Supporting an emerging conservation community and protecting Nepal’s rare wildlife
In his final year as a university undergraduate, Kumar Paudel founded the non-profit organisation Greenhood Nepal. It created a platform for young people like himself who lacked experience but wanted to contribute to the conservation field.
Kumar shares how since its foundation in 2012 Greenhood Nepal and its team have ‘grown up’ together to become a respected science-driven, community-focused organisation with multiple projects to protect Nepal’s most vulnerable flora and fauna.
Kumar also discusses what effects a small organisation can have in the bigger conservation picture, and the benefits of a home-grown non-profit in making your voice heard on key national topics.
How did you start in conservation?
When discussing the early days of Greenhood Nepal, Kumar readily admits he didn’t know much about conservation at all. However, even before Greenhood, he had shown his determination to make a difference in protecting Nepal’s wildlife.
Kumar grew up in a small mountain village, with parents who inspired him and his siblings to dream big and to respect nature and community. While he was studying for his BSc in Environmental Science he became worried about the rampant rhino poaching and trade at that time in Nepal. As a result he co-founded and coordinated the National Youth Alliance for Rhino Conservation. They aimed to raise public awareness about threats to rhinos and make the government accountable.
He accepts that he didn’t really know what actions to take, and that they lacked the capacity and resources to do large-scale events, so they undertook ‘random’ activism. As a group they wrote letters to editors of national newspapers, organised street rallies in Kathmandu, visited colleges and even went to parliamentary committees demanding the government investigate the out-of-control rhino poaching in the country.
Seeing what effect youth-led action could have on a single cause, Kumar and some friends went on to found Greenhood Nepal, and the same year, Kumar continued his studies with a Master’s degree in Environmental Management at Pokhara University:
“We realised at that time that young people can successfully be involved in conservation – you don’t have to be a scientist or have lots of money – and that’s how Greenhood started. We made it as a platform for younger people who didn’t have experience but who wanted to contribute to conservation in some way, and to develop themselves into conservationists.”
The organisation has grown and evolved, and their work now covers improving knowledge, public education and awareness, policy engagement, and civic action, with projects spread across different communities in Nepal.
Before founding Greenhood, did you search out existing opportunities or organisations you could join?
Kumar explains that when he was exploring opportunities during his time as an undergraduate, he was aware of the conservation organisations that existed in Nepal – including some of the bigger, well-known international NGOs. However, as a young, inexperienced person, he didn’t feel confident enough to approach them:
“When young people don’t have a good set of skills or research experience in science, they don’t have the confidence to go and talk to these big organisations. For that reason, I thought we needed a platform where anyone, even with limited experience can come and develop and learn from other young people – for peer-to-peer support and a learning platform.”
Over the years many of the Greenhood team have completed post-graduate studies, and due to his expertise, Kumar is also active with the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group as a Co-Chair for South Asia. But he is still keen to support passionate, early-career conservationists. Anyone who is motivated or interested is welcome to reach out to them.
They have also set up programs such as the Nepal Conservation Research Fellowship program for early-career conservationists who are looking for seed funding or mentorship opportunities. And they host the Global Youth Biodiversity Network Nepal chapter, which raises awareness among young people about biodiversity and connects youth organisations to form a global coalition.
What role do you play as a small non-profit organisation?
Currently, Greenhood’s activities include supporting enforcement agencies to help detect illegal wildlife trade and local governments and communities to prepare management plans for natural resources. They also raise awareness among local communities on the importance of threatened but neglected wildlife species.
Among their many projects are: conserving rare native orchid species; scaling up pangolin conservation by research and public engagement; attempts to restore the valuable Maire’s Yew (important in Cancer treatment) by engaging with local governments, nursery owners and forest users; and documenting the distribution and threats of the critically endangered elongated tortoise.
Each project begins with research, and once the problem is understood they determine the best way to proceed. They also evaluate the effectiveness of their projects, to learn from anything that didn’t work.
However, Kumar is keen to explain that part of their role as a small organisation is to share their findings with the government or other conservation organisations:
“We are a very small organisation and we cannot fix many problems. So, what we do is share our findings with key decision makers, larger organisations and communities – pointing out what we think would work and what they should focus on based on our research results.”
As an example of their evidence-based approach, in 2016/17 Kumar undertook what he believes to be the first systematic research into the experiences of those who have been convicted for wildlife trade offences:
“I personally visited prisons across Nepal interviewing prisoners. If we want to make people stop poaching or participating in the illegal trade then we first need to understand who they are, where they come from, what kind of motivation they have and how we can deter them.”
Kumar explains that when Greenhood goes to a community or the government with its findings, they never claim that they are or have the solution. Their aim is simply to understand the problem and then try to bring together those with the expertise to collectively achieve the conservation goal.
Bringing together those with expertise means they also try to make their work interdisciplinary, working with artists such as cartoonists, and often using storybooks to engage children on issues in their local language. Using the stories gathered when Kumar talked to convicted prisoners, Greenhood collaborated with musicians to communicate with communities often involved in poaching through traditional song.
Click here to watch their most recent collaboration with indigenous musicians, aimed at traditional fishing communities who are often unaware of the legal protections afforded to pangolins.
“Conservation is not a sure-shot thing”, Kumar acknowledges. “It is very complex and requires effort from different experts and different stakeholders and It is our role to try and bring them together”.
As the founder of Greenhood, what does a typical week or month look like?
In the time since founding Greenhood, Kumar has also spent time in the UK, working as a visiting fellow at the University of Oxford, and studying full-time for an MPhil in Conservation Leadership at the University of Cambridge. But even then he was taking an active role:
“I didn’t have much option as we were not in a position to hire someone to look after things. I was not involved in field activity, but even as a full-time student in Cambridge I was supervising the team remotely. From 2012 until now I have not taken a break from Greenhood.”
