RINZIN PHUNJOK LAMA
2021 Rolex Awards Laureate
Promote local initiatives for biodiversity conservation in Nepal’s Trans-Himalaya
Local people from one of the world’s wildest and most isolated places, the mountainous Himalaya region of Humla in Nepal, are being enlisted as frontline conservators to rescue dwindling wild animal populations – from snow leopards to wild yaks. Driving the scheme is an energetic young ecologist, Rinzin Phunjok Lama, who is convinced that only local commitment and know-how can make the real difference.
In 2006, a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of 23 leaders of Nepalese conservation abruptly thrust the burden of leadership onto a new generation. Rinzin Phunjok Lama was among the first to take up the challenge: he at once made it his life’s mission to protect not only the fabled snow leopard but also the threatened Himalayan wolf, Himalayan black bear, wild yak, Tibetan argali, Tibetan kiang, musk deer and other Nepalese high-altitude wildlife.
Lama hails from the precipitous and icy slopes of Humla, towering up to 5,000 metres above sea level, where life is a constant struggle for humans and animals alike – leading to clashes which the creatures often lose. “Humla is one of the most remote, rich and beautiful landscapes, in terms of biodiversity [inspired by] the Buddhist philosophy that promotes compassion, coexistence [and] a well-balanced relationship between humans and nature. Ever since I saw the snow leopard, a mysterious and mythical species, I was inspired to conserve the mountain environment,” he says.
“Yet the Trans-Himalayan ecosystem is very fragile and the growth in human activities is a constant threat. There is an urgent need for conservation projects which provide an integrated approach to both conservation and livelihood.” His philosophy of community-based conservation places the power and responsibility to solve the problem in the hands of local people, challenging them to become better stewards of both farmed lands and wilderness.
His vision is to use community-based conservation as a focus to promote local leadership, local business and governance ownership and so build more resilient and self-reliant mountain communities. With help from a core of similarly inspired young people, he engages with institutions such as village councils, youth clubs and women’s groups to spread awareness, educate, engage and mobilize.
Lama’s approach is multi-faceted, training some locals in law enforcement to prevent poaching, forest fires and illegal logging while equipping others – women especially – to establish eco-based businesses which draw on the natural assets of the Humla region, such as herbal products, traditional apparel, trekking and ecotourism.
On the scientific side, his teams of young, trained conservationists use field surveys and camera traps to establish population baselines for the most imperilled wild animals, to monitor their numbers and observe how they respond to the new measures.
“I want to show that, if given the opportunity, local people can lead exceptionally and are capable of managing large-scale conservation projects and community engagement, as true stewards of the land.”