There was a time the snow leopard was considered a menace in Ladakh. Through the efforts of Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust, the same folks who once hunted the magnificent creature have today transformed into its guardians.
The snow leopard’s ascent
In the upper reaches of western Ladakh, villages that were once at war with snow leopards are now grateful for the tourism they bring
At 4,050m, Ulley village, nestled in the snow-capped mountains of the Ladakh range, is the highest in western Ladakh. A local resident has been a menace for the village over the years; that same resident is now making Ulley famous.
A 7km dirt track, which runs off the tarred road between the villages of Yangthang and Hemis-Shukpachan, leads to the hamlet—an hour’s distance from the busy highway that connects Leh and Kargil. In the winter months, you rarely spot a vehicle coming the other way, and the villagers in these distant parts usually have to walk to their destination, unless they are lucky enough to catch the lone bus that goes to Leh on alternate days.
There are just seven homes in Ulley, and until about 12 years ago, farming and livestock-rearing were the primary occupations. Snow leopards and wolves would prey on livestock, and villagers often killed those on the prowl.
But today, the snow leopard has transformed the lives of locals and is likely to do the same for other villages in Ladakh and Zanskar.
It’s in winter, from February- April, that snow leopards make their way down the slopes in order to mate; it’s the best time to spot one, and the promise of a sighting draws 40-50 groups of wildlife enthusiasts and experts to Ladakh each year.
The number of snow leopards in the Ladakh region has been estimated at 300-400. Not surprisingly, locals now look more kindly on these predators.
The change began in 2001, when the late Rinchen Wangchuk, who had founded the Snow Leopard Conservancy-India Trust (SLC-IT) the previous year, visited Ulley along with a photographer in search of the elusive cat.
Tsewang Nurboo, now 46, joined the party as a local guide, having learnt the essentials of tracking a snow leopard from his father, when the duo would climb up to high altitudes to allow their livestock to graze. “I received useful tips from my father, but it was always unnerving. I was told that the snow leopard always went for the last animal in the herd, as it was the slowest and the weakest, and my job was usually to bring up the rear. However, I’ve never heard of them attacking humans—I’ve seen one from 10m. They are gentle creatures, and we really had no issue with them besides the attack on our livestock,” says Nurboo.
His visit to the mountains with Wangchuk was unlike anything he had experienced before. “I received a fat tip from the photographer at the end of that trip. I had never made that much money in 10 days,” says Nurboo.
Wangchuk returned later that year and, with Nurboo’s help, explained the importance of the snow leopard to locals. Three years later, in 2004, the first home-stay was set up in Ulley, with SLC-IT’s help. It not only generated extra income for locals through snow leopard tourism, but also offered visitors an experience of rural Ladakh.
Ulley’s big secret was out.
The home-stay programme has expanded since to six other villages in western Ladakh, five in eastern Ladakh and six in the Zanskar region.
Through all this, attacks on livestock continued to trouble villagers. Realizing the potential of the snow leopard for the region, however, Nurboo became a local activist of sorts, rushing to the animal’s rescue time and again.
“I received a call once from Yangthang, where a snow leopard had killed 13 sheep and three cows. The villagers were ready to poison it,” Nurboo recalls. “Their primary complaint was that there would be no substantial compensation, and to prevent further loss, it was the only option they had. So I followed the trail, took some photos on spotting the beast and sent them across to a friend in Bengaluru who is into wildlife conservation. He helped them with adequate compensation, and they spared that snow leopard.”
In 2011, the SLC-IT launched a community-based livestock insurance programme in Ulley, Yangthang and Tarutsey. Last year, six animals were killed in Ulley, and the villagers received Rs.26,000 through the fund.
“In the past, villagers used to approach the wildlife department in Leh (which is 2 hours away) for compensation. But the procedure was long—they needed proof of the kill, and most (villagers) don’t have a camera—and the travel expenditure was more than the compensation they received,” says Rigzin Chorol, who handles the trust’s finances. The success of the insurance programme has encouraged the SLC-IT to expand it to Saspotse, Hemis-Shukpachan and Tia in western Ladakh, and they hope to start it in eastern Ladakh this year.
Insurance is not the only tool, however. “The man-animal conflict here is typically focused on the snow leopard killing livestock, and a simple solution was a wire-mesh to cover the roof of the enclosures, especially in the remote villages. The home-stay programme and insurance have helped compensate their losses,” says Tsewang Namgail, the director of SLC-IT.
Some of the funds generated go to a community fund that is used for the betterment of the entire village. In Ulley, for instance, the funds have been used to set up a solar-powered heater that provides hot water to local trekkers for a nominal fee—the fee goes back into the same pool. On an average, a village generates about Rs.8,000 annually from home-stays and the hot water fee.
The trust has even helped set up solar lights to deter predators. These lights are activated around dusk. “We mounted one on a stick near the animal enclosures for about eight months, during which there were no attacks recorded. However, the moment we removed it, attacks were reported,” says Tsewang Dolma, who is in charge of the religion and conservation programme in Zanskar.
They are making headway slowly. The trust has been conducting workshops for students in an attempt to spread awareness about Ladakh’s wildlife. Since 2006, its members have visited over 100 schools in the Ladakh and Zanskar regions.
“Since they come from an environment where they realize that predators cause harm to the community, they grow up with the mindset. We teach them about the ecosystem and how each one plays a part in it. We have seen a gradual change in the kids, who in turn go back home and guide their parents,” says Tsering Angmo, who is in charge of the trust’s education programme.
After analysing the feedback, the team designed a teaching kit, called Ri-Gyancha, that helps students learn about Ladakh’s flora and fauna through posters, flash cards, worksheets and activities.
The trust even brings in experts to train villagers in wood-carving and other crafts. Local raw materials are easy to source, and the finished products are popular with tourists, bringing in additional income for villagers.
Away from community work, the SLC-IT’s primary focus is on studying wildlife (carnivores, herbivores, birds) and ecology, in order to assess numbers and observe changes in behaviour due to climate change and human presence. Camera traps have been a major source of data for the researchers, though vast, remote territories have made it hard to estimate population.
Jigmet Dadul, who is in charge of field programmes, has been tracking snow leopards for 18 years and believes that although the predators have gone higher up into the mountains because of the increase in tourist activity and road construction work, tourism has also helped to save them. There were 29 sightings reported in the winter months of 2015, and 24 the year before. “It’s difficult to say if the snow leopard population has increased, but the sightings are more these days. This could simply be because there are more eyes scanning the mountains now,” says Dadul.
“What has definitely dropped drastically in the past few years is the number of retaliatory killings, especially around Leh. We are also receiving more calls now from villagers each time a predator is trapped in one of the livestock enclosures, which shows their change in attitude,” he says.
Last year, the SLC-IT was awarded the Earth Guardian award by the Royal Bank of Scotland for its efforts and it has got ample support from other organizations and volunteers, in addition to locals such as Nurboo.
The change is evident. Nurboo, who had an annual income of Rs.12,000 in 2002, today makes close to Rs.2 lakh through his home-stay and guided tours. With that money, he has enrolled his youngest son in a boarding school in Leh—ensuring that his son gets the kind of education he missed out on.
“I have seen my elders go after them (snow leopards) with guns, and those who didn’t have one would poison them or pound them to death once they were trapped. We used to steal their kills in the past—as revenge and to annoy them, hoping that they would go away. All that has changed. We now treat them like our own kids,” says Stanzin Namgail, Nurboo’s son.