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Watching Wild Snow Leopards

By Darla Hillard

Education Director, Snow Leopard Conservancy

Photo © John Merjanian:  Wild snow leopard observed in Ladakh, northern India by members of the Wintertime Quest for the Snow Leopard

Stuart writes:  After Darla posted an earlier story, I begged her to do another to include a video clip of a young snow leopard playing with a remote video camera high in the mountains.  It’s just wonderful.  Make sure you watch it.

 Photo credit Snow Leopard Conservancy.
Since 2005 the Snow Leopard Conservancy has offered hardy and determined trekkers the opportunity of a lifetime:  the chance to see a snow leopard in the wild, in the winter, in a place where twelve years of conservation action have proved that indigenous communities can lead the way in preserving this rarest and most beautiful of big cats.

 

Ladakh lies about as far north as you can go in India.  This semi-autonomous region was a kingdom until it was absorbed into the State of Jammu and Kashmir in the 1800s, and then divided with Pakistan in 1947.  Ladakh today is known as “Little Tibet,” with a thriving Buddhist community and monasteries the likes of which are all but lost in Tibet itself.

For wildlife biologists  like Rodney Jackson — a National Geographic grantee — the snow leopard was long considered so rare and elusive as to be practically otherworldly and impossible to study.  For wildlife filmmakers, these secretive felines were the “holy grail.”  But high in the mountains of central Asia, livestock herders knew the snow leopard as a stalker who preyed upon their sheep and goats.

In 2000, the Snow Leopard Conservancy teamed up with Rinchen Wangchuk, a young Ladakhi mountaineer and nature tour guide whose father was a celebrated war hero.  Rinchen’s commitment to the welfare of Ladakh’s wildlife and rural people was obvious.  After several years of collaboration, Rodney and Rinchen created the Snow Leopard Conservancy-India, and our two organizations continue to partner for conservation and education.  It was a terrible blow to Rinchen’s family, friends and colleagues when he passed away in 2011, from Motor Neuron Disease.

 

Photo credit Snow Leopard Conservancy.

 

Herders and farmers throughout Ladakh face many challenges.  Often a home’s only electricity comes from a solar panel on the roof that powers one light bulb in the kitchen. The nearest substantial shops can be many days’ walk away; there are few roads and even fewer family cars.  Communities depend upon their livestock for milk, meat, wool, transportation of goods, and fertilizer for their crops of grain and vegetables. In a way, their herds are like a family’s bank account.  Insecure livestock pens invite invasion by snow leopards, and a family can loose its whole herd in one attack.  It’s hard to blame the herder who has lost everything and retaliates by killing the leopard.

Our initial collaborative efforts were focused on working with local communities to rebuild and reinforce their livestock corrals to keep snow leopards out.  Each predator-proofed corral keeps up to five snow leopards safe from retaliation for livestock raiding, and the herders are happy.  One local man put it this way:

We herded our sheep and goats into the new pen and walked home. In the morning, there were tracks of a snow leopard all around, but we lost none of our animals. We shepherds are very relieved to have these improved pens; our livestock are safer, and our lives are better. We can sleep at home instead of miles away on the cold ground guarding our animals. As Buddhists we are very happy for the sake of our livestock, and for the snow leopards who might now go back to hunting blue sheep.

The rewards for snow leopards were quick.  Filmmakers Hugh Miles and Mitchell Kelly approached Rodney Jackson, director of Snow Leopard Conservancy US, and Rinchen Wangchuk, director of the Indian Conservancy, asking for their help in finding places to film snow leopards with remotely-triggered cameras.  Thanks to the reduced threats from Ladakhi herders, the filmmakers were able to capture beautiful footage of wild snow leopards, both with camera traps and hand-held cameras.  Their documentary, “Silent Roar: Searching for the Snow Leopard,” highlights the Conservancy’s work, and includes this charming clip of two young snow leopard siblings, one of whom discovers Mitchell’s hidden camera.

Snow leopard encounters video camera

In 2001, at the request of these local communities, we initiated the Traditional Himalayan Homestays program.  Households were able to generate income from tourism that had been captured almost entirely by outside agents.  Similar to bed-and-breakfast type lodging these Homestays offer tourists an up-close experience of local food and village life.  A percentage of profits goes into a community fund, and providers—who are mostly women—have control of funds which they have used, for example, to send their children to better schools.

This winter’s Quest for the Snow Leopard marked not only the fifth consecutive year that our group has seen a wild snow leopard, but it broke all records by producing four separate sightings over a ten-day expedition. This stands as a testament to community-based conservation and the stewardship of the herders.  Snow leopards are no longer the creatures of myth and mystery that we can never hope to see in the wild.

What greater proof of the legacy that Rinchen leaves behind?

 

Photo credit Snow Leopard Conservancy.