When Nepal's top conservationists were killed in a helicopter crash near Kangchenjunga in 2006, Pralad Yonzon lost many of his peers. But he turned his grief into action and set about training a new generation of conservationists through his organisation, Resource Himalaya.
In a cruel blow, Yonzon was himself killed on Monday afternoon when a truck rammed into his bicycle on the Ring Road in Balkhu. It was the mark of the man himself that Yonzon rode a bicycle through Kathmandu's dusty and crowded streets: he practiced what he preached.
In an illustrious career, Yonzon worked to study the habitat in Langtang of the endangered red panda for his PhD. He made the highest-ever spotting in the world of a tiger at 3,000m in the mountains of Bhutan in 2001. It was a breakthrough in tiger conservation, giving the world the hope that the tiger could be saved. It was also just like Yonzon that he did not crave credit for this discovery, and let the Bhutanese get the glory. Yonzon was at the forefront of research into wildlife conservation of elephants, monkeys, birds and snow leopards and preferred a people-centred approach to conservation. He believed that unless poor farmers living in proximity of wildlife saw the benefits of conservation, endangered species could not be saved.
Yonzon preferred to spend time in the field, rather in the office. He was nearly killed several times in accidents in the wild, but he shrugged at the dangers. He said in an interview after receiving the MacArthur Award in 2007 : "We want to help conservation with science-based information." He donated his prize money of $350,000 to setting up Resource Himalaya Foundation building in Dhobighat.
A mild-mannered man, Yonzon preferred to maintain a low profile. A gold medalist from Tribhuvan University and Fulbright scholar, he earned his PhD from the University of Maine and was a visiting professor at TU for the last five years. He was a recipient of the Golden Ark, The National Achievement Award, Young Scientist Award, Joint-Doctoral Research Award (Hawaii) and Mary Totten Achievement Award (USA).
"He dedicated his life, his earnings and his profession to create a conservation oriented organisation which has truly become a platform for hundreds of young students, researchers, and practitioners to share and learn," wrote Madhav Karki of ICIMOD in a NNSD group post.
In a tribute Dipak Gyawali, who worked with Yonzon in the erstwhile King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, wrote: "It is said that tragedy is the difference between what is and what might have been. That difference is just too huge, like infinity, to contemplate." (See box for more tributes.)
Yonzon, 60, is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter.
Tributes to Pralad
The day he met the fatal accident on Monday, he was at WCN (Wildlife Conservation Nepal) office in the morning and we had gathered for the weekly update. I asked him to join us and speak a few words. He spoke about the value of conservation and leadership. Fantastic talk, and as usual he was off on his bike. Later that afternoon, a truck hit him while he was on his way home. He always had practical answers to each question in conservation, a sound knowledgeable person on conservation issues. The last lecture he delivered at WCN left us with the courage that we have potential to do better provided we work honestly.
Wildlife Conservation Nepal
I had the pleasure of knowing and working with Pralad over several decades and knew him and his work in Nepal, Bhutan and Vietnam. He was always an unconventional and provocative thinker, a trait which I think we all valued immensely. He constantly challenged us all to formulate and test new hypotheses, one of the basic characteristics that advance science and understanding. As tribute to Pralad, may we always remember to continue challenging conventional wisdom, formulate and test new ideas rigorously and continue to move forward. Thank you Pralad for setting and following this high standard, even when it was uncomfortable. Pralad's tiger work at high altitude is a perfect example of this type of dedication.
The Mountain Institute
Voices need to be raised in Nepal about safety on the roads and in the skies. Road traffic accident is the number one public health hazard but it is not treated as such. It kills many more people than HIV, malaria and a host of other conditions do. We need to remove the concrete road blocks which have killed many motor cyclists.
Dr Prativa Pandey,
We will miss him dearly. But I hope this unfortunately incident will inspire us to work for bicycle and pedestrian friendly transportation in Kathmandu.