Snow Leopards Earn Their Keep in Tourist Dollarsby ipsintern ( )
By Iris Philips
JAMMU, Sep 18 (IPS/IFEJ) - Tsring Angmo a student from Rumbak village in Ladakh attended a workshop conducted by the Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC) in India out of sheer curiosity. "I came away feeling responsible for the safety of the endangered animal,'' she said.
Angmo received training to track the endangered big cat using 'cyber tracker' devices and also to work as a nature guide in Ladakh, a cold, dry, high-altitude region of northern Jammu and Kashmir state.
Cyber Tracker software, when fed into ordinary smart phones and hand-helds, transforms them into devices that enable local communities to get better involved in local biodiversity issues. The synergy between indigenous knowledge and modern information and communication (IC) technology has been found to vastly improve environmental monitoring.
''The signs recorded by the trackers are fed into computers to make a map of the spots where sightings are common,'' explained Rigzin Tundup, an engineer from Ang village who also became a champion of the snow leopard survival after attending the SLC workshop.
A group of about 20 Ladakhi youths trained by SLC use trackers to regularly monitor the now leopard population. During summers, they earn money working as nature guides and escort trekkers to areas where snow leopard sightings are possible.
Shy by nature snow leopards are rarely spotted even by the Ladakhi herders who share their mountain habitat. But this only whets the appetite of tourists and wildlife enthusiasts who may stay on in the area for days till a sighting is made.
SLC began its conservation programme in and around the 3,350 sq km Hemis National Park in 2000. That was after a survey conducted in Ladakh in 1998 showed that the people of the Markha valley and surrounding hamlets lost 12 percent of their livestock to predators. Each family of herders lost on the average six animals for a total economic loss in the park of some 23,500 dollars.
Distributed across Central Asia, there are only around 4,500 to 7,500 snow leopards left in the wild. The animal's habitat is connected to the availability of its main prey species -- bharal or the Himalayan blue sheep, found in the Himalayas and Tibet, and ibex found in the Karakorum , Mongolian and Russian mountain ranges.
Threats to the dwindling species include depletion of prey base, poaching, degradation of mountain environment and escalating man-animal conflict. Ladakh is one of the last snow leopard havens left on the planet.
Due to depletion of its natural prey base, the snow leopards had begun preying on livestock raised by local herders. That turned the elusive animal into a despised predator and revenge killings by herders began to threaten its existence.
It does not help the snow leopard that its luxuriant pelt, coloured a soft grey with solid brown or black spots, is highly prized. Snow leopard bones and other body parts are also in demand for use in traditional Asian medicine. Although trade in snow leopard fur and parts is illegal, it is reported continuing.
"We realised that there was a critical need for intervention, but conservation is impossible without community stewardship," says Rinchen Wangchuk, director, SLC, India. So SLC launched a participatory conservation and monitoring programme.
With UNESCO's support, SLC started an awareness campaign among members of the local community about the social and economic benefits of wildlife protection. Programmes to train local youth to work as nature guides were also started with support from the Wildlife Department, Jammu & Kashmir.
Most of the local people were solely dependant on agriculture and herding for their income. In order to provide them an additional source of income and raise living standards, SLC offered to provide help with the Himalayan homestay projects in villages. These projects host tourists, many of them foreign nationals, in Ladakhi homes and give them a chance to enjoy traditional hospitality. The majority of Ladakhis are Buddhists, and their cultural practices are very similar to those of Buddhist Tibetans.
SLC agreed to give technical and financial help to tourism activities in villages if no snow leopard or cubs were killed by residents of the villages.
Ten percent of profits from homestay projects would go into a village conservation fund. Seventy families in the sparsely populated Ladakh and Zanskar and 30 families in Spiti are part of the project now. Each family earned an average of Rs 4,000 (98 US dollars) in the last tourist season.
"I can send my children to a better school thanks to the additional income," says Padma Dolma of Rumbak. "We gladly contribute to the village conservation fund since we have realised that the snow leopard is an ornament of our mountains."
The move to make animal pens predator-proof was another turning point in the thaw in relations between the big cat and the local community. "We used to stay awake all night in the biting cold to guard our animal pens," says Tashi Largyal from Sku-Kaya village.
SLC distributed material to local herders to improve livestock enclosures and make them predator proof. "Now we can lock up our sheep and goats in the pens and go home. Snow leopards don't enter the pens, and have gone back to hunting bharal," says a relieved Largyal.
Largyal's village recently erected a board to attract nature lovers and ecotourists to Ladakh. It reads: welcome to the snow leopard capital of the world!
"SLC is doing commendable work to deal with conservation versus livelihood issues," says C.M. Seth, director, State Forest Research Institute, Jammu & Kashmir. "Their efforts are a perfect example of how attitudinal changes can be achieved by motivating local communities to take over the stewardship of conservation."
(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS-Inter Press Service and IFEJ-International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)