As the winter dawns upon the semi-arid deserts of Ladakh, a white ghost emerges in search of prey. Often, it stands magnificent at the edge of a descending cliff, scrutinising the far-reaching acres of the mountainous land. Catch a glimpse of the snow leopard is a lifelong dream for many. Amidst this, Dr Tsewang Namgail, the Disney Conservation Hero Award winner and pioneer of sustainable tourism in the Himalayas, has been working hard with his team to conserve the snow leopard country.
In this interview, Dr Tsewang Namgail, Director of Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT), talks about climate variability in Ladakh, the double-edged sword of tourism and the importance of eco-tourism. With concentrated efforts, Namgail and his team helped turn a wild predator into a friend of local livelihood. Recently, to push forward such conservation efforts, SLC-IT has collaborated with Royal Enfield.
Can you share a memorable success story or a particularly challenging situation you encountered while working on the conservation of the elusive snow leopard?
The snow leopard is an elegant and iconic species. It is the barometer of the health of ecosystems in the highest altitude areas, including Ladakh. Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust has been at the forefront when it comes to eco-tourism, mostly in terms of establishing homestays. Convincing local communities to open their homes was quite challenging. At the beginning of this programme, the late Rinchen Wangchuk, co-founder of SLC-IT, talked to the villagers personally. So initially, it took a lot of bargaining.
On the other hand, flagship programmes such as corral construction to secure local communities and their livestock have been very rewarding. Earlier, losing livestock to the snow leopard would leave many farmers angry. And so, the construction of the corral (livestock enclosure) was significant. This intervention allowed them to soften their attitude towards the snow leopard.
I remember one particular incident in the Zanskar Valley, where I assessed the corrals's efficacy in one of these very remote villages. When I inquired if our intervention had been helpful, one of the women began to cry. The reason being that earlier, they had to sleep outside the corral to guard the livestock from the snow leopards. But now, with a secure corral, they could sleep in the comfort of their homes and spend more quality time with their family members. These moments are very encouraging for any conservationist.
One of your research areas includes the impact of climate variability/change of snow upon the snow leopard habitat. Can you elaborate on the same?
First of all, thanks for distinguishing between climate variability and climate change. Speaking about Ladakh, until very recently, we did not have a lot of data to support climate change though people did feel the temperature rise. Unless you have some 30 years of temperature and precipitation data, you cannot state that the climate is changing. But now, we do have some data. The climate is really changing. As far as the impact of climate change on snow leopards is concerned, all of us know that climate change impacts many species across the planet, including the local communities in the Himalayas.
For example, I have been observing the Himalayan marmot, a rodent species that the snow leopard preys on, especially during summer. A preliminary study indicates that many such prey species, including the Himalayan marmots, are moving upwards. Accordingly, the snow leopard is bound to track its prey and follow its upslope.
And that said, we did another study on the signs of snow leopards at different altitudinal bands. As a result, we found a higher concentration of fresh snow leopard signs at the high-altitude bands in certain valleys. Lastly, many people have been conducting studies indicating that the tree line is also shifting upwards. But the snow leopard does not do well in the forested areas. This is very concerning because you have only that much land in the mountain areas. As you go higher, the land surface area should decline. Hence, this push upward push might lead the snow leopard to a situation where it would not have enough area to move and survive.
Can you provide a broad overview of the current status of snow leopard populations in Ladakh and Spiti Is the trend positive or negative?
The snow leopard remains an elusive creature. It is difficult to spot, let alone count. That said, there have been certain technologies that scientists have been using across the snow leopard range. Yet only about 5 per cent of the snow leopard range has been covered. Accordingly, most of the numbers that are thrown out are guesstimates at best.
If you talk about Ladakh, our guesstimate is about 250 to 300 individuals. This is based on our camera trapping technology that we had set up at Zanskar in the early 2000s. With the help of this technology, we covered some 5000 square kilometres, and so if you extrapolate that to the entire Ladakh, which is about 65 to 70,000 square kilometres, we concluded our final count. But I think we still need to cover larger areas for a reliable estimate. For example, Ulley Valley in Ladakh can be studied to a greater extent.
Subsequently, eco-tourism has helped stop the retaliatory killings of the snow leopard. This has had a positive bearing on the population. However, on the whole, we don't have the benchmark data.
What are the main threats to snow leopards in India, and what conservation measures are being implemented to address these threats?
As far as Ladakh is concerned, the most critical threat remains angry farmers who retaliate against snow leopards when they get inside the livestock pens.
The other threats that we have been facing include free-ranging dogs. They have been a major threat to the prey species of snow leopards like marmots. They also kill lizards and ground-nesting birds. Many organisations have been trying to control these dog populations, but they haven't been very successful. Free-ranging dogs are very fast breeders. Many dogs are attracted to tourist camps, where there aren't any wet waste management systems. These posts then become the breeding hubs. For instance, the dogs circle the area in Pangong, where so many tourists go. When these camps are wrapped up around autumn, these dogs have nowhere to go. And so they just disperse in the nearby villages and also in the mountainous areas where they kill whatever comes their way.
Lastly, over-tourism in itself is a major issue. Tourism is a double-edged sword. So, educating tourists about the peculiarity of an ecosystem like Ladakh is important.
Coming to your collaboration with Royal Enfield, What projects have you been working on to protect the habitat of snow leopards?
Royal Enfield is doing great work all across Ladakh. Last year, we conducted a three-day training for taxi drivers since they engage with tourists the most. When tourists come in, it is usually not their fault. It is just a lack of awareness. For example, the feeding of marmots has been a significant issue in Ladakh. During the training, we taught them how feeding these animals will make them lose their natural capability of finding food in nature and will also spread diseases.
Another incidence of lack of awareness came with the opening of the Umling La, the highest motorable road in Ladakh. Right next to Umling La is a small valley named Hanle. Hanle has a small population of Tibetan gazelle, which amounts to the only population of Gazelle in Ladakh. But when many tourists go off-roading, these animals are likely to be disturbed.
Also, in the homestays that we set up with the Royal Enfield, we discourage local people from having flush toilets and encourage them to use composting toilets, which is the Ladakhi tradition that prevents groundwater pollution. This is a win for everyone, including the wild animals, where waterborne diseases are prevented.
Can you share the link between establishing homestays and snow leopard conservation?
It all boils down to the social economy of the people. By establishing homestays, we help generate livelihood. This income helps the locals become conservation partners because otherwise, the hostility to wild animals remains. Wild predators destroy crops and kill livestock, which is an income drain. By opening homestays, the loss can be diluted. Also, about 10 per cent of the proceeds from homestays go towards a village conservation fund, which is utilised around the restoration of habitat and cleaning of trekking trails and the villages.
After your intervention, how has the attitude changed in terms of conservation?
Before the intervention, people used to kill wolf pups and snow leopards. Today, the same people attract many of these animals to their villages. And so, that is rewarding. The hostile attitude towards all these wild predators has softened, and now they look at them as an income generation opportunity. So, we turned the despised cat into a tourism asset. The snow leopard is also gentle and not aggressive. It never attacks human beings, unprovoked. Also, it is against Buddhist values to take innocent lives. With our efforts, we only helped restore these values.