Dawn was just breaking into Ladakh’s Chilling village and Tundup Tsomo, 65, walked to the corral to feed her sheep and goats like she did every day. But on this morning there was an eerie silence. Convinced something was amiss, she laid down the bundles of grass and hurried to investigate. Her worst fears were confirmed: all the 25 sheep and goats lay dead, their necks snapped from their bodies, and in their midst was a snow leopard feasting calmly on one of its prey. Tsomo did not panic. She told her son Tsewang Rigzen to call the Wildlife Protection Department in Leh. “We wanted them to come and rescue the snow leopard and return it safely to its habitat,” said Rigzen. When Khenrab Phuntsog and Smalna Tsering, forest guards at Ladakh’s Hemis National Park arrived, Rigzen helped in the rescue. But Tsomo, Rigzen, and residents of Chilling have not always been so large-hearted about the predator in their midst. In the past livestock losses have led to retaliatory attacks on the snow leopard.
Every year, about 21 to 45 snow leopards are killed in India, according to a 2016 report by Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network. While some are killed following livestock loss, others are poached for their skin, bone, and claws. It is estimated that a little over 500 of a global population of 6,500 snow leopards live in India. So what has changed? A few years ago Rigzen became a part of a homestay initiative, where tourists flocking to see the big cat live with local families. Pioneered in 2002 by the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT) based in Ladakh in partnership with the Hemis National Park, the homestay project — designed to give villagers an income to offset losses caused by the predator — has begun to see results. Homestay owners today earn anything between ₹2 lakh and ₹3 lakh annually. In short, the ‘ghost cat’ has become a vital source of business — and it is more valuable alive than dead. And so even if one gets trapped in a corral, it is unlikely to be killed. As for tourists, they now regularly report seeing the animal in Hemis from just 50-200 metres away.
The project gives tourists a first-hand experience of Ladakhi culture and cuisine. Registered with the tourism department, these licensed homestays charge ₹1000 a day for accommodation, breakfast, packed lunch, dinner, filtered water, and tea. All homestays have eco-friendly dry compost toilets to conserve the scarce supply of water in the region. Each owner contributes 10% of their income to a village fund handled by women’s groups.
Change in attitude
Rumbak, a village located in the Hemis National Park area, was the first to be chosen for the project by SLC-IT. It was then taken forward by the State government to the 21 settlements in the Hemis area popular with tourists for snow leopard sightings and trekking. Spearheaded by Phuntsog and Tsering, the initiative has so far engaged 164 families.“We tried to encourage the community to understand that coexisting with the snow leopard could be profitable, so they take ownership for its protection. Their attitudinal change has certainly boosted survival chances of the animal,” said Phuntsog.The last scientific survey conducted through camera traps by Phuntsog and Tsering in 2012 puts snow leopard numbers at 60 in Hemis, compared to 40 in 2006.They are in the process of setting up camera traps to update their records. But setting up cameras in the rocky terrain can be fraught with danger.
Tsering has been lucky to have got away with some injuries when he slipped off a steep cliff while installing a camera trap once. This courage and dedication to protect the snow leopard in partnership with the community won the duo the prestigious 2017 Earth Heroes award instituted by the Royal Bank of Scotland. As snow leopard numbers have increased, so have the tourists. And this has fuelled a demand for nature guides. So as an extension to the homestays, local people are now being trained and certified as nature guides by SLC-IT and the Wildlife Department. Tamchos Kaya, 26, is a trained snow leopard spotter. “My mother owns a homestay and as a certified snow leopard spotter, I take the tourists for animal sightings. Now, I earn up to ₹1.5 lakh annually,” he says proudly.
(Text Source: The Hindu)
Tags: Khenrab Phutsong | Hemis National Park | Ladakh | Snow Leopard | Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT)