The beautiful Nepali village of Sikles sits at an elevation of about 2000 metres and is backdropped by the spectacular Himalayan peaks of Annapurna II and Lamjung Himal. It’s also the birthplace of esteemed international environmentalist and Griffith University alumnus, Dr Hum Gurung.

Only the third person in this village of 4000 to receive a PhD, Dr Gurung has dedicated his professional life to environmental conservation and, in the process, has become a respected ambassador globally and for Griffith University.

For one who has achieved so much in his field, it’s difficult to imagine Dr Gurung may have pursued a career as a soldier.

“My childhood dream, like so many other ‘hill boys’ in Nepal, was to become a Gurkha soldier. The Gurkhas have such a formidable reputation at home and internationally. It would have been a great honour to serve,” he says.

“However, after high school I studied civil engineering in Kathmandu and that was where I saw a notice about the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). My conservation ideas and ideals really began at that point.”

Dr Gurung received a PhD (Conservation Tourism and Protected Areas) from Griffith University in 2008. Previously he completed bachelor and masters (Hons) degrees — specialising in Parks, Recreation and Tourism — at Lincoln University in New Zealand.

“It was a remarkable educational journey and my parents, who despite never going to school themselves, inspired me that education is not just about knowledge, but is an asset that no one can steal.”

Dr Gurung’s professional career began in 1986 when he served as a Conservation Officer and later Conservation Education and Extension Officer for ACAP, under the auspices of the National Trust for Nature Conservation in Nepal. ACAP has received several major awards for its work in the fragile Himalayan environment.

From 1997-2004, Dr Gurung worked for the United Nations Development Program as its National Program Manager of the Sustainable Community Development Program, otherwise known known as Nepal Capacity 21. He was also instrumental in the formulation of the Sustainable Development Agenda for Nepal at the National Planning Commission, chaired by the Prime Minister of Nepal.

Dr Gurung was CEO of Bird Conservation Nepal from 2009-12 before forming the Himalayan Sustainable Future Foundation. He has worked on a number of projects for the Government of Nepal.

Delicate balance of East and West

“One of my roles has been to provide leadership on resource management between villages,” says Dr Gurung. “This involves preservation and cultivation processes, as well as moves to cater for the influx and impact of tens of thousands of tourists each year. The balance of Eastern and Western values is also very important.

“We’ve also introduced innovations such as micro-power stations, and we continue to lead education and research programs.

“One of the biggest projects was the writing of the genealogy of our clan, which was particularly important because our clan worships nature as god. Nature conservation is our duty and way of life. This philosophy really guides my understanding of nature conservation and environmental sustainability.”

Since September 2015, Dr Gurung has been Network & Partner Development Manager for BirdLife International, based in Singapore and supporting BirdLife Asia’s partners in 16 countries.

He is also Asia Coordinator for Forests of Hope, a landscape level conservation program operating in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Furthermore, he has made impressive contributions to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“Climate change is the most challenging issue facing our mountain areas,” says Dr Gurung. “We need to adapt to ensure the continued balance of nature conservation and the local community.”

Efforts so far have yielded many achievements. For example, in 2014 the Conservation Area Management Committee in Nepal was awarded the UN Development Program’s Equator Prize Award. That same year, Dr Gurung received the Australian Alumni Award for Community Service in the Austrade Nepal Australia Alumni Excellence Awards.

He retains fond memories of Griffith University, where he was president of the Griffith University Nepal Club and a member of the Nepalese Association of Queensland. He maintains a strong relationship with Griffith via field courses in both ecotourism and conservation biology in Nepal.

While Dr Gurung continues to mentor and inspire young conservationists in Nepal and Asia through groups such as Conservation Leadership in Asia, he has not lost sight of where his environmental journey began.

“I maintain links with my people, especially those from Sikles and the mountain villages and remote areas of Nepal. These are people who are often voiceless and do not receive the same opportunities as others, particularly those from wealthier countries,” he says.