What started as a women's initiative to conserve red pandas in Jamuna VDC of northern Ilam has brought about an impressive transformation. The Choyatar forest has been restored to its past glory and the village economy is thriving because of tourists that have poured in following a rise in the number of these endangered animals.
Unill two years ago, open grazing and caused uncontrolled logging had caused the destruction of the forest, and a subsequent decline in the number of red pandas in the area. But now the villagers are so keen to protect the forest that people are required to take permits from the women's user group committee even to collect fodder.
Thanks to efforts like these, there are now 15 red pandas in the community-managed forest. The IUCN red-listed species, Ailurus fulgens, has proven to be a major tourist attraction. The user group committee charges Nepalis Rs 500 and foreign nationals Rs 1000 to enter the forest for red panda-watching. A 1.7km road has been constructed from Alebhanjhyang to help tourists reach the forest.
Every house in the village is now upgrading rooms to allow for homestay for tourists, and cultural groups have been formed to entertain them. Chairperson of the forest user committee Gopika Gurung says that interest in the forest has also increased since their efforts to conserve the red panda began. "Now it seems our forest will be protected," she says.
The all-women committee has planted rare species of trees on the barren slopes surrounding the village, and has also carried out demarcation and inventory studies of the forest.
Slum millionaires, RUBEENA MAHATO