May 11, 2022 6:33 PM EDT

Rinzin Phunjok Lama was 16 when he first saw a Himalayan snow leopard prowling the mountains near his home in northeastern Nepal—an encounter that changed his life. In the folklore of Lama’s Buddhist community, the snow leopard is a manifestation of the god of Nepal’s high mountain pastures, who appears on earth only when humans violate the natural order. In that moment, Lama says, he recognized that his homeland was in peril.

Lama, now 30, has since dedicated his life to wildlife conservation. Unlike thousands of young Nepalese who leave rural areas in search of work, Lama returned to his home in Humla after graduating from college with a forestry degree. Even in this remote corner of Nepal, the effects of climate change are clear, with ancient water sources drying up and once snow-capped mountains left bare.

Lama leads a team of trained conservationists who work to engage the community. They document and track threatened and endangered wildlife, facilitate workshops where local people share their knowledge of the landscape, and run clubs for children to learn about conservation from an early age.

Tashi R. Ghale—Rolex

What makes Lama’s project unique is that it’s driven entirely by the people it serves. Outsiders have previously brought sustainability efforts to the region and failed to make a lasting impact because they often did not understand the local culture, he says. “Gaining community trust should be the first step,” Lama says.

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One challenge to that has been high levels of food insecurity and poverty in the area—which makes it harder to convince people that conservation should be a priority. To show that it’s possible to reap the benefits of the land without exploiting it, Lama’s team has launched initiatives teaching beekeeping or helping locals to sell handicrafts. “The people leading this project, we’re from here,” he says. “There can be no prouder moment than this for us.”

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