Photographer Morup Namgail's Quest For The Ghost Of The Himalayas
They call it the "ghost of the Himalayas," a magnificent predator shrouded in secrecy. But in December 2023, the stars aligned for a young photographer and the world witnessed a stunning sight—a snow leopard, bathed in starlight, frozen in a breathtaking image. This wasn't just any photo; it was the first ever to capture the elusive snow leopard under a starry sky, a testament to the skill of Morup Namgail, a 28-year-old photographer from the remote village of Ulley, located approximately two hours away from Leh.
This wasn't the only positive development for the endangered species. Shortly after, a survey by the Wildlife Institute of India revealed a glimmer of hope—a promising increase in snow leopard populations across India, with Ladakh boasting the highest numbers. But the journey to true recovery remains demanding.
Intrigued by the image and the reassuring numbers, we sat down with Namgail to delve deeper. Join us as we explore the story behind the viral photo, Ladakh's unique challenges and treasures, and the ongoing fight to protect these elusive ghosts.
Tell us the story behind the photo.
My motivation to combine stars and snow leopards in photography stems from childhood memories in Ladakh. Here, the clear skies reveal many stars, and counting them with siblings on rooftops used to be a bedtime ritual for us.
The idea crystallised when I pondered how to differentiate my work from the usual photographs of snow leopards that visitors captured. Inspired by technology, I explored camera trapping to create unique and creative photos.
However, this endeavour proved challenging, requiring expertise, luck, and the alignment of various factors. Capturing images only during dark, moonlit nights, which occur roughly 15 days a month, added an element of rarity. External factors, such as equipment functionality and weather conditions, further contributed to the difficulty.
Despite these challenges, my dedication paid off. After approximately six months, I successfully captured the photograph, blending the allure of stars with the snow leopards in their natural habitat.
What was unique about snow leopards that drew you to capture their photos?
My perspective on snow leopards has evolved significantly. Initially disliked as a child, they now hold a special place in my heart. This shift is noteworthy because local communities misunderstood and disliked these creatures until a few years back.
In contemplating conservation efforts, I realised the importance of not just focusing on capturing or studying snow leopards but understanding their role in the broader ecosystem. They represent a keystone species, and the landscape they inhabit is integral to our shared home. Recognising the interconnectedness of all elements in the ecosystem, I appreciate that the landscape is not just a dry expanse but a rich tapestry of resources that sustains life.
This understanding highlights the need for solid relationships and interconnections within the ecosystem. While humans often perceive themselves as the dominant species, maintaining a healthy balance requires every element in its rightful place.
Let's talk about Norbu, your father, a snow leopard spotter. Given his deep connection to Ladakh, how does his traditional knowledge complement your work?
My father has played a pivotal role in my journey, having experienced a unique transition from being a shepherd to an expert snow leopard spotter. With the onset of tourism, his expertise in professionally locating snow leopards became evident.
His wealth of knowledge became a cornerstone in my career, especially in photographing animals. His insights on blending into the mountainous surroundings and maintaining silence while spotting wildlife were invaluable. These seemingly small details collectively shaped my approach to wildlife photography.
You have a decent following on social media. As someone connected to the beauty and ecology of Ladakh, how do you utilise your platform to raise awareness about environmental concerns in the region?
My approach is rooted in the belief that local voices and perspectives hold immense power in fostering a sense of responsibility for conservation within the community. It's not just about showcasing images; it's about leveraging my local identity to make conservation a shared endeavour and encouraging others to take ownership of the natural heritage. Through all my photos and videos, I aim to convey the message that we share our home with these magnificent creatures.
With the increased influx of tourists in Ladakh, how do you perceive its impact on the environment and local culture? And how crucial do you think responsible tourism is for Ladakh?
Maintaining responsible and sustainable tourism is paramount, particularly in regions like Ladakh. The challenge lies in ensuring the longevity of the tourism industry while keeping it environmentally conscious and beneficial for local communities.
Responsible travel and hosting emerge as the key principles to navigate this delicate balance. The concept transcends individual efforts, necessitating a cohesive approach from the entire community. As organisers of tours, travel agencies shoulder a significant responsibility, as do drivers who transport visitors to various destinations.
Yet, the responsibility doesn't end there. Tourists themselves play an equal role in ensuring the sustainability of the destination. It requires a conscious effort to avoid an overly self-centred approach and consider the impact of their actions on the destination's future.
What challenges do the local community face, and do you believe your photography sheds light on them?
Tourism, community, and environmental challenges are intertwined, and addressing them holistically is essential. Traditional practices, religious beliefs, and reverence for natural elements in Ladakh, such as sacred spring waters and glaciers, have been ingrained for generations. These beliefs have historically prevented any harm or pollution to these holy sources. However, less noticeable things, like shifts in animal habitats due to vegetation changes at higher elevations, also deserve attention. Photography is a powerful medium to bring attention to these less-discussed aspects of environmental change.
How did the efforts of the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT) impact the village and Ladakh in terms of conservation and addressing human-wildlife conflicts?
The SLC-IT's journey began with introducing the locals to the diverse wildlife of Ladakh. The introduction of conservation programs, such as the homestay initiative and livestock insurance, marked a significant turning point. The homestay program brought in a modest revenue stream and played a crucial role in bridging the gap between the community and the region's wildlife.
The livestock insurance program emerged as a practical solution to the conflict between human activities and snow leopards. Providing reimbursement for losses incurred due to predator attacks lessened the economic impact on the community and fostered a sense of coexistence. This initiative became a valuable tool for harmonising the relationship between the local population and the snow leopards in the region.
Tell us about your homestay and lodge. When were they established, and what was the initial idea behind them?
The establishment of our lodge and homestay wasn't initially a planned venture. It started with a modest plan to add a few rooms for our family members. As the construction progressed, the idea evolved into accommodating tourists in the homestay, which has two rooms.
Over the years, the demand grew, prompting us to expand and build a lodge in 2009. By 2011-2012, we recognised its potential to become a viable business. Currently, the lodge has six operational rooms.