Photo: Ben Baker
Buddhist Dekila Chungyalpa founded the World Wildlife Fund Sacred Earth program. The group works with religious leaders in Asia on environmental initiatives such as the conservation of tigers, whose numbers in the wild have dwindled to 3,200.
Her eco aha! moment: "I was born in Sikkim, a tiny state in India, in the Himalayas. As a child, I'd go into the forest to forage for chestnuts, but I was always distracted by the wildlife around me. Once, I saw a red panda—they're very rare, and very lazy—up in the trees. Another time, from across the river, I saw a mother bear and her two little black cubs. From a young age, it was obvious to me that all life on Earth is sacred."
Her work: Chungyalpa is encouraging religious leaders in the so-called Tiger States (countries where the world's remaining tigers live) to speak out on behalf of the animals.
"There's a reverence for life in Buddhism and Hinduism, but it's hard to fight the commercialism around wildlife," she says. In China, for example, delicacies like tiger penis soup, thought to increase virility, sell for hundreds of dollars, meaning local Himalayan communities often have much more to gain from aiding the poachers than from protecting the tigers. Chungyalpa is working to provide alternative income sources, such as ecotourism.
What's next: Chungyalpa recently persuaded Cambodian Buddhist monks to patrol the banks of the Mekong River to help protect the endangered Mekong dolphin, whose numbers have fallen below 100 as a result of the use of illegal gill nets.