Now back in Nepal full-time, Kumar oversees the whole operation, including fundraising, supervising research and communicating with advisory boards, etc. If he splits his monthly time, he explains, 30-50% of it goes to necessities such as writing grants and writing reports. He doesn’t love it, he admits, but it’s something that he really needs to do.
He still spends about 30% of his time in the field visiting different communities, and collecting data from their project sites. The rest of the time he spends talking with conservation decision-makers and government officials, and writing editorials or research papers.
What is the best part of what you do?
Kumar says that although the other responsibilities largely keep him from it, the most rewarding part is definitely the fieldwork, as it’s a chance to see the difference their efforts make in protecting species and empowering local communities.
However, another highlight for him is that – more than developing an organisation, raising funds, or designing projects – he is helping to develop and support a conservation community. He sees how his colleagues are growing as conservationists, and becoming ‘species champions’ in areas such as pangolin, orchid, yew or turtle and tortoise conservation. As founder of Greenhood, that’s really fulfilling:
“I see it as success, because conservation is not possible by one person or one community. We need a really big number of people who are masters of different species, who are experts at research and action.”
What do you find the most challenging part of working in conservation?
Kumar explains that as a small organisation, their biggest challenge has changed as they have grown and evolved.
Initially, the main concern was building their science and conservation capacity. They were a relatively inexperienced team, so they needed to develop as professionals trained in understanding problems and identifying solutions, and who were able to work closely with government officials and decision-makers as well as communities on the ground.
Through training and experience, Kumar says they have become a stronger organisation, and that the big challenge has become fundraising. Although conservation is a growing sector across the globe, he says it is not as big a priority for the public in Nepal:
“We [in Nepal] don’t have a philanthropic culture in conservation. The kind of philanthropic culture that does exist is usually in areas of human interest, like public health. When people are struggling in terms of their livelihood, conservation can be regarded as a kind of luxury.”
This can make it difficult to develop an in-country sustainable model for conservation, or to attract people to it as a career. Vitally, it also means that they ‘have to rely on big, very competitive international funding’ and it can be difficult for a small Nepalese non-profit to compete for this funding against larger organisations. For this reason, Kumar says it has been quite a challenge to become more resilient in terms of financial security.
What advice do you have for aspiring conservationists?
For those wanting to follow a similar path to his own, Kumar’s first advice would be “to understand where you are, understand what problem you want to solve, and then look at the different approaches that can be used to solve those problems”. Once you’ve looked closely, many of the answers you are looking for may come automatically.
Kumar believes the second fundamental thing is to find the community that can support you – find colleagues or others who have similar interests to you, that can join forces with you to help solve the problem. The other things, he adds, like what actions to take, what advisors to work with and funding, those things all come later. These fundamentals are key to your efforts being successful.
The importance of higher or post-graduate education
The first thing that Kumar insists at this point is that you do not need a degree to be a conservationist. However, he qualifies this by saying there are a set of skills that you need if you want to do a specific thing. For example, if you want to be a great advocate or activist, it is a passion for nature rather than education that may be fundamental to your role.
“When you start to think about the management and protection of those species, the policies and laws involved, then you need the skills to integrate those things in a scientific way. If you are going to do that kind of science-based or evidence-based advocacy and conservation then you need to train yourselves to understand science, law and how society functions, and for that you need to go to university and higher education.”
Kumar highlights that there is not a single formula for conservation and that there are many different approaches, so it is important that you think about what your goal is and therefore what approach you want or need to take to achieve it. For Greenhood:
“We chose science-based action and approach, so for us it was really important to enhance our science capacity, so most of our team is continuously developing themselves and their skills through training and university.”
Starting your own venture versus joining a large international organisation
It is difficult to start something new, he concedes, but the main benefit to starting your own venture is that you can decide on your own path, whereas if you join another organisation you are bound by their policies or ways of operating. If you have identified a problem and a solution, and you have the capacity to make a difference then starting your own organisation gives you freedom to act as you see fit.
When discussing the difference between international non-profits and those that are home-grown, he also suggests that often international organisations cannot go against or question a government if something is going wrong, because they feel their hands are tied. For a long time in Nepal, it has been national organisations that have been able to stand up and speak, and question the government or decision-makers, and Kumar believes it is something that makes a real difference.
“The only people I see who are speaking truth to power, the only people who are speaking up and challenging the narratives and raising questions, are those free from big names and their protocols and obligations. So being in a small organisation or starting your own venture means you can be who you are and speak up for what you believe – and that is a great benefit.”
There are plenty of things to consider when entering the conservation sector, but Kumar’s last words of advice appear simple – to develop your passion for a species or the environment by learning as much as you can about them.
Discussing human relationships, he says once you meet someone – making even the briefest of connections – your concern for them naturally becomes more personal. And the better we know someone, the stronger the feelings become. The same thing, he maintains, applies to nature.
“I recommend spending time learning about the amazing species we have – develop a relationship and concern, and let it instil love and empathy. There will be lots of ups and downs in your career, but when you have really strong feelings for a species, a habitat, a place or a community, that will really help you stay strong during challenging times.”
You can connect with Kumar Paudel on Linkedin.
Author Profile | Claire Tyrrell
Claire is a wildlife enthusiast and keen amateur conservationist, and has volunteered long-term in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centres across Africa and Asia – largely working with primates. Having worked in the TEFL industry for quite some years (teaching, writing and editing) she now works for the National Trust in visitor welcome and volunteers when possible for the Hampshire Wildlife Trust.
Connect with Claire on LinkedIn.