum through the story of tigers at Manas National Park.

Manas National Park is a mosaic of grasslands and forests. The grasslands fall under Indian administration, while Bhutan governs the forested hills (in the background). Photo: Soumabrata Moulick

For centuries, the vast, contiguous forests of the eastern Himalayan foothills have been home to magical creatures like the Asiatic elephant and the Indian rhinoceros. Today, a part of this landscape is shared by the Indian state of Assam and Bhutan. A transboundary subset of it is protected independently in both countries, and wild animals move freely across this international border.

However, parts of the Indian side of this protected area (Manas National Park) had been raging in political turmoil for a few decades, leading to a complete breakdown of law and order in the area. Rampant hunting took over at these times and decimated the park’s tigers. The Bhutan side of this protected area (Royal Manas National Park) was unaffected as this conflict was contained within the political boundaries of India. Today, Indian Manas is at peace, and tigers from the Royal Manas may even be moving into it, helping the local population recover. Such effects of varying political conditions on wild animals across “imaginary” borders are easy to understand on land, but not so much in other ecosystems.

Challenging the concept of political boundaries

Rivers are some of the longest “flowing” ecosystems on the planet. Due to their strong directionality, they are difficult to “chop up” politically, unlike their terrestrial counterparts. What one does to a river in one place affects it hundreds of kilometres downstream. For example, India is concerned about China damming the Yarlung Zangbo (Brahmaputra) river in their territory because it may severely affect not just Arunanchal Pradesh, but the entire country. The implications of transboundary riverine management on people are so severe that their effects on riverine wildlife are often lost in the discussion.

Ganges river dolphins surface above water only briefly and partially, which only adds to their mystery. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

India is a treasure trove of aquatic biodiversity. The mighty rivers and their tributaries that braid the north Indian floodplains support rare and endemic species like the gharial and the northern river terrapin. These rivers are also home to the most ancient lineage of dolphins on earth — the Ganges river dolphin (Platanista gangetica) and Indus river dolphin (Platanista minor). Having barely changed in the past 30-35 million years, these dolphins have mastered the art of surviving in an ever-changing, ever-fluid ecosystem.

River dolphins are culturally important to India, too, with their earliest description and protection status dating back to the Mauryan kingdom of emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century B.C.

While these dolphins were united under one kingdom then, their entire ranges have been split by political borders today. All north Indian rivers originate from the Himalayas and may travel through several countries before they empty into the sea. Nearly every country channels and regulates the flow of these rivers and their tributaries for their benefit, using large structures like dams and barrages (low-gated dams). So, unlike the case of tigers at Manas, managing a river in one country is bound to affect dolphins in another, downstream.

The Farakka Barrage, for example, is one of the largest barrages on the Ganga river and lies at the India-Bangladesh border, where India channels water from the river according to a bilateral treaty. This diversion has shrunk dolphin habitat below the barrage in Bangladesh and perhaps also affected the dolphin population there. What will happen to dolphins in that stretch in the increasingly frequent years of drought? Will they be able to recover later?

Similar structures to control water flow are built on nearly every river entering or leaving India. Having their homes chopped and blocked, river dolphin populations have declined throughout their range. These species are listed as “Endangered” by the IUCN, and despite their evolutionary and cultural significance, they have barely been a part of any discussion on international water sharing policies.

The Farakka Barrage spans the entire width of the river Ganga (over two kilometres) and is the largest structure on the river. The amount of water flowing through it is modulated by the several sluice gates, as seen in this image. Photo: Imran Samad

Thinking beyond political borders

As magical and mysterious as river dolphins are, we are gradually beginning to uncover ways to avoid their extinction. One of the earliest considerations came in 1991 with the establishment of the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary in Bihar. Nearly two decades later, the species was declared the national aquatic animal of India, and national plans to conserve it are ongoing. For the past few decades, passionate researchers have also been generating crucial scientific knowledge needed to save these animals. Some studies have spanned transboundary waters to understand how best to protect dolphins in a complex geopolitical setup. Nepal’s River dolphin trust, for example, in collaboration with Indian researchers, has been working on the Ghagra floodplains of India and Nepal to protect the last remaining dolphin population there.

The management of transboundary rivers will always be a complex issue. Yet incorporating conservation strategies for transboundary species like river dolphins in management plans provides interesting opportunities for international collaboration and cooperation. Such opportunities can help strengthen ties between neighbouring countries and build stronger relationships. International investments in the conservation of a shared biological heritage have the potential to provide returns that go beyond safeguarding endangered species and therefore must be sought out deeply.

About the author

Imran Samad is a wildlife researcher interested in the dynamics of aquatic ecosystems and megafauna, particularly whales and dolphins. He is currently a PhD student at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, in Bengaluru, India. He is a member of a team granted a 2021 Follow-Up Award by the Conservation Leadership Programme.

First published in RoundGlass Sustain, a treasure trove of stories on India’s wildlife, habitats and their conservation.

Shining a spotlight on species in peril

Over the last nine months, several CLP alumni have been featured in The Revelator – an online news and ideas initiative of the Center for Biological Diversity in the US – where they have shared their stories and the plight of the species they are fighting to protect.

The Asian small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus) is just one of the many species featured in The Revelator’s Species Spotlight feature series this year © Muntasir Akash

This year, seven alumni wrote articles featured in The Revelator’s Species Spotlight series, which aims to highlight interesting and important endangered species around the world along with the personal experiences of the people working to understand or protect them.

Commenting on the series, John Platt, editor of The Revelator, said: “Some [of the Species Spotlight stories] are sad, some are full of awe, but they all share something in common: passion for the wild world. I think our readers have really responded to that. I’ve received several emails thanking us for bringing these species and their threats to light.”

Here we round up the Species Spotlight articles written by our alumni about the species they are working to protect – from sawfish to snow leopards and stream frogs – all of them in peril but fighting for survival with the help of our heroic conservation leaders.

The Asian Small-Clawed Otter – A Victim of the Pet Trade

Muntasir Akash, 2020 Future Conservationist Award-winner, explains that the Asian small-clawed otter – the smallest of the planet’s 13 otter species – finds its habitat shrinking every day. “We know little about these mustelids — especially in Bangladesh, where I conduct my research — but they face a horde of threats”, he writes.

In his Species Spotlight article, Akash describes an unforgettable, “heart-melting” moment watching camera-trap footage of multiple otter families. He captured the footage through his team’s intensive camera trapping surveys in north-eastern Bangladesh forests, which aim to uncover the secret lives of lesser known small carnivores. Watch the below video to find out more.

The El Rincon Stream Frog is in Hot Water

Dr Federico Kacoliris received a 2020 CLP Follow-Up Award (worth $25,000) to support his work ensuring the long-term survival of the Critically Endangered El Rincon stream frog, which only lives in hot springs at the headwaters of a small Patagonian stream.

The Critically Endangered El Rincon stream frog (Pleurodema somuncurense) © Hernán Povedano

In his Species Spotlight article, Federico writes, “Invasive predators, rainbow trout, have cornered these frogs in their last remaining habitat. And even there, they also face habitat destruction by livestock.”

Luckily, Federico and his team at the Somuncura Foundation are running an action plan based on habitat restoration and population recovery, including ex situ breeding and reintroduction of frogs into restored habitat.

Velvet Scoter – the Disappearing Diving Duck

Just a few years ago, it was thought that a geographically isolated population of velvet scoters – a wide-ranging sea duck – was completely extinct in the Caucasus. Yet in 2017, PhD student Nika Paposhvili discovered a small breeding population of these birds at Lake Tabatskuri, Georgia.

A velvet scoter (Melanitta fusca) brood hen sitting on her nest © Nika Paposhvili

In his Species Spotlight article, Nika describes the moment he first spotted them: “It was a joy and at the same time a great assault on my emotions, hard to describe in words — like the feeling a father has when he first sees his first child.”

Nika has since been leading efforts to protect this remnant population from egg poachers and gull predators, supported by CLP grants in 2017 and 2020.

The Gentle and Quirky White-Bellied Pangolin

PhD student and 2020 CLP Future Conservationist Award-winner, Charles Emogor, studies white-bellied pangolins in Nigeria, and is working to protect them from poachers and illegal wildlife trade.

CLP alum Charles Emogor with a white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) in Nigeria © Charles Emogor

These gentle and somewhat quirky animals should be celebrated, but instead they’re often killed for their unique scales,” he writes in The Revelator.

They are so rare that the experience of seeing a live white-bellied pangolin filled Charles with “excitement and hope,” having hiked 11 hours into the heart of Nigeria’s Cross River National Park to tag five of them with GPS transmitters so that he could monitor them from a distance.

Charles recommends several conservation actions to protect pangolins, including further understanding their ecology and increasing anti-poaching patrols. Recently, Charles discovered that Nigeria has a much larger role in international pangolin trafficking than previously thought.

The Large-Antlered Muntjac Faces a ‘Quiet Extinction’

PhD student and CLP alumna Minh Nguyen is working hard to “change the fate of the species she loves” – the Critically Endangered large-antlered muntjac, which is heading fast towards a “quiet extinction” hidden away in a miniscule global range in the Annamite Mountains of Laos and Vietnam.

Widespread intensive snaring for the wildlife trade throughout their small range is the number one problem. Although the large-antlered muntjac is not a focus of the trade, snares are indiscriminate.

In her Species Spotlight article, Minh writes eloquently about her beloved study species and recommends strategies to save it, including “better informed, strategic in situ conservation management – but it has been disappearing so fast that “just in case” ex situ conservation breeding is needed.”

The Elusive Snow Leopard

Ajay Bijoor, Assistant Head of the High Altitude Program at Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), focuses on implementing community-led conservation efforts across some snow leopard landscapes in India. Ajay is a member of the team that won CLP’s top prize, the Conservation Leadership Award in 2020 (worth $50,000) and a Follow-Up Award in 2015.

The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) © Prasenjeet Yadav

As Ajay writes in The Revelator, snow leopards are threatened by illegal hunting, conflict with livestock farmers, and climate change, and have a decreasing population trend. The Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) – an alliance of all 12 snow leopard range countries – has now been formed, with one goal: to save the snow leopard and its habitat.

The Greater Hog Badger, Cornered by a Hunting-Driven Extinction Crisis

Another elusive small carnivore captured by Muntasir Akash’s camera trapping surveys, the greater hog badger, is a victim of rampant snaring and illegal trade.

The species had never been described in north-eastern Bangladesh until Akash and his team spotted an individual at one of their camera trap stations.

Camera trap image of the greater hog badger (Arctonyx collaris) © Northeastern Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative

To protect and understand hog badgers, their habitats need immediate conservation attention. That should involve thorough research, conservation education programs, and sustainable-yet-strict habitat-management practices,” writes Akash in his second Species Spotlight article.

To Save the Narrow Sawfish, First We Must Find Them

CLP alum Sihar Aditia Silalahi received a CLP Future Conservationist Award in 2020 to support his work to protect threatened sawfish species in Indonesia. In The Revelator, Sihar writes about the narrow sawfish, which has suffered a population decline of 50-80% over about 18 years.

Its toothed rostrum, and the fact that it swims close to the sea floor, makes this species susceptible to being caught as by-catch, especially via gill nets and demersal trawls.

Sawfish have toothed rostrum that accidentally get caught in fishing nets, making them susceptible to being caught as by-catch © Dicky Nugroho

To save them, I must first find them,” Sihar writes. “That’s the most basic mission for me and my team, and it’s not easy. It took three months in the field before we saw any — and when we finally did, it was seven dead juveniles in a single fisher’s catch in Merauke, Papua.”

Sihar has worked with the Sawfish Project Indonesia, which is one of few conservation initiatives directed at sawfish species throughout their range.


Through our annual Team Awards and internships, CLP aims to continue supporting conservation leaders in their vital work saving priority species and sites worldwide. We thank The Revelator for bringing the efforts of our alumni and the plight that their focal species are facing into the spotlight.


Unique insights help uncover the true value of conservation internships

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) intern Bradley Knight presents some of the inspiring stories and surprising insights emerging from the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) Internship Scheme. 

Previous CLP intern, Mariana da Silva, with jaguar footprint tracks in Bolivia © Mariana da Silva/WCS

The CLP Internship Scheme places early-career conservationists within regional host organisations of one of the CLP partners (FFI, BirdLife international, and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to provide them with on-the-job training and skills development.

Below we hear directly from previous CLP interns and now established conservation leaders, Mariana da Silva (Bolivia, WCS), Thiri Dae We Aung (Myanmar, BirdLife) and Emmanuel Kutiote (South Sudan, FFI).

As you’ll discover, their remarkable achievements show just how valuable internships can be to both emerging conservationists and the biodiversity they are striving to protect.  

Tackling complex conservation issues 

During her CLP internship with WCS in Bolivia, Mariana da Silva documented the extent of the international wildlife trade (IWT) of jaguar teeth, claws, and paws across the country. She worked with local law enforcement to create an updated, reliable summary of legal cases, police seizures, and media relating to IWT of jaguars.  

Jaguar (Panthera onca) resting on a tree © Unsplash

Interestingly, Mariana said that when she started her internship in 2018, there was no interest or funding for IWT in Bolivia, remarking: “What I did with the CLP internship was the basis for everything that happened after.” 

The database that Mariana developed during her CLP internship became key evidence showing the scale of the IWT conservation problem in Bolivia, and served as a foundation for WCS to build upon and tackle IWT across Latin America.  

Mariana deploying camera traps in the field © Mariana da Silva/WCS

Along with these accomplishments, Mariana explained that she used the grant proposal writing skills she developed during her internship to successfully secure funding to tackle IWT in Bolivia – which is still ongoing today. 

After her internship, WCS Bolivia hired Mariana to continue her work and oversee other aspects of WCS Bolivia’s IWT programme. She was later promoted to Chief of Research to combat IWT across Bolivia and Latin America in 2019.  

Commenting on her recent promotion to Coordinator of the Wildlife Trade programme at WCS Bolivia, she spoke fondly about her CLP internship as “really opening the doors for me for my career by providing me with the opportunity to highlight IWT in Bolivia and develop myself as a leader.” 

Uncovering new data on threatened species 

Baer’s pochard, a species of duck categorised as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, winters in Myanmar but had not been surveyed in the country for ten years when Thiri Dae We Aung’s CLP internship started in 2014. 

Male Baer’s pochard © Pete Morris/WWF

Placed as an intern with BirdLife International, Thiri surveyed 25 wetland areas across central Myanmar and used the data to develop an updated understanding of Baer’s pochard distribution across the country. She also shared her findings with the Asian waterbird census to further inform knowledge about Baer’s pochard across the eastern Asian region. 

Thiri explained that her CLP internship helped her learn various skills, including project management, report writing, communications, and community and government stakeholder engagement. “These skills contributed to two of my main achievements: improving conservation in Myanmar, and building the capacity of staff in the region,” she said. 

As well as helping her attain remarkable conservation impacts, Thiri also revealed that her CLP internship had been the foundation on which she had built her career as a leading ornithologist and conservation leader for the region.  

Baer’s pochard survey in Myanmar as part of the Asian water bird census © Thiri Dae We Aung/BANCA

In particular, Thiri credits the writing skills she developed during her internship to the nine research papers she has published in just five years, which all relate to biodiversity conservation and endangered bird species in Myanmar.  

What’s more, after receiving technical support from BirdLife International, Thiri went on to successfully apply for five project grants to continue her work with Baer’s pochard in central Myanmar.  

Thiri continueto study birds, including the Baer’s pochard, and develops conservation infrastructure in Myanmar in her current role as Executive Director for the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA) 

From intern to Programme Officer  

Speaking about his CLP internship, Emmanuel Kutiote described it as a unique opportunity to work on all aspects of FFI’s South Sudan programme, from training rangers on GPS use and camera deployment to engaging with stakeholders and government officials: “The internship allowed me to develop key skills, gain experience to start my career, but also gave me the means to build my own home and start my life independently,” he said. 

