Conservationists call the plight of Central Asia’s apex predator a matter of global concern. Impoverished farmers call it a threat to their livelihood. Can an inventive initiative satisfy everyone—and keep this majestic animal alive?
On a bright and sunny summer Thursday, Tsewang Namgail drives his run-down white Jeep through the rough desert terrain of the Indian Himalayas. The Buddhist hymn, “Om Mani Padme Hum…” plays on loop from the CD player as he speeds through the winding, dusty roads. A stuffed toy, with a snow leopard’s head and a long, snake-like body, dangles from Namgail’s rear-view mirror.
“This is my serpent snow leopard,” Namgail jokes, stepping on the gas to steer the car over a steep slope. Namgail, who has a PhD in wildlife ecology, heads the Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust, an NGO. He and his staff are based in Leh, the capital of Ladakh – a mountain desert region in northern India. Ladakh, with its arid, high-altitude terrain, is home to 60 percent of India’s snow leopard population. One of nine big cat species found in the world, snow leopard numbers have decreased by twenty percent over the past two decades. The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are no more than 6,000 snow leopards left in high mountain regions spread across twelve Asian countries. As part of conservation measures, these range countries have declared 2015 the International Year of the Snow Leopard and sought to promote cross-country projects to save the cats, listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
One of the biggest threats to snow leopards is retaliatory killing. Due to climate change, snow leopard’s natural prey — species like blue sheep, ibex and snow cocks — are diminishing. This results in snow leopards preying on easier targets like livestock. Herders and farmers in turn attack snow leopards, harming the wildcat population.
As Namgail diligently shifts gears in his rusty vehicle, we drive past wild roses in bloom. Earlier that week, Namgail had invited us to his office to talk about the human-animal conflict. “When a snow leopard attacks a livestock pen, it creates havoc…These pens are quite small and, upon attack, the livestock go into frenzy. The snow leopard attacks more than one goat or sheep or cow, and finally preys on one. Sometimes after an attack as many as 30 to 40 livestock are injured and dead.
“That’s a big loss for these poor villagers who are totally dependent on herding for earning their livelihoods.”
Namgail spoke about one of SLC-IT’s solutions to this human-wildlife conflict: covering the open roofs of livestock pens with wire-mesh. “Sometimes it’s really easy to find a way for humans and wildlife to coexist,” he said.
Other solutions promoted by SLC-IT involve more effort and commitment. “People in these remote areas live under poor conditions. They have to think about their day-to-day struggle,” added Namgail. “When we go to a village and ask them to protect snow leopards, they sometimes laugh at us because they regularly lose livestock to snow leopards. So we also wanted to improve their livelihoods. That’s when we started the Himalayan Homestays.”
The Himalayan Homestays program was the brainchild of SLC-IT co-founder, Rinchen Wangchuk, who passed away in 2011. His idea was to decrease the Ladakhi villagers’ dependence on livestock so that they wouldn’t suffer harsh financial blows caused by snow leopard attacks. Moreover, Wangchuk wanted to promote snow leopard tourism, which could in turn supplement the villagers’ income while helping sustain snow leopard populations.
“The snow leopard is an apex predator so they are very important,” Namgail stressed. “When we work towards conserving this species, in the process we are helping a lot of other species.”
Since the Himalayan Homestay program began in 2003, Ladakh has earned a reputation as a snow leopard tourism haven. Wildlife enthusiasts, scientists and photographers flock here to get a glimpse of the wild cat. Consequently the government has also set up a homestay program in villages within Hemis National Park.
Back in the rickety car, Namgail and his colleagues head up to Saspotsey. It’s a village at over 10,000 feet above sea level, where SLC-IT had just helped set up homestays. The plan for that evening: build a fence to keep grazing animals from village farms, followed by an awareness-raising presentation for all villagers in the community hall.
After driving about an hour and a half, we finally reach Saspotsey. The SLC-IT staff and volunteers organize themselves almost organically to build a 60-foot-long fence. Soon, clouds gather in the sky and the view over the Zanskar Valley turns dramatic. Sunrays pierce through the dark clouds and color the mountains in patches of orange and crimson. As the breeze turns into a wind, the operation speeds to its end.
After dinner, all villagers gather in the community hall – men sit on one side of the large room, women and children on the other. Some of the villagers are drunk; one of them has fallen asleep in his chair. A single electric bulb hangs from a wire, poorly lighting up the villagers’ tired, sleepy faces. A man with a beige jacket walks into the room and starts fiddling with the electric wires authoritatively. He stops after a few sparks and a small explosion. That catches everyone’s attention and the room goes quiet.
Namgail begins talking about SLC-IT’s work and how it could benefit the villagers. He speaks about the environment, responsible tourism and the importance of conservation.
A man in the audience, who appears to be drunk, with a green woolly hat and a matching jacket, enthusiastically repeats Namgail’s lines. At one point, when he seems to have lost track, he turns around and speaks to me in English, much to my surprise: “I work in the army.” (Educated villagers in Ladakh, a region bordering China, are often recruited by the Indian army.) “I have a very good salary. 35,000 INR (about $520 USD). That’s a lot of money in this village!” he says, stops abruptly and returns to parroting Namgail’s lines.
As the speech draws longer, toddlers get restless and flit from one side of the room to another, distracting half the audience. In one corner, a woman calmly breastfeeds her child. My drunk neighbor catches my attention once again. He blows his gum into a bubble and spits it on the floor in a slow motion. Namgail ends his speech and the crowd gives him hearty applause. I find it hard to assess how people perceive SLC-IT’s conservation efforts. Do they truly believe in the cause, or see the activists as educated city people wanting to convert them to environmentalism?
* * *
The next morning we drive up to Uley, a village about half an hour from Saspotsey. During our research we had heard a lot about someone by the name of Tsewang Norbu who lives there.
“Norbu can spot a snow leopard from anywhere; he’s got eyes in the back of his head…”
“Norbu has awesome footage of snow leopards – the kind that even renowned wildlife photographers don’t manage to get…”
“Norbu is such a transformed man. He used to run after wild animals killing them and now he’s the face of grassroots activism for snow leopard conservation…”
People made him sound like a mythical figure. Was he real?
* * *
We park the vehicle in front of the two-story adobe and wood house where Norbu lives. The view from the front porch is breathtaking – straight down the valley and on to a snow-capped mountain range.
Norbu, in a military green pullover and red New York Yankees cap, greets us politely, but curtly. I sense a hint of skepticism. I know that he has given a bunch of interviews to the press and I wonder if the 45-year-old has now tired of the attention.
But when Norbu finds out that he is going to be filmed and photographed, he quickly puts on his majestic, traditional Ladakhi coat and hat. He fiddles with a big turquoise ring on his right hand as he sits down on the half-wall of the terrace on the top floor.
“I was really young when I started herding animals to help my parents…There was no school in the village and I didn’t have the means to study elsewhere. Education was also not considered so important in those days,” Norbu says, nervously swaying his upper body back and forth. “I was thirteen when the school here was set up. So I started going to school at thirteen.” He attended for four years, then discontinued because he was “too old for his class.” Since then he has been herding yaks, cows and dzo (a hybrid between yak and cow).
“It used to be very normal for the earlier generations to poach animals that attacked our livestock. So I followed in their footsteps,” Norbu says, slightly ashamed but quick to redeem himself: “But in the last twelve to thirteen years I have learned a lot about conservation – what is wildlife, how to take care of livestock…” It began when SLC-IT co-founder Rinchen Wangchuk visited Uley more than a decade ago to present the idea of homestays. Since then, Norbu, who wears a charming smile and laughs boyishly at his jokes, has made a name for himself in the hospitality business.
“We still have losses from snow leopard attacks and this will continue. We can’t help it,” Norbu explains. “The livestock is what snow leopard feed on. We can’t really change that. On the other hand, if I think about how renowned Ladakh is today for the health of its wildlife, I feel proud. People come from far away for sighting snow leopards and Tibetan wolves. Because of the tourism, we also get some income. So in the end the loss isn’t as big.”
Norbu climbs down the wobbly wooden stairs leading us back into the living room. He flips open a ruled notebook. He has been keeping records of all snow leopard attacks on livestock in Uley and a couple of surrounding villages since 2014. Norbu manages a compensation program for villagers who lose livestock to snow leopard attacks, funded by a south Indian businessman.
Every page of the notebook has a text declaring how much the affected person was paid and a gory picture of the attacked, dead livestock. One of the photos even captured the exact moment when a snow leopard preyed on a dzo. At the bottom of every page is a signature from the compensated villager and from Norbu. “When someone faces heavy losses, they feel less angry when they are offered compensation,” he says.
Norbu then brings out his point-and-shoot camera and shows us wildlife images he has captured. There are foxes, wolves and snow leopards. In one clip a snow leopard gracefully walks down the arid, rocky terrain and, having sensed some movement, looks straight at Norbu and into the camera. Its gaze is so intense even on the tiny, scratched preview screen that it sends a chill down my spine.
* * *
Not everyone in Ladakh shares Norbu’s enthusiasm for preservation.
Tar is a village with just 50 to 80 inhabitants, 40 miles west of the capital, one of many remote villages in the region with no access to roads. Following reports that villagers here had killed a snow leopard, we set out on the hour-plus hike to Tar. For the first half-hour or so, we walk alongside a gushing stream of water, then through a small village, some apple orchards and past stacks of chopped poplar barks. The sky is blue with patches of fluffy, white clouds. Soon the path grows narrower and we walk in the shadow of high rock formations. Their reddish color adds a surreal touch to the experience.
