Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust: Saving an elusive species in India

High in the mountains of the Himalayas lives one of the most elusive animals on the planet: the snow leopard. Read about the Snow Leopard Conservancy now!

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High in the mountains of the Himalayas lives one of the most iconic and secretive animals on the planet: the snow leopard. It is the top predator of its environment and plays an important role in maintaining balance in the alpine ecosystems. Unfortunately, its existence is threatened by a wide range of threats and it is now one of the most endangered species of big cats. In the isolated state of Ladakh, the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT) has spent almost 20 years researching this elusive big cat and working with local farmers to find solutions to preserve both the leopards and the livelihoods of people. In this article, we talk to Tsewang Namgail, the current director of the India Trust. 

Geographically, Ladakh forms part of the wider Kashmir Region. It sits on the western reaches of the Himalayan Mountain Range and on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, known as the Chang Tang. Despite having a very dry climate, there is a very high diversity of bird and mammal species living at these high altitudes. Herds of wild yak, Tibetan Wild Ass (Kiang), Argali and Tibetan Antelope (Chiru) still traverse the Chang Tang, while mountain goats and sheep like blue sheep, ibex and Ladakh urial roam the mountain slopes and valleys. Large flocks of migrating birds, including two highly threatened  species of crane, either migrate through Ladakh or breed around wetlands in the region. There are also a number of species of large predators living here, from golden eagles to the Himalayan brown bear. But out of all of these animals, it is the snow leopard that is the most iconic resident of the mountains. 

It is only in recent years that it has become even remotely possible to see snow leopards in the wild. Up until the end of the 20th century, it was virtually impossible to see a wild snow leopard. They have massive home ranges, are incredibly well camouflaged and live in very inaccessible areas. This made Tsewang Namgali’s first ever encounter with not one but two snow leopards at close quarters all the more special. “People would equate the snow leopard to the North American Sasquatch or the Himalayan Yeti. You would hear about them but you would never see one.” It was, for all intents and purposes, an almost mythical creature. 

This status as an almost-mythical creature makes the snow leopard being referred to as “the ghost of the mountains” very apt. But it is simply an animal that is perfectly adapted to mountain life. It has thick fur to shield it from the cold, a very long thick tail for counter-balance and a coat pattern that helps it merge with its surrounding landscape. They are masters of camouflage and can perform death-defying acts when pursuing their prey. Being an apex predator (a predator that is at top of the food chain) and a keystone species (an organism that plays a critical role in maintaining the health of an ecosystem), the snow leopard fills a critically important ecological role in the mountains. As one of the main predators of wild sheep and goats such as the  blue sheep and ibex, they help to control the populations of these grazers. This in turn helps to prevent overgrazing, which is critical in a dry region. Not only does this enhance the growth of plants on the slopes, it also prevents erosion and increases reliance against flooding. Mountains with a healthy snow leopard population will be far more resilient in the face of the effects of climate change. 

The importance of the snow leopard to the ecology of the mountains is one of the main focal points of the research that the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust conducts. With a range that stretches across 12 countries from Afghanistan to Mongolia, the snow leopard is in essence a widespread animal . Yet despite its range, the snow leopard is one of the most endangered big cats in the world. While it is very hard to gauge their exact population, it is estimated to be around 5000 to 7500 individuals remaining and the population is still declining. 

Founded in 2000, the Snow Leopard Conservancy works with snow leopards across their global range, with the India Trust being just one branch of the organization. In 2003, the India Trust of the Conservancy became an independent non-profit organization. With the snow leopard facing extinction, the conservation of this species is the top priority of the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust. However, conservation (and this applies to anywhere in the world) cannot succeed without working with local communities. The Trust focuses specifically on conserving the mountain ecosystems and wildlife in collaboration with the local communities, encouraging innovative grass-roots measures (making changes from the ground up) that encourage people to become better stewards of the environment around them.

The greatest threat to the existence of snow leopards in Ladakh specifically, according to Tsewang, is retaliatory killings by livestock owners. Livestock are most vulnerable to snow leopards when they are inside their pens, which are designed to keep them in but not to keep snow leopards out. When a snow leopard does jump inside, it will often kill multiple animals. For livestock owners, this can represent a serious threat to their livelihoods and survival. In the early 2000s, the Snow Leopard Conservancy started working with farmers in Ladakh to find solutions to the problem, which included working to make the corrals predator-proof. Conservationists provide the locals with materials like wire mesh, frames and wooden beams in order to fortify the corrals. The wire mesh forms a roof to cover the enclosure, while the beams support  the wire-mesh. These new corrals have proven to be extremely effective in keeping out not just snow leopards, but also Tibetan wolves, with a 95% success rate overall. This has in turn saved both the predators and the livelihoods of farmers. 

