Volume 5, Issue 11 e13036
LETTER
Open Access

Red panda tourism gives hope in the mid-mountain range of the Eastern Himalaya, yet inappropriate practices may lead to failure

Damber Bista

Corresponding Author

Damber Bista

University of Southern Queensland, Institute for Life Sciences and the Environment, Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia

Correspondence

Damber Bista, University of Southern Queensland, Institute for Life Sciences and the Environment, Toowoomba, Queensland 4350, Australia.

Email: [email protected]

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Greg S. Baxter

Greg S. Baxter

University of Southern Queensland, Institute for Life Sciences and the Environment, Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia

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Nicholas J. Hudson

Nicholas J. Hudson

School of Agriculture and Food Sustainability, The University of Queensland, Gatton, Queensland, Australia

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Peter John Murray

Peter John Murray

University of Southern Queensland, Institute for Life Sciences and the Environment, Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia

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First published: 15 October 2023

Graphical Abstract

The red panda Ailurus fulgens tourism offers hope for wildlife tourism in the mid-mountain range of the Himalayas. Inappropriate practices may negatively affect the welfare of the target animals and inadvertently place them in jeopardy. Conservation agencies, local communities, and tour operators should take caution to ensure the sustainability of such initiatives, benefitting both wildlife and communities.

Some wildlife species have long been an attraction for tourists in the Himalaya. For instance, the tiger Panthera tigris (WWF, 2016) is the most charismatic species of the lowland, and the snow leopard Panthera uncia is sought after in the high-mountain range above the tree line (Vannelli et al., 2019). However, no such species are known to attract people in the mid-mountain range (2000–4000 m). Red panda Ailurus fulgens (Figure 1) tourism in Nepal has been developing for nearly a decade and offers the potential for wildlife tourism in this range of the Eastern Himalaya.

Details are in the caption following the image
The red panda, a flagship species of the Eastern Himalaya.

Red panda tourism was initially started from a small village in eastern Nepal in 2007 (Sherpa et al., 2022) and has been expanded in that region in recent years. This development has resulted in an increase in the number of local families catering for tourism services through homestays. This species-based tourism adds alternative income sources to the local community and helps in building awareness of the conservation importance of red panda and other sympatric species (Sherpa et al., 2022).

Tourism activities are being promoted in a few villages with road access along the Ilam-Singalila ridge in eastern Nepal. The growth of tourism is attracting hotels and tour operators (hereafter tour operators) which has the potential to entice more tourists and improve tourism services. However, some of the tour operators are nurturing mass tourism and their practices are insensitive to the welfare of wildlife. The number of tourists has increased since their involvement, yet the benefits being channeled to the community have diminished. Only a handful of people benefit from these tour operators as they only employ a few people to operate their trips. They can influence the community leaders and work in their own interest without necessarily consulting with local people. Such activities have engendered conflict among the local communities.

Tourism activities are suspended during mating and birthing seasons to minimize disturbances to red pandas. Despite this good practice, some tour operators have been found assigning trackers to follow individual animals so that they can spot animals whenever tourists arrive. Areas of up to 12 km2 are being covered for red panda spotting in most areas. Red panda being a territorial species, live a solitary life within their territory outside the mating season unless mothers are accompanied by their cubs (Bista et al., 2022). Given their territorial nature, site fidelity, and small home range 1.4 km2 (Bista et al., 2022), the chances of repeatedly spotting the same individuals are high. This may seriously affect biological activities and social interactions of target animals resulting in reduced fitness and population dynamics (Larson et al., 2016; Szott et al., 2019). Such frequent exposure to humans may further habituate wild red pandas (Higham & Shelton, 2011) and reduce their ability to judge risk and respond appropriately to possible threats (Geffroy et al., 2015). Additionally, forest areas are cleared to make trails to facilitate walking and scanning inside the forest. Making such trails is not necessarily detrimental but having many trails may adversely affect red pandas as it has recently become apparent that they perceive such features as risky areas and avoid them (Bista, Baxter, Hudson, Lama, & Murray, 2021; Bista, Baxter, Hudson, Lama, Weerman, & Murray, 2021). Red pandas can also be vulnerable to the high density of walking trails since these features can serve as ecological traps for some predators including feral dogs, yellow-throated martin Martes flavigula, leopard Panthera pardus, and other sympatric carnivores (Bista, Baxter, Hudson, Lama, & Murray, 2021; Forman & Alexander, 1998).

Access of government agencies to these areas is relatively poor due to the remoteness of the habitat. For this reason, there are limited options for incentive-driven community-based conservation practices to foster red panda conservation. However, direct involvement of business-motivated tour operators appears to deprive local communities of benefits, and their tourism practices are likely to negatively affect the welfare of wild animals. Relevant stakeholders including conservation agencies, local communities, and tour operators should be aware of inappropriate practices, as sensitive species such as red pandas could be inadvertently placed in jeopardy. This raises some concerns that need immediate attention to sustain the species-based tourism to benefit both wildlife and communities. We recommend that:
  1. There is a need to formulate and implement the species-specific tourism guidelines to minimize the environmental impacts of tourism and maximize the return. This guideline should take into consideration the ecological attributes of the species to improve the welfare of endangered species, and clearly set out the roles of the local community, tour operators, and government agencies. The guideline should also contain clearly articulated revenue-sharing schemes and monitoring mechanisms.
  2. Proactive engagement with the community is instrumental to the success of species-based tourism (Sabuhoro et al., 2021). Therefore, tourism promotion should consider supporting and empowering community involvement in the planning, leadership development, networking, and decisions about marketing red pandas.
  3. Local government agencies could act in a support role by offering financial incentives, infrastructure improvements, and regulatory assistance to the leadership provided by local communities.
  4. As red pandas occur across a significant elevation gradient (2300–4000 m), and their range includes varying landscapes, ecosystems, and diverse cultures, there is a high potential of diversifying tourism activities. Tourism promotion should involve consulting with relevant stakeholders to assess the importance of these attributes while expanding and diversifying tourism across larger areas.
  5. A site-specific tourism protocol that aligns with the tourism guidelines could be prepared to match the community context.

These measures can help minimize the adverse effects of tourism on sensitive species like red pandas. It will also contribute to local economic growth through job creation and increased revenue at the local level. Additionally, involving local communities and other stakeholders in decision-making and implementation processes would ensure the sustainability and success of red panda tourism.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

Open access publishing facilitated by University of Southern Queensland, as part of the Wiley - University of Southern Queensland agreement via the Council of Australian University Librarians.