Traditional knowledge and customary sustainable practices to conserve the endangered red panda in Ilam, Nepal

The indigenous peoples of Ilam, East Nepal include the Kirant (encompassing the Rai and Limbu peoples), Lepcha, Tamang, Sherpa, Sunuwar, Gurung, Magar and Thangmi. East Nepal is the historical domain of Kirant, with Kirant kingship running from 600 BC in Kathmandu. Kirant kings have ruled for over 1,000 years, using customary practices.

The indigenous peoples of Ilam are making important contributions towards conserving the endangered red panda (Ailurus fulgens) through their traditional knowledge and customary sustainable practices. Under the Nepal National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act (1973), the red panda is recognised as a protected priority species, designated as vulnerable in 1994 and as endangered in 2004 because of habitat loss.1 People do not hunt red pandas because religion and customary systems have prohibited it, even before they were known to be endangered.

“Tamang culture has a “Choho” traditional institution of Tamang, to help take care of the forest, red panda habitat, historical areas and resources; and the head Lama (Buddhist) plays a valuable role in decision-making for the use and protection of red panda habitats. “ 2

Indigenous peoples know that red pandas in the wild rely mostly on bamboo for food (90 per cent), followed by fruits (three per cent), insects (2 per cent), crops (1 per cent) and other sources (3 per cent). Communities have observed that the existing bamboo forests in the areas are experiencing poor growth. They are damaged by wildfire, drought and the disappearance of water sources in the boreal forest, and other disturbances such as over-collection of non-timber forest products, local development including road construction, and human encroachment. Consequently, the indigenous communities have increased actions to protect the bamboo forest ecosystem inside the boreal forest through controlling wild fires and restoring water sources. As two community members explained: “We make a fire break line and check it for further burning. People keep a rotation to watch the fire and inform everyone to control the fire. They are also protecting water sources with planting and restoring natural ponds that can help to preserve the bamboo forest for red pandas.”

Traditional practices and institutions for conserving the red panda: the “Kipatiya Pratha” of the Kirant

The Kipatiya Pratha is the customary system of the Kirant. It is a local authorised body which uses traditional governance practices for conservation and sustainable management, for the use of natural resources and for the protection of biodiversity and the habitats of red pandas.

Kirant priests (Phedangba and Nuwagire), elders, women and traditional healers play important roles in collective decision-making to declare the forest patches that should be protected, ensuring that water sources and bamboo forests provide a good habitat for red pandas. In the Kipatiya Pratha, the individual obeys the collective decision to care for the red panda’s habitat (Pudekudo ko Basthan) and natural resources. If any member of the society tries to disobey the decision or misuse it, he or she will be punished. Kipatiya Pratha maintains a good governance system for red panda habitat conservation, controlling poaching, hunting, fire control, use of resources; and it has its own punishment tradition. If somebody acts in a way that disobeys tradition or hunts the red panda, then they call him or her into a meeting and inform the person not to do this, because it is important for society. If the person continues hunting or disobeying, or ignores the decision, then they will receive further punishment, such as a fine or becoming a social outcast (the person will not be allowed into any kinds of social functions). It is these social norms and values that create a good governance system.

History of the Ngati Hine pilot program for the monitoring, recovery, and protection of eels

Ngati Hine is a fishing nation in Aotearoa/New Zealand which cultivates a day to day relationship with eels. We maintain a high level of traditional knowledge and customary use, including on how to transfer and hold eels in boxes for up to twelve months. There is much concern over elvers (baby eels, tangariki in Māori) due to the man-made and natural obstructions within our catchments. Local environmental guardians (kaitiaki)3 have historically helped transfer the elvers above waterfalls and continue this practice today. This is embodied in the local story of a supernatural being tanisha 2,[Rangiriri, who saw young children using a kete (tightly woven flax basket) to help elvers up the waterfall at Otiria over 400 years ago.

In the 1980s a study was carried out on Ngati Hine eel harvesting that found that customary harvest practices producing approximately 30,000 kg of food were sustainable over a seven year period. Over the past ten years, Ngati Hine, alongside other customary and commercial fishers, have expressed concerns over declining eel populations. In 2011, we completed an eel population survey with the support of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, peer reviewed by the Ministry of Fisheries. The report confirmed the following: long fin female numbers are low in the upper catchments; there are several eel passage obstructions; significant habitats are degraded; there are lakes with the potential for stocking where eels can mature within four years, and there is potential to establish a nationally significant reserve area on the lower Taumarere River. A pilot project was subsequently designed to address these issues. The project vision was to enhance the relationship of local people with the eel population within Ngati Hine catchments as a pilot strategy that can be implemented across the North Island. The project is called “Kete Tangariki” and its main objectives are to:

  • Improve eel populations for customary and commercial interests;
  • Improve habitat appropriate for eels;
  • Support local, established and new, customary and commercial fishermen;
  • Advocate for laws and policies to improve eel management, engaging the local and central government, industry and the public.

Snapshot of outcomes and successes from the project are as follows:

  • The ideal eel habitat and methods of improvement, such as riparian planting (a traditional method of water management) were discussed. Underground wetlands were identified as important unique habitats which Ngati Hine must maintain.
  • Impacts of farming and pine forestry were identified as having harmful effects on elvers and eel habitats. Following these discussions, priority sites for enhancing this work were identified.

The pilot project brought together customary and commercial fishers from around the country who built stronger relationships with each other through improved respect and understanding. There is a strong desire to continue this journey of assessing the on-going health and management of eels.

Ngati Hine provided information to the international panel reviewing the state of eels, which assessed its monitoring information. Since the review, the Ministry for Primary Industries has contracted Ngati Hine to carry out a national inventory of indigenous communities’ monitoring of eel stocks and has discussed whether we would be interested in adapting a common methodology so that we can contribute to national reports on the status of eels. The results and any future work on this inventory will ultimately influence regulations surrounding sustainable fishing in Aotearoa.