Because of the livestock losses, there was a very strong anti-predator mindset among the local communities living in Ladakh. To change this, the Conservancy has initiated several initiatives to help local communities to generate forms of income through having snow leopards and other large animals around. These additional sources of income can in turn help offset livestock  losses to snow leopards and other predators, which unfortunately will never be reduced to zero. In recent years there has been an influx of domestic as well as international tourists, with around 300,000 people visiting Ladakh per year on average over the few summer months. Many people actually travel to the region to try and see snow leopards. In turn, these people traveling into the mountainous areas to search for snow leopards and other animals can provide economic opportunities for local communities throughout Ladakh. 

The Himalayan Homestays Program was set up to try and do just that, providing tourists with a different experience. Instead of just camping in the mountains and just passing through the villages, they now have the opportunity to stay in the villages. This gives them the opportunity to fully experience and be immersed in the local culture in an authentic way. Not only is it an eco-friendly initiative, but more importantly, it is socially responsible. Since 2002, Tsewang says that the Snow Leopard Conservancy in India has trained about 200 families in Ladakh to offer homestays to tourists. The initiative is able to provide benefits to both wildlife and people. People are now earning an income because tourists are staying in their homes while searching for snow leopards in the mountains around their villages. Today, instead of being hunted, snow leopards are being encouraged to come closer to villages. 

The increase in tourism has also given rise to several smaller scale grassroots initiatives in these villages, which include local women running eco-cafes on mountain roads and trails. In this case, conservationists provide basic cooking utensils and gas while the groups sell locally produced food, which provides them with an income while also preventing littering. In a further attempt to reduce littering, they will refill tourists’ water bottles instead of selling them bottled water. There is also a handicraft development program, where the Trust helps local communities to promote their traditional arts and crafts which can be sold to guests who visit their homes. Many of the products are crafted from yak and sheep wool, which can then be made into figurines of animals, among other things. This can have dual benefits, because it gives additional value to the livestock and also serves to educate people about local wildlife.

Tsewang  strongly emphasizes the importance of education in conservation initiatives. It is crucial to not just bring awareness about snow leopards but also about the other species that share space with them. The education programs are aimed at helping the local people to learn about their local wildlife and to view them as more than just intruders in the mountains around their villages. This is very important as a number of species of animals come into conflict with humans in Ladakh. For example, Tibetan wolves are persecuted far more often than snow leopards owing to livestock predation, and even Himalayan brown bears sometimes enter livestock corrals. The snow leopard’s prey, like blue sheep, can compete  with livestock overgrazing the vegetation on the mountain slopes and marmots, a large rodent, have been reported damaging crops in fields. As people living in Ladakh aren’t taught about the wildlife that are unique to the region, the Conservancy has been creating contextualized content in the form of booklets and pamphlets for children. An example of the impact that initiatives like this are having is that more and more people are referring to mountain sheep and goats by their names (like ibex, urial  or bharal) instead of calling them “deer”, which are there in the school textbooks but absent in the area.

The India Trust, which carries out all the snow leopard conservation work in Ladakh, is made up of ten members, including Tsewang as the director. Alongside the permanent staff, there are often small groups of volunteers present. The Trust’s volunteer program is a vital element in the Trust achieving its conservation goals. It is also a fantastic opportunity for people from around the world, in particular university students, to get involved and help with the conservation of the snow leopard. The volunteers can stay with the team for anywhere from a month to six months and are involved in a wide range of projects. Volunteers help carry out surveys of snow leopards, wolves and their prey animals, assist villagers in building the livestock corrals, conduct education workshops in schools and universities and help to evaluate the homestays involved in the program. 

According to Tsewang, the Conservancy is working to expand its research and conservation initiatives into other parts of Ladakh, working with more farmers to construct more corrals and expanding the homestays program to bring in other families. The work that the Snow Leopard Conservancy has done, both with its research and its conservation work with the local communities, can provide important lessons and insights for everyone. As Tsewang stated, “We have a finite planet with infinite desires and aspirations.” Essentially, if we want to live on an intact and functioning planet, we need to carefully think about how we interact with the world around us. 

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