The mountains open up into a village – presumably Tar. I walk up to a house where the door is open, peep in and ask, “Anybody home?” A bald man in a green sweater walks out limping. He smiles to reveal a few missing teeth and says hello. I ask where the village head’s house is.
Over the past few years of reporting in India, I’ve learned an unwritten rule about conducting research in villages: Always approach the village head first. Communities often have strict hierarchies and abiding by these structures works in your favor.
“Yeah, there – you see the big house?” he replies. “That’s the village head’s house. Can I ask what are you here for?”
When I say we are journalists, he is interested. “Come in for tea…My name is Tsering Stanzin. I used to work in the army. Please write in the papers that there’s no electricity here, no roads, no medical facilities. To buy grocery, an old man like me has to hire a laborer and pay 200 to 300 INR ($3 to 4 USD),” the 60-year-old complains. I promise Stanzin we’ll return in a short while to have tea with him.
A carton full of empty beer bottles stands at the entrance to the village head’s house. The village head’s wife leads us into the kitchen-cum-living room and introduces herself as Tseten Dolma. Her Hindi is poor, so our conversations remain basic. She makes us some chai and leaves open a box full of cookies in front of us.
After half an hour, the village head, Tsering Angchuk, walks in. He wears a sleeveless fleece vest, a T-shirt and formal pants. A pair of rectangular glasses sit on top of his button nose. In his husky voice, he tells us about the biggest problem facing the village: “When I was younger, each house had 60 to 70 livestock, but now every house has about ten to fifteen, that’s all. Times have changed. The children are off to school or for work in bigger cities and only us old people are left in the village.”
Angchuk’s wife sits quietly behind him. I ask him about snow leopard attacks on livestock. “Yes, it’s very common around here. Snow leopards attack and kill livestock. Sometimes they even enter the sheds. It leads to a lot of losses,” he says.
“It’s no use filing for compensation with the government,” Angchuk continues. “It takes four to five years to follow up on the paperwork and bureaucracy. Who has the patience for it?”
The Ladakhi government used to run a compensation scheme for villagers who lose their livestock to attacks by wild animals. However, Jigmet Takpa, the Chief Conservator for Forests in Ladakh, told us that this scheme has been discontinued due to a large number of unverifiable applications for compensation.
We knock on Tsering Stanzin’s door on the way out of town. There are some dried leaves spread out on the floor in the middle of the room. Stanzin apologizes for the “mess.”
On one wall hangs a photo of him, much younger, in an army uniform. On another is a photo of his wife with three young children – two boys and a girl. All of Stanzin’s children live away from home now. Today, he and his wife live by themselves in this huge house and take care of their farm and livestock.
“Sometimes, wild goats from the forest come and destroy our farms,” he says. “They come in huge herds of 70 or 80 and graze on our fields. It’s horrible. Then there are Tibetan wolves, they attack our livestock, and finally the snow leopards.”
Stanzin says he himself has lost some livestock to snow leopards and Tibetan wolves this past year. “My goats and sheep were grazing up in the forest, and the snow leopard killed ten to eleven sheep at once. And I lost three sheep after a Tibetan wolf attacked them just around here,” he says, stopping to scratch his back.
I ask Stanzin three times how many livestock he had lost due to wild attacks in the previous year. He gives different answers each time – the number varies between ten and twenty. Had he taken any photographs to document his losses? “I don’t have a camera to take photos,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.
“The government has forbidden us from killing snow leopards, so we can’t really go after them. It would be good if they provided us with some roofs and wired fences for livestock pens,” he says.
I couldn’t resist asking if the word about villagers killing a snow leopard a few weeks ago was true.
“How can we? The government doesn’t let us. No matter how many losses the snow leopard causes, we are forbidden from keeping them away. The forest department staff sometimes come and capture the snow leopard that attacks villages, but they let it go in a couple of days,” Stanzin says with a palpable sense of dejection. “And we don’t have any weapons to retaliate so we just have to take the losses in our stride.”
Stanzin walks a bit further into the village with us, greeted heartily by other villagers, busy working on their farms. I inquire about the news of the dead snow leopard and find nothing of significance until we meet Tsering Dolkar – the second head of the village. “There was a dead snow leopard, but we didn’t kill it. We found one right over the top of that hill,” she says, pointing north with the shovel in her hand. “It might have slipped and fallen down, injured itself and died.”
Dolkar is appalled when I suggest the possibility of a villager killing the snow leopard. “But how can we kill a snow leopard? It’s not that easy and we are all old people living here,” the 65-year-old woman says and looks away disappointed.
With about two hours left before dusk, we wrap up and begin walking down to the main street. On the downward hike, I process the meetings in the village in my head to find any cues – had the snow leopard been killed or had it met its natural end? I conclude that it didn’t really matter. What perhaps matters most was that neither the SLC-IT nor the government have reached Tar, and many other similar villages, in their efforts towards ensuring a prosperous future for the snow leopards — and for the people of Ladakh.