Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dr. Pralad Yonzon...In My Memory

Dr. Pralad Yonzon
(May 21, 1951 - October 31, 2011)

When I worked for the then King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation back in 1996, my colleagues usually talked about the great projects and achievements of Dr Pralad Yonzon in the field of wildlife research and conservation biology. Since then I had a desire to see him.
I had chance to meet him when the warden training was held. The training hall was adjacent my office, a computer lab where I used Quatro Pro – an entirely new program for me – to plug socio-economic data. One of the resource persons came to my office who was interested in my work. He also taught me the spreadsheet program. He did not give direct answer rather suggested for the solution. "Bichar garnus hai" (Think about it), he used to tell me before I attempted new task.

I asked my colleague whereabouts of Dr Yonzon. I could not believe when he informed me the person who was teaching me computer lesson was in fact Dr Yonzon. How such young, dynamic and cheerful person could be Dr Yonzon? Well, I had different image of him: chubby, serious and authoritative. It was indeed a pleasant surprise because none of my imaginations matched with real character.

He came to visit Sauraha almost every year with his family and usually stayed at Jungle Adventure World. I met him informally couple of times during such visits but real opportunity came when I was assigned to work with him. I never thought of such rare and coveted chance would come in my way so early.

In 1997, Resources Nepal was assigned to do the Environmental Impact Assessment in far western Nepal for West Seti Hydroelectric Project under the leadership of Dr Yonzon. He asked Arun Rijal to find two bird watchers from Bird Education Society (BES) for this project, and Rajendra Adhikari and Ramesh Chaudhary were selected accordingly. Because Ramesh could not involve for personal reason, I was selected in his place. We stayed overnight in Gopghat and left for project site early next morning. I had difficulty walking downhill because that was my first ever tour in the hills. While we descended down to camp site at the bank of Seti River, it was so steep that I was nervous obviously. Realizing my feeling, Dr Yonzon stayed very close with me such that his body blocked the front view that helped my fear to recede. He also taught me how to walk in the hills.

There were many teams doing EIA and socio-economic surveys. Dr Yonzon was with us in the field as we collected bird data and he did wildlife survey. He easily acquainted himself with local people and talked with them as if they were familiar for years. It was not just general chatting, but way of gathering information about surrounding environment from locals. He had high regard for local and indigenous knowledge. Rajendra identified the birds and I kept the record on the data sheet. General rule among the members of BES is that we give a candy to friends for each new bird that we observe. We were excited to see many new birds and we shared many candies.

It was a great privilege of working with Dr Yonzon as it was wonderful learning opportunity. He shared his experiences and knowledge about his research works. He saw many Black-necked Cranes migrated in Bhutan though it is cold country. In fact, they come to feed rice grains left after harvesting. Citing these examples, he said, "Research is commonsense." He emphasized that EIA should not only be done in the project site but also in the area where people will be resettled. We talked about the potential projects that Resource Nepal and BES could undertake in future. First he thought of printing bird t-shirts that BES could sell to generate income. Later he decided to support publishing Bird Checklist Chitwan. BES had already compiled the bird data of the Chitwan Valley.

He told many interesting stories and jokes with his own style and acting. We immensely enjoyed those stories like children enjoy fairy tales. I still remember one of such stories. During his college life, many Brahmin students were so strictly religious that they did not eat or drink foods touched by other people. Once in a canteen, some naughty students forcefully put rasbari (round white sweet made of wheat-flour) in mouth of a Brahmin student and made him swallow it. After swallowing the sweet, he said, "Ho Angreja ! Yi pitha ka dalla ma maha kasari ghusarda hun !" (Oh God ! How on earth can they insert honey inside the this flour ball !)

After working for a week or so, Dr Yonzon departed and his departure was followed by arrival of Ash Kumar Rai who came for fish and wetland survey. He gave us a packet of candy saying, "Dr Yonzon is very happy with your work and sent this candy for you." We were overwhelmed.

After completion of field work, I went Kathmandu to plug the bird data in computer. The office in Kumaripati was exceptionally clean and things were put in order. I was happy to work in cordial environment with friendly colleagues. Prasidda, son of Dr Yonzon, came to office and inquired me about the birds. "Thito tatho chha hai? (Boy is clever, isn't he?)" Dr Yonzon asked me admiring his son. I found the communication between father and son was interesting. "Prasidda, do not ever forget that your father is your best friend!" "Yes, dad!", Prasidda replied firmly.

After this work, we focused on publication of Bird Checklist Chitwan. Dr Yonzon designed the cover page, and the first edition of the checklist, comprised of 401 bird species, was published with loan support from Resource Nepal. Later, BES sold the checklists and repaid the loan to Resources Nepal.

