Insights from India Expedition Leader Surya Ramachandran
Ladakh, the Indian trans-Himalaya, is one of the last bastions of Tibetan Buddhism in the 21st century. With its richness of history, culture and landscapes, it has become a happy hunting ground for visitors of every stripe—from tourists ticking off exotic destinations, seekers of spiritual bliss, thrill seekers aboard motorcycles or rubber rafts, adventurers, walkers—and finally the eternal optimists questing after the Holy Grail of montane wildlife—the snow leopard.
The Trans-Himalaya is the high, forbidding mountain region that lies north of the spine—and in the rain shadow—of the Great Himalayas. It is essentially a high-altitude desert and, like all deserts, harbors a deceptive richness of life. The landscape is stark, precipitous, deeply fissured, studded with unexpected plateaus and interwoven with sparkling streams edged with lush vegetation—all set against the sublime backdrop of snow-capped peaks and glaciers. The sheer, tortured grandeur of this landscape reflects the giant, seismic forces resulting from the collision of the Indian tectonic plate with that of Eurasia, which lead to its formation.
The Wilderness of Ladakh
Ladakh is a union territory of India (more than 70,000 square kilometers), situated at an average altitude of 12,000 feet. The sparse population is settled along habitable river valleys in agrarian communities ranging from tiny hamlets to substantial villages and small towns often dominated by a picturesque monastery. Nomadic herders roam the high eastern plateau with their flocks of sheep and Pashmina goats. With a population density of less than three people per square kilometer (most settled in the capital, Leh), Ladakh is essentially a large nature reserve. It is home to more than 40 mammal species, 400 bird species, 50-60 butterflies and even a few reptiles. Such a high faunal diversity can only be supported by a diverse flora, which is seen in full bloom during the summer months. The snow leopard is the apex predator of this ecosystem. In 1987, Ladakh’s first national park—Hemis High Altitude National Park was established in the Zanskar Range between the Indus and Markha rivers.
Conservation and Tourism
It is widely recognized that long-term wildlife conservation depends upon the goodwill of local people. The benefits from coexisting with wildlife should outweigh the costs of having predators as neighbors and having their wild prey competing with livestock for fodder. Conservation travel is the global tool to achieve this goal. This was realized early by the late Rinchen Wangchuk, the founding Director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC) India Trust.
The earliest snow leopard trips were organized by Rinchen Wangchuk and Hashim Tyabji in the early 2000s. These trips were based around Rumbak, a village inside the national park, where the SLC had done its field work. Hugh Miles of the BBC filmed a groundbreaking snow leopard documentary in this area.
The field knowledge of the team from SLC allowed increasing success in terms of sightings and over the years, successive generations of the big cats appeared to have become habituated to people as well. Rinchen Wangchuk developed his strategy of widespread community tourism by setting up homestays across snow leopard habitat and training local people—often the homestay owners—as wildlife trackers and spotters. This ensured that wildlife conservation and monitoring was spearheaded by the communities themselves. As the benefits of snow leopard tourism spread through the communities, that goodwill was leveraged to persuade people to reduce grazing competition with wild ungulates, since that would also benefit snow leopards while simultaneously reducing livestock predation. Over time, snow leopard tourism in Rumbak became a great success, despite the limitations of the simple homestays and tented camps set up to accommodate the rapidly increasing numbers of tourists. It was time to roll out this model to other areas of Ladakh.
Expanding the Areas of Influence
Our partner in Ladakh, David Sonam—who is now the managing trustee of the Snow Leopard Conservancy—recommended moving our search towards the Sham area, a conglomerate of villages in central Ladakh. That is how we arrived at the villages of Mangyu and Ulley.
A number of factors made these two villages ideal among areas outside the park:
- The villagers and the homestays were keen to work with us during the winter months;
- There were already a few trained wildlife spotters in each of these villages, some of who turned out to be among the best in the world;
- Wildlife, including leopards, thrived in good numbers in the mountains surrounding the villages; and
- The biggest plus of all was the existence of a network of roads that hugged these mountains, making it possible to access larger areas than possible on foot. