In India’s remote northeastern corner of Arunachal Pradesh, two villages – Lumpo and Muchut – in the Pangchen Valley are inhabited by the Monpas, a tribal community. These small hamlets are taking huge steps to provide a secure habitat for the red panda.

The small mammal – a cousin of the more celebrated giant panda – is listed as "vulnerable" in the International Union for Conservation of Nature list of threatened species and also under the Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972.

Found only in the eastern Himalayas, the red panda lives in deciduous and coniferous forests mixed with bamboo undergrowth at an altitude of 2,200-4,800 metres. The two villages, located just south of China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region and east of Bhutan, fall precisely within this range.

According to India’s 2011 Census, Lumpo had a population of 254 while Muchut had 177. Still, tree-felling is a major problem. Both villages are in Tawang district, which is not connected to the national electricity grid. Power supply is both limited and erratic, so people use firewood for cooking and heating.

WWF India steps in

World Wildlife Fund India identified habitat destruction due to excessive extraction of wood for fuel as the biggest threat to the red panda's habitat. This prompted it to initiate a conservation programme in the eastern Himalayas in 2005.

Two districts in Arunachal Pradesh – Tawang and West Kameng – were earmarked as focal areas. It was not just the red panda that was threatened. The habitat of the black-necked crane is also threatened due to a proposed hydropower project there.

WWF created awareness; then the villagers took over. They mapped the core zone where the red panda lives, and a buffer zone around it. In 2007, the Pangchen Lumpo Muchut Community Area Conservation Management Committee was formed. Pangchen refers to someone who has abstained from killing or sinning in any way.

Ngawang Chotta, the Gaam Budha (village head) of Lumpo, told, “We felt the need for conservation as our generation saw the decline in numbers and species over the years as we grew up. For instance, approximately, 20 years ago, snow leopards were commonly seen around the Shagro Delemzur grazing grounds. Not anymore.”

Since 2008, residents of the two villages have carried out joint patrols twice a year, with funds and technical help from WWF. For almost 10 days, teams of 10-12 people scan every inch of the core and buffer zone forests, said Lham Tsering, coordinator of the WWF-India project.

A community effort

The area has seen rampant poaching of musk deer. Villagers blame outsiders. “Since we started conducting this half yearly drill, we have seen a decrease in poaching activity. We keep small boards proclaiming 'killing [is] banned' at several places in the forests,” said Degin Dorjee, a local school teacher who doubles up as community mobiliser for the project.

The villagers listed the biodiversity in the area – animals, birds, medicinal plants – with the help of GPS-enabled devices. They found the red panda, black-necked crane, musk deer, blue sheep, Monal pigeon, snow partridge, blood pigeon, leopard cat, golden cat and the Himalayan black bear. They made a separate list for trees and shrubs, especially medicinal plants.

The core zone is now a complete no-go area. The buffer zone has lots of oak trees and people cut these to heat their homes in the Himalayan winter. The Pangchen Lumpo Muchut Community Area Conservation Management Committee plans to ban this as well once people get other fuel. It has already banned felling of trees around the 100 or so water sources in the area. “It is also proposed that a fine of Rs 10,000 ($150) will be imposed on the violator for collecting firewood timber from the buffer zone,” Chotta said.

The way forward

Dipankar Ghosh of WWF-India said, “We provided a lot of input to the draft management plan” so that the villagers’ initiative can be sustained. One option is to develop homestays –community-based tourism that enables locals to earn from those coming for a sight of the elusive red panda. “Two [homestays] are planned at Muchut and three at Kharman [a nearby village],” Dorjee said. “In all, we have planned about 10.”

CD Singh, conservator of forests in the state government of Arunachal Pradesh, said the forest department could not interfere in any of this, as all the forests in Tawang district are legally classified as community forests. “We just help them spread awareness, especially among elders, who decide where jhoom cultivation is done.” Jhoom cultivation is a practice wherein farmers clear patches of land in the forest before growing crops on them.

The forest department has also got the central government to sanction money so that the villagers can be given more fuel-efficient cook stoves at subsidised rates. The project will have to be implemented by the state government.

Ramesh Negi, chief secretary of Arunachal Pradesh, told that apart from improved cook stoves that still use wood or biomass, “We have already recommended supply of Liquefied Petroleum Gas cylinders to the remotest of villages to counteract the incentives to cut down trees for firewood. This has been incorporated in the Vision for North East released recently by the ministry of petroleum.”

The Monpas are not waiting.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.