Dr Yonzon designed the project to conduct bird and mammal survey in the Barandabhar forest in early spring 1998. "People only talk about Barandabhar forest as a wildlife corridor. But, we will prove it." he said. Whole forest stretch was divided into 5 sections to survey each section each day. Survey team led by Dr Yonzon, arrived in Gairibari and camped at the school ground. The team had been split into two groups: one (me and Gokarna Khanal) surveyed the area at the edge of the forest (up to 50 m. deep inside the forest) and other (Rajendra Adhikari and Ramesh Chaudhary) went further deep up to 200 m. We (first group) walked uphill following the small stream at the right of the school while second group went uphill following sal forest. Dr. Yonzon went with second group. In the evening, we all arrived in the camp except Yonzon sir. Rajendra said that he had gone other way as he wanted to see the location himself. As he did not arrive till late evening, we went searching him with the help of local people. As it was already dark, we lit lanterns and local people prepared masals (fire on sticks). As we walked uphill in the dark forest, we shouted, "Dak'saap!!" But, there was no trace of him and we had to return back dejectedly. In the camp, we had meeting with local people and decided to continue searching operation early next morning setting as many groups involving local people in each group. I could not sleep whole night. It was cold even inside sleeping bag, and I was worried about the condition of the Dr Yonzon. I prayed to God for his safety.

Next morning, as we were preparing to go for searching, we saw blur figure of a man in blue jacket emerging from jungle. "Dak'saap, ho kya ho?" (Is is Dr Yonzon?), someone shouted excitedly. We all took our binoculars and focused on him. He was indeed Dr Yonzon and we jumped on our feet and ran towards him. It was such a wonderful moment to see him. He drank tea and talked about previous night ordeal. As he was interrupted by an old man, he moved other way and lost in the jungle. Because of pitch-dark, it was impossible to find the way and he had to spend the night in the jungle. He selected top of the mound and surrounded the area with the toilet paper (strategy to be secure from tiger). But, next morning he found himself down at the bank of stream with sharp pain on back. He had fallen from the little hill in the night and become unconscious. "Last night, I was so thirsty that had someone given me a bottle of water, I would have given him my month's salary." he said. He also told the incidence about his missing in Langtang during Red Panda research.

He was taken back to Kathmandu immediately. He received medication for the spinal injury and had to rest for many months.

Dr Yonzon suggested to do bird and mammal survey in Barandabhar in every two years using same method. Subsequent surveys were carried out in 2000 and 2003 accordingly. During 2003 survey, one of the participants, Basu Bidari, was attacked by rhino near Bis Hazari Tal. Dr Yonzon refunded the medical expenses for the treatment of Mr. Bidari. Remaining work was postponed immediately after this incident but it was resumed later recruiting more bird watchers. Further survey in following years was not possible due to insurgency.

Dr Yonzon always encouraged us to involve in research activities and to participate in the conferences. He helped us to prepare the paper "Professionals in Nature Conservation" that was presented in Third National Conference on Science and Technology on behalf of BES in 1999. Under his supervision, we (me, Dadi Sapkota, Yogesh Adhikari and Khagendra Dhakal) conducted the Galliformes survey in Chitwan and prepared the report, "Galliformes in Chitwan Valley". Its poster was presented at the International Galliformes Symposium – Nepal 2000. Dr Yonzon did not attend the symposium because he was in Bhutan. Later, when he came to Chitwan, we showed him same poster that was presented in the symposium.

We conducted the bird survey in tandem with other biological surveys in far western Nepal in 2001 as a part of integrated research work to develop the Western Terai – Churiya Complex (WTCC). The Department of Forest and WWF Nepal had signed an agreement to develop the Western Terai – Churiya Complex and manage it at the landscape level as a single unit. Gokarna Khanal did the bird survey in Churiya while I was assigned in the lowland. Biological survey was done in predetermined sampling sites. The jeep had to go nearest possible place and then we walked crossing anything that came in our way: river, forest, hills, farmland, to arrive at the point. GPS point of location of jeep should also be noted to find the jeep upon returning.

There were two GPS in our team, one was taken by Arun Rijal (botanist) and other by Chandra Chaudhary (zoologist). When we were returning after finishing the survey in one of the sites in Laljhadi jungle, our GPS carried by Chandra did not work while Arun had already left, so we could not find the location of jeep and lost in the jungle. We eventually came out of the jungle to arrive in Dhekhatbhuli village.

Along with other biological reports, Resources Himalaya prepared bird report "Birds of the Western Terai – Churiya Region, Nepal" in June 2001.

During second ceasefire between government and the Maoists in 2003, elephant survey in far western Nepal of Kailali and Kanchanpur districts was conducted. We (me and Ganesh Adhikari) travelled in motorbike from Chitwan to Mahendranagar and began the survey from Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve. Information was mainly collected from villagers residing close to jungle about elephant movement, season, herd size and nature of crop damage. The sites (where elephant presence was recorded) were referenced using GPS. We were in constant touch with Dr. Yonzon through phone communication for his input and guidance.

Upon my arrival in the office, Bidur Baidhya immediately put the GPS points in GIS map of Kailali and Kanchanpur districts. Seeing the reference points in computer, Dr Yonzon said delightfully, "Report achha banchha." (Report will be excellent). He had already visualized the whole picture of the forth coming report. He loved to hear the field experience and inside stories that we shared. Villagers had told that elephants also come to drink jaad (locally brewed drink). In one occasion, an elephant raided a house in Tilkeni and people ran away leaving newly born baby on the bed, below which there was container filled with jaad. After the raid, people found bed upside down and container emptied but baby was safe on the floor at the corner.

Indeed the report (Spatial status and dispersion of the wild elephant in the Terai Arc Landscape of far west Nepal) was excellent. Later, summary of this report, in the form of paper: Failing forests fleeting flagship, was also published in Habitat Himalaya. I was reluctant to put my name as a principal author in this paper but Dr Yonzon persuaded me by putting his name at the introduction part.

The first Asia Section Meeting of Society for Conservation Biology with the theme 'Biology Conservation in Asia: Current Status and Future Perspectives' held in Kathmandu in November 2005. Dr Yonzon helped BES to organize the post-conference excursion to Chitwan for the participants.

During the Maoist insurgency, it is extremely difficult to conduct bird survey in jungle using binoculars. Many of my colleagues were hassled and intimidated by security personnel and rebels. My brother was arrested when he was watching through my binocular the incidence of bomb explosion near my house in Tandi. He was released shortly but the binocular was confiscated by army. Our field work had been limited and research program slowed down during the insurgency. However, we were working with Resources Himalaya in other frontiers.

Chitwan Campground was joint initiative of Resources Himalaya and BES that was established in Sauraha, Chitwan to educate and train students in the field biology and conservation education. Resources Himalaya provided land and financial support to construct the camp facilities and BES took up the management responsibility of the campground. Chitwan Campground was inaugurated by HE Mr Tsutomu Hiraoka, ambassador of Japan on February 9, 2007.

Workshop on 'Field Conservation Biology and Environment Science' was organized for Environmental Science Department Heads of 11 colleges/universities of Nepal. Workshop on 'Local Consultation on the Preparation of Elephant Action Plan' was also held at the campground on November 23-26, 2007.

Dr Yonzon supervised environmental students to design and develop the projects for their dissertation program in resource management. Those students were trained on field biology at the campground during October 2007.

BES in collaboration of partner organizations conducted several conservation awareness programs, trainings and workshops for local people and students at the campground.

BES could not manage and run the campground as per the objective of educating environmental students in field biology because it could not compete in term of price with other service providers (hotels and resorts) in Sauraha. So, colleges and universities would prefer to accommodate their students at the hotels. BES formally handed over the management of campground to Resources Himalaya on December 30, 2008. However, BES continued to work with Resources Himalaya on educating students on field biology.

Subsequent field training for graduates was organized in early 2009. Dr Yonzon invited board members of the Resources Himalaya and his own family members on this occasion. The evening at the campground was splendid as Dr Yonzon played guitar and sang melodious songs. I was surprised again to witness his yet another skill.

He always emphasized field biology for accurate information to acquire new-found knowledge. That science-based knowledge should be used to take correct decisions for sustainable management of natural resources. He knew that success of research initiatives rests on shoulders of young biologists. So he motivated and guided many students through mentorship programs to build the next generation of conservation leaders.

He had provided numerous books, environmental magazines, research papers and reports for the library of BES. He always gave us the final copy of the report of research work that we involved with. I enjoyed reading those reports and admired his analytical and interpretative skills. He had personally given me biology books (Principle of Conservation Biology, Conservation Biology in Asia, People and Protected Areas in South Asia).

His visit to Chitwan with family members continued. He took this opportunity to organize presentation program for BES members and nature guides. Last year, he delivered the slide presentation on vulture conservation. On January 15, 2011, he came to Chitwan with his extended family. In cordial environment among family and friends, he gave presentation about deer population in Mrigasthali. After this program, we had coffee together. Sadly that happens to be our last meeting.

Where you went is destiny for all. But, your departure is sudden and untimely that left us shocked and shattered. I miss you, but you live in my heart forever.


  1. It is the article, which reflects the spirit of research, the way of Dr. Yonzon. I really appreciate if it can be adopted in Nepali language. Many thanks Rupen ji.

  2. dr. yonzon, a real human being. we got to know dr.yonzon more closely through your article. thank you sir.

  3. The write-up makes one miss Dr. Yonjon even more! I hope what he sowed in his students like Rupen-ji would ripen that the nature conservation field could harvest them soon.
    Prem, Chitwan