With a high altitude desert dominated by rugged snow-capped mountains and deep turquoise lakes, Ladakh is one of the most picturesque places on earth. It is the home of the “Ghost of the Himalaya”, the enigmatic snow leopard, and is considered to be the best place in the world to spot them.
The rarity of sightings and highly endangered status have made the snow leopards very attractive to wildlife photographers and enthusiasts alike. Like most other big cats, sadly the snow leopard’s future has become threatened and I believe that conservation-led tourism offers the best long-term and sustainable approach to protect this charismatic creature.
Between just 3,900 and 6,390 snow leopards are estimated to be left in the wild, spread over the highest altitudes of Central Asia, including the high Himalaya and the Tibetan plateau. The exact number is not known as it is almost impossible to obtain an accurate population count due to their highly elusive nature and extremely rugged and vast habitat they live in.
The factors threatening their survival are climate change, poaching for pelts, conflict with local communities, decline in natural pray base and more recently due to loss of habitat owing to large-scale hydroelectric and mining projects.
Ladakh is a land of pastel hues and flaming sunsets. Arid and remote, high in the Jammu and Kashmir state of the Himalayas, it is also known as the land of passes and Little Tibet. Here, the borders of three contending powers collide in a wilderness of glaciers and forbidding peaks.
This is where Hemis National Park is found, world-renowned for being the best region for spotting snow leopards. Founded in 1981, Hemis is the second largest national park in South Asia and has the highest density of snow leopards in any protected area in the world - between 200 and 600.
The park boasts a complex eco-system and is home to a number of other fascinating species like Tibetan wolf, wild dog, blue sheep, urial, red fox, Eurasian brown bear, Asiatic ibex and Himalayan marmots, while the skies are patrolled by majestic birds such as golden eagles and bearded vultures.
Villages climb away into the hill-sides, white-washed and red-trimmed mud houses picturesquely framed by apricot and willow. Ancient Buddhist monasteries soar, tier upon tier, up the mountainside and an age-old way of life is sustained by the piety of a free and unconstrained people. Ladakh is where you can still experience bygone Tibet.
In India and many parts of Asia, animals and humans have co-existed for centuries. In the recent years, mounting modern pressures have increased the conflict between humans and animals and the only way to reverse the trend is by adopting an inclusive model that puts equal focus on community support and development.
Today, one of the biggest threats faced by the snow leopards is their conflict with the local farmers. Cattle breeding is the main source of income in many parts of Ladakh and snow leopards are notorious for getting into livestock pens at night and killing them, especially sheep and goats. This is becoming more common due to the declining population of snow leopard’s primary prey species such as Asiatic ibex, blue sheep and urial.
What has made the situation worse is the fact that snow leopards are known to kill multiple animals in a single attack, dealing a bigger blow to the farmers. The Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust has been working to protect the snow leopards for many years and has launched various initiatives to reduce the human-animal conflict.
These include helping the farmers build predator-proof corrals so that the snow leopards do not get into the livestock pens at night, a community-controlled livestock insurance programme to compensate the households whose animals have been killed by snow leopards, a garbage management programme in order to keep the habitat clean and livestock immunization to prevent infectious diseases such as foot-and-mouth that can have a catastrophic impact on the local community as well as snow leopards.
The trust has also been working on various training and education programmes to help create an alternative source of income for the locals so that their attitude towards the snow leopard changes. These include ecotourism, handicraft development and nature guide training programmes.
The ecotourism initiative has been hugely successful and I believe it offers the most inclusive and sustainable approach to reduce the conflict and protect Ladakh’s wildlife and natural habitat. Wildlife enthusiasts can now take expertly-guided treks in Hemis National Park and stay in well-appointed village homes that have been converted into lodges.
The proceeds of the treks directly contribute to the survival of animals. The farmers are trained by expert conservationists to become spotters and nature guides and village homestays bring in a financial incentive, meaning locals have a more amenable attitude towards the snow leopards.
The treks take place during winter when the snow is at its deepest. The snow leopard is tied to its prey, and in vast and inhospitable country the prey is concentrated in the relatively few hospitable areas. By this time of the year forage is scarce and the animals descend to the valley floors in search of graze and open ground. This narrows and focuses the search.
A snow leopard trekking expedition typically begins with around three days in Leh where you can acclimatise to the high altitude. I then recommend transferring to the Ulley valley, which is relatively off-the-beaten-track.
Here, you would stay in a local village homestay for around nine nights where you can relax in comfort and spend time with your warm and welcoming hosts in the evening. This village homestay experience avoids the over-commercialisation of Leh and takes you out, off-the-beaten-track to untouched villages in the Indus Valley.
From this comfortable base, you spend the days tracking snow leopards on foot and by jeep in three valleys with an expert local guide and tracker. The guide knows the habits of the snow leopard intimately and also interacts closely with the local farmers for sightings. In the process there is plenty of opportunity for you to interact with the locals and learn about their lifestyle, customs and traditions.
The homestay programme is ecologically sustainable, viable and most importantly, socially responsible. A certain percentage of the income generated by the homestays is put into a fund that focuses on activities such as tree planting, garbage cleaning and maintenance of cultural heritage.
This programme has also inspired an incredible example of community-led conservation, where Ulley and surrounding villages voluntarily freed 16 square miles of land from livestock grazing for the betterment of traditional pastureland for preservation of urial and Asiatic ibex in order to support the snow leopard’s natural prey base.
This is currently the finest sustainable tourism project in the country offering the most authentic Ladakhi experience one can ever have! If you would like more information, please do feel free to contact me.