Emmanuel training rangers about how to use GPS © Emmanuel Kutiote/FFI

As a CLP intern, Emmanuel was heavily involved in all areas of applied conservation and area management work for three protected areas in South SudanBire Kapatuo game reserve, Bangangai game reserve, and Southern National Park. All three protected areas host globally important populations of threatened species such as African elephant, chimpanzee, pangolin, and African wild dog.  

On patrol in Southern National Park © Emmanuel Kutiote/FFI

Among his many responsibilities, Emmanuel acted as a focal point between FFI in South Sudan and the chiefs of the local communities close to the protected areasEngaging with government, chiefs, and local communities was hard at first – but this internship really nurtured me and helped me get used to that, he said. 

During his internship, Emmanuel also helped set up three new ranger posts and deployed cameras in the Southern National Park. As few surveys had been conducted in the area due to the recent civil war conflict, it was a proud moment for him when the new cameras discovered key species in the area like African wild dog, pangolin and African golden cat: “We got to confirm the sightings to the IUCN, telling them that these species are in the area!

Endangered giant pangolin image captured by a camera trap in Southern National Park, South Sudan © Bucknell University/FFI

After his internship finished in 2020, FFI were so impressed that they employed Emmanuel permanently. Commenting on this achievement, Emmanuel said: “I really gave my internship my all, and right now, as we’re speaking, I’m the Programme Officer for the biomonitoring department, which I’m really enjoying.” 

To this day, Emmanuel continues supporting FFI in administration, biomonitoring and engaging with stakeholders as a South Sudan Programme Officer by employing skills learned from his time as a CLP intern. 

Leading on the front lines of conservation 

These first-hand insights from previous CLP interns reveal how their internships have benefited both their careers and their impact on conservation. From these conversations, it’s clear that internships can be a valuable springboard for emerging conservationists who are looking for opportunities to work on the ground and develop skills essential for their future careers. CLP plans to continue to provide grants and capacity support for conservation leaders like Mariana, Thiri and Emmanuel who are spearheading efforts to protect threatened biodiversity around the world. 


CLP is grateful to Fondation Segré for funding all three internships featured in this article. We’d also like to extend our thanks to Emmanuel, Thiri, and Mariana for taking the time to talk with Bradley about their internships.  

Saving the endangered “barking deer” of Vietnam and Laos

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

Conservation Careers writer, Marie Conroy, interviews CLP alumna Minh Nguyen to uncover why she’s committed her education and career to saving the Critically Endangered “barking deer” of Vietnam and Laos.

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 to 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”.

About the author

Marie Conroy is a communications professional from Ireland. She is a keen traveller, loves sailing and exploring the natural world, taking lots of wildlife photos along the way. Her dream is to enable conservation projects by combining her skills in communications and passion for writing, with her lifelong love for nature.

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 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 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.

About the author

Marie Conroy is a communications professional from Ireland. She is a keen traveller, loves sailing and exploring the natural world, taking lots of wildlife photos along the way. Her dream is to enable conservation projects by combining her skills in communications and passion for writing, with her lifelong love for nature.

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.

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.

Approaching conservation as a system

By Henry Rees, CLP Programme Officer

Not long ago, when I was at a very early stage in my career, I had quite straightforward beliefs about biodiversity conservation. Back then, I saw very little overlap between the human and ecological worlds. My understanding of conservation was simply that these worlds should be kept apart where possible and that this was the only way to prevent further degradation. Now, with more hindsight, I can say with certainty that this view is limited.

Below I reflect on how broadening our perspectives, and finding a more holistic understanding of conservation as a system, could help us begin to unlock a healthier, more protected planet for future generations.

Henry Rees, CLP Programme Officer © Henry Rees

What do I mean by a ‘system’?

A system can be defined as “a collection of related components that interact with one another toward a greater whole and a common goal.” Early on in my career, I began to realize the power of systems-thinking: a discipline that helps us reveal the different components of a system and understand how they interact. Often used in other sectors like technology and engineering, it is now gaining traction in the conservation world, and it appealed to me as an effective tool for diagnosing problems that don’t have obvious, easy solutions.

The ‘blue jumper’ analogy helps to visualise a systems-thinking approach. You can ask: what components of a blue jumper come together to make the whole thing?

First, there are the threads, each of which is important and interwoven in such a way to give the jumper its unique structure. Other components are also at work. The blue dye and materials are also present and interacting. The jumper wouldn’t be the same without all of these different elements.

Employing systems thinking on our blue jumper may reveal previously undiscovered components and questions. Where were the materials sourced from? Where was it made? By whom? Why did they make it? And so on.

The list of components can be extensive, and some are more important than others. But, ultimately, if any of them are affected, then this could cause a chain reaction and dynamically affect the other components in ways you may never have thought possible. The blue jumper could be compromised for good.

Systems thinking and conservation

Starting to think about conservation as a system was a big turning point for me. I realised that using this approach opens up a range of seemingly infinite components that we can look at to find solutions to our most pressing environmental problems.

This realisation gave me hope, but it also helped me begin to comprehend the problems that we face. The systems in which we must intervene to protect biodiversity are complex, consisting of both ecological and social components.

Henry (far left) with the African Bat Conservation research team in Malawi © Henry Rees

Research has shown that if we wish to effectively intervene, we must first develop a holistic understanding of these components, including the varied needs, perspectives and values of the people involved.

As has been shown in conservation countless times before, intervening without considering these interacting values may lead us to fail in our mission to protect biodiversity.

Our actions may be linked to and have unintended consequences elsewhere in the system. Pulling one stray thread in your blue jumper may cause the rest of the threads to snag and eventually the whole thing will unravel.

Building a more complete picture of conservation

It is impossible for any one person to identify all of the hidden components of a system. They will only be able to recognise certain components and interactions that have some relation to their own perceptions and biases, which are informed by their unique life experiences.

So, the only way we can ever hope to achieve a holistic understanding of a system is by talking to and working with others.

As a programme dedicated to building the capacity of early-career conservationists, CLP works to achieve levels of collaboration not often seen in the conservation sector. We are a close partnership between three organisations (FFI, BirdLife and WCS) and we each have strong lines of communication and co-operation with one another.

Through our annual Team Awards, we fund and train exceptional conservationists leading applied biodiversity projects that seek tangible, long-term solutions to the world’s most pressing conservation challenges. Many of our alumni have gone on to deliver remarkable conservation impacts, most recently showcased in our latest annual report and in our News pages.

Each year, we host awardees at key events and at our regional and international training courses, where they get invaluable opportunities to meet peers and establish long-lasting friendships and potential collaborations.

This year, during the pandemic, we continued to form these important links in our first-ever online international Conservation Management & Leadership course, which has connected more than 30 conservation leaders from several countries including Kenya, Argentina, Georgia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, South Africa, India, Bolivia and Tajikistan (to name just a few!)

This year, CLP held its first-ever online international Conservation Management & Leadership course, which established links among conservationists around the world.

Collaborative thinking and action are key

We are all vital components of the systems in which we operate and we each see these systems differently. In this way, collaborative thinking and action are essential to understanding and combating the complex problems facing biodiversity. By taking the time to acknowledge and understand the perspectives of others, our alumni are able to build a more complete picture of their projects and the challenges they need to overcome. Only in this way can we not only keep our ‘blue jumper’ from unravelling, but also ensure the threads, and the connections between them, are strong and effective enough to last.

About the author

About a year ago, Henry Rees joined the CLP team as a Programme Officer at Fauna & Flora International (FFI) in Cambridge, UK. Before joining CLP, he had completed a BSc in Zoology and an MSc in Conservation Science and worked as a wildlife surveyor. Born and raised in London, he grew up in a family who instilled in him a deep love of nature. Working in conservation had been a dream that had motivated him for most of his life, but it wasn’t until he studied conservation formally that he began to view it as an interconnected system.