Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) is a UK fundraising and grant-giving charity, which supports conservation leaders working in their home countries across the Global South. Over 29 years, it has channelled £19 million to more than 200 conservationists in 80 countries.

The Whitley Awards are the charity’s flagship prizes – often referred to as ‘green Oscars’ – and are won competitively each year. Following a worldwide search, applications are assessed by an expert judging panel. In addition to £40,000 in project funding over one year, the awards provide profile and training.

Winning a Whitley Award enables grassroots conservationists to scale up their work and make a global impact. The 2022 winners were announced at a ceremony in London on 27th April 2022 and were presented their awards by charity patron, HRH The Princess Royal, alongside trustee Sir David Attenborough.

BBC Wildlife interviewed one of the winners, Sonam Tashi Lama, about his role in the Red Panda Network and what it means to win a Whitley Award.

Red panda © Pema Sherpa
Red pandas are found in 25 out of 77 districts in Nepal. © Pema Sherpa

Sonam Tashi Lama, Whitley Award 2022 winner

When Sonam Tashi Lama read a newspaper story that featured the red panda research of American Brian Williams, it changed his life: “The article pushed me to know more about the species and work for their conservation.”

When Williams founded the Red Panda Network (RPN), Sonam was recruited as one of its first members of staff. “It started with one small village – I was responsible for generating awareness of the red panda and mobilising the community to monitor the species,” he says.

“When I was a child, I played with a stuffed red panda pelt that was killed and brought home by my dad (now, he regrets it a lot). I didn’t know what animal it was or anything about its conservation status,” exclaims Sonam. “I decided to work to protect red pandas by teaching people about the value of the species.”

Sonam Lama with GPS collared red panda named Ngima. © Whitley Fund for Nature
Sonam Lama with a GPS collared red panda named Ngima. © Whitley Fund for Nature

“From September 2019 to June 2020, we tracked red panda movement using GPS collars as well as camera-traps,” he states. “This was the first time GPS-satellite collaring had ever been used to study red pandas in Nepal.” Sonam and the RPN team discovered that red pandas go to great lengths to avoid disruption. “They seem especially concerned with human-induced disturbances such as roads, livestock, dogs and deforestation.”

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We still haven’t figured out the answer to why red pandas are being poached and traded,” says the conservationist. Nepal’s red panda population is struggling, with the Covid-19 pandemic a contributing factor, having caused increased levels of poaching. RPN is tackling this problem by collaborating with law enforcement agencies and increasing forest patrols. “Previous research indicates poaching is based on rumour and misinformation that red panda pelts have high monetary value.”

Community fieldwork featuring Kumari Gurung and Bimala Moktan © Whitley Fund for Nature
Kumari Gurung and Bimala Moktan are Nepalese women being trained by Sonam and the Red Panda Network. © Whitley Fund for Nature

“The government has prepared a Red Panda Conservation Action Plan for Nepal (2019-2023) with the aim to protect and manage red panda populations,” declares Sonam. “Habitat loss is a matter of grave concern for red pandas, which is why RPN has launched ‘Plant a Red Panda Home’ — a national restoration campaign to target core habitats and establish a biological corridor where endangered wildlife, including red pandas, can flourish.” The scheme has provided alternative income opportunities for local communities.
“I am very positive about the future of red pandas in Nepal because the passion for conservation among the Nepali youth is growing”, he says. “Also, the communities where RPN works (approximately only 25 per cent of the whole red panda range in Nepal) are supportive as we are helping people to diversify their incomes through ecotourism, habitat restoration and red panda monitoring.”

A camera-trap is attached to a tree in Nepal to monitor red pandas. © Pema Sherpa
A camera-trap is attached to a tree in Nepal to monitor red pandas. © Pema Sherpa

“Being a Whitley Award winner is the greatest achievement of my conservation career,” says Sonam. “My work is not only a job but also a basic responsibility as a citizen – I have a duty for the welfare of humans and the planet.”

Other Whitley Award 2022 winners

Whitley Gold Award 2022 winner

Each year a Whitley Award alumnus is chosen to receive the Whitley Gold Award in recognition of their outstanding contribution to conservation. Whitley Gold Award winners are international advocates for biodiversity with the passion and ambition to inspire large-scale change. The award is worth £100,000 in project funding, and recipients join the Whitley Awards judging panel as well as mentoring new winners.

  • Dr Charudutt Mishra, Snow Leopard Trust, India – building global capacity for community-led conservation

Main image: Sonam Lama © Janam Shrestha/Red Panda Network


Jo PriceDeputy editor, BBC Wildlife Magazine