Obituary: Nepal's fearless crusader for environment

His field-based scientific thrust and the fearlessness with which he put forth uncomfortable truths made him stand out

By Dipak Gyawali
Published: Monday 07 November 2011

Pralad Yonzon
21 May 1951 – 31 October 2011

These are sad times for Nepal’s nature conservationists: five years ago, on  September 23, 2006, the country lost its crème de la crème in a tragic helicopter accident in the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area. While memories of that mishap still cause pain in the heart, people woke up early on November 1 to learn the horrifying news that another star, Pralad Yonzon, had been crushed to death—a truck hit him as he was cycling back from work the previous evening.

Riding a bicycle during rush hour on Kathmandu’s Ring Road is not for the faint-hearted; but this had been Pralad’s classic let’s-do-something statement against not only the pollution in Kathmandu’s air caused by diesel fumes, but also, perhaps worse, its social life marked by unbridled consumerism and a wholly unnecessary vehicle craze in this erstwhile Shangri-la.

Despite official national and international lip-service, conservation and socio-environmental activism is currently a pejorative in these heydays of “public-private partnership” where development is defined primarily by economic growth and the public sphere is politically subsumed under private profit. Pralad stood against this current, and is destined to remain a beacon to guide those he left behind as well as those yet to come.

A Fulbright scholar with a PhD in wildlife biology from the University of Maine in 1989, he had the easy option of choosing the comfortable life of a professional Non-Resident Nepali (NRN) in the West. Instead, he chose to come back to Nepal and has left an indelible  mark in its environmental history.

Architect of Annapurna Conservation Area

Upon graduating from Tribhuban University in 1974, he began his career as a field biologist for the Nepal Tiger Ecology project of the Smithsonian Institute. His seminal field work on the red pandas led to both his establishing Resources Himalaya in 1986 as a research and training institute for wildlife biology and his PhD in 1987. He was one of the principal architects of the globally famous Annapurna Conservation Area Project of the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation (KMNTC,1995) and its Conservation Research Training Center in Sauraha, Chitwan (1991). While at the KMTNC, he led the first scientific rhino count in Nepal in 1994. Its success led him to be invited to lead the team formulating the plan for conservation of the Javan rhino in Indonesia in 1997.

Pralad was a conservationist of international stature. In the mid-1990s, he was invited by the Vietnamese government to be its Global Environment Facility (GEF) coordinator; and from 2002 to 2006, he was the president of the Asia section of the Society of Conservation Biology, USA. From 1991 to 2005, he helped the Bhutanese government and its Royal Society for the Preservation of Nature plan and implement several of its national parks and sanctuaries. It was Pralad who first discovered in Bhutan that the Bengal tigers were found even at the high altitude of 3,000 metres. He had also helped the government of India prepare a project for the sustainable development of forest resources in Sikkim. For his outstanding work in nature conservation, he was awarded the Golden Arc of the Netherlands in 2002, and the prestigious MacArthur Award (regarded as the American Nobel Prize) in 2007, the money from which he donated to construct the Resources Himalaya building in Lalitpur, Nepal.

What distinguished Pralad as a cut above the average were his field-based scientific thrust and the fearlessness with which he put forth uncomfortable truths. He once fractured his neck when he fell off a rock in the jungles of Bardiya and was nearly washed off by the Rapti river several times while tracking tigers. For a committed conservationist, he was not averse to criticizing the November 2010 International Tiger Forum in St Petersburg for forgetting conservation in their mad rush to raise money. He felt tigers could be saved with a fraction of the money that was being asked for if governments and NGOs just concentrated on the real problem of poaching and loss of habitat.

In the fractured politics of today’s Nepal, he refused to be drawn into a communal agenda, declaring that conservation needs have no specific jaat (ethnicity). While that stand made him unpopular among leaders of ethno-opportunism dominating Nepali politics, his ecumenism and his global achievements have done far more to inspire youngsters from marginalised ethnic backgrounds of the limitless possibilities open to those dedicated to hard work. As a nation-wide survey by Interdisciplinary Analysts shows, the percentage of Nepalis who want to be identified as a Nepali only (as opposed to those who prefer their caste and ethnicity appellations) has risen to seventy-one per cent. Pralad was an expression of that real national heartbeat.

His unfinished task

After the tragic helicopter accident in Kanchenjunga in 2006 that deprived him of his closest colleagues, he was consumed by his determination to train an upcoming generation of conservationists as dedicated as they and he were. It is a task he has left unfinished. The coming generation of conservationists will no longer have a caring giant to hoist them on his shoulders. They will now have to imagine what a mountain of knowledge and dedication he was and painfully heave themselves up the cliffs to be future environmental visionaries of his calibre.

-Dipak Gyawali is a former minister for water resources of Nepal


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