©Tashi R. Ghale.
Award winner 2024
Location: Nepal

Rinzin Phunjok Lama

Rinzin Phunjok Lama is a Conservation Biologist who works closely with local communities to safeguard the elusive snow leopards in the remote mountains of Nepal. Through his community-led programme, he empowers youth, defuses human-wildlife conflicts, and strengthens people’s cultural connections with nature.


Rinzin is a proud member of the Nyinba indigenous community of the Humla district of Nepal, a region where people and snow leopards share their space. Snow leopards are a flagship species and have an important role as apex predators within their mountain habitat. While this iconic feline holds a strong cultural connection to local communities and is even seen as sacred, livestock killings by snow leopards have led to retaliatory actions by herders. Being the largest non-protected area in Nepal, the Humla region poses additional threats to the species, including poaching and habitat destruction.

After seeing wild snow leopards for the first time in 2007 in his native region, Rinzin dedicated his life to studying and protecting this mysterious species. Founding the Upper Karnali Landscape Initiative (UKALI), Rinzin aims to strengthen community-led biodiversity conservation. The programme includes many aspects such as capacity-building, scientific training, education and awareness-raising, patrolling, and conflict mitigation. Currently, UKALI is active in 40 community forests and has established two youth-led conservation groups, and eight school-level eco clubs, and organised multiple conservation activities in five rural municipalities in Humla.

The harsh circumstances within the Nepalese mountains make the conservation task challenging. Despite the absence of fundamental amenities, dangerous environments, and remoteness and isolation of the habitat, Rinzin’s indigenous roots enable him to persist. He is considered the first conservationist from Humla and is proud to empower and work with other first-generation conservationists from his local communities.

Vision and approach

Rinzin’s approach “leading by locals” aims to create an impactful community-led conservation programme that preserves the Humla mountain region’s rich biodiversity through shared ownership. As a local himself, Rinzin understands communities’ wildlife-conflicts as no other. He empowers locals to use their valuable experience and indigenous knowledge to co-create a multilayered conservation programme.

Impact of the Future For Nature Award

With the FFN Award prize money Rinzin will:

  • Strengthen his existing efforts and scale up his current conservation work to other valleys to further protect biodiversity in the region.
  • Work on grassroot conservation mobilization and leadership development, in line with his “leading by locals” principle.
  • Monitor the population status, patrol illegal activities, and mitigate human-wildlife conflict.
Rinzin integrates Indigenous wisdom with modern scientific practices in conservation policy and implementation, and is a driving force behind genuine grassroots conservation initiatives.
Saba Douglas-Hamilton