Protecting the Ghost Cat of the HimalayasIn Ladakh, Hunters Turn Protectors of the Elusive Snow Leopard Through an Eco-Tourism Initiative
There may only be 5,000-7,000 snow leopards left in the world. This beautiful – and endangered – species is found in the inhospitable and treacherous mountain highlands of Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Over a total area of 75,000 square kilometres spread across Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, India is home to 300 -700 snow leopards.
The presence of snow leopards indicates a healthy and sustainable mountain ecosystem. The 12 countries where snow leopards are found recognize its importance, and signed the Bishkek Declaration in 2013 to conserve snow leopards and their fragile habitats.
In addition to the long running Snow Leopard Conservation Project India began to promote participatory policies and actions for conservation of high altitude wildlife and their habitats.Later, in October 2017, the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change and the United Nations Development Programme in India launched SECURE Himalaya, which aims to secure livelihoods, conservation, sustainable use and restoration of high range Himalayan ecosystems. One key focus area is to protect snow leopards and other endangered species and their habitats, and also to secure the livelihoods of people in the region and enhance enforcement to reduce wildlife crime.
Most of India’s snow leopards are thought to be in Ladakh, popularly known as the world's snow leopard capital. The region boasts of 200 - 600 snow leopards -- and is also home to the Himalayan tahr, Himalayan musk deer, blue sheep, Asiatic black bear, Tibetan wolf, Tibetan wild ass and many others. The estimate range is so wide because snow leopards are notoriously difficult to spot, let alone accurately count. One of the goals of SECURE Himalaya partnership is to conduct a snow leopard census.
In the past, snow leopards were considered a menace in Ladakh and the district was witness to high levels of human-wildlife conflict with regular snow leopard attacks on the community livestock. It is estimated that around 66% of snow leopards killed in India are retaliatory in nature and another 17% is due to non-targeted "accidental" death.The snow leopard, like all big cats, is listed on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). The snow leopard faces other threats from illegal hunting and sale of pelts, bones and body parts for the fur trade and traditional Asiatic medicine; depletion of natural prey populations; retribution by herders for depredation of valuable livestock; and habitat degradation and fragmentation.
"There is a global misconception that humans and wildlife cannot coexist. However, in Ladakh, we have designed an innovative, inclusive and sustainable model where we have been able to successfully make the local communities understand the value of healthy and thriving wildlife populations," says Jigmet Takpa, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The sustainable conservation model implemented by the Government of India has won global acclaim and is currently being adopted by the 12 snow leopard countries.
In their commitment towards the Bishkek Declaration, the Ladakh Wildlife Department has worked closely with local communities and non-governmental organizations to foster co-existence between people and predators, reduce livestock depredation losses and to improve household incomes in environmentally friendly, socially responsible and economically viable ways.
With the assistance of the Ladakh Wildlife Department, community corral pens have been constructed in each village with a wire mesh roof and gate to prevent the snow leopard from entering and killing livestock.
In 1999, eco-tourism initiatives were designed to tackle the issue of low economic activity in the harsh winters of Ladakh. Local communities have now successfully adopted home stay models for the flock of tourists flowing in to get a glimpse of this ghost cat.
Each homestay earns an annual income between USD $500 - USD $2,000, with 10% of the proceeds going into conservation efforts within the village. These include plantation, restoration of cultural sites, livestock insurance, cleaning of villages and the organization of small workshops.
Further, to reduce environmental impact on the landscape, villages were provided with solar lights and water heaters. Roads were constructed only halfway to the village, to reduce traffic and pollution caused by vehicles. Locals who own horses can also supplement their incomes by acting as porters.
Local perceptions about the snow leopard have changed with the help of this eco-tourism initiative. Now, locals value a live snow leopard more than any other animal species.
Now, if a snow leopard enters a corral pen, the locals instead of killing the snow leopard, inform forest guards, who rescue the snow leopard and release it into the wild.
Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program
Jigmet Dadul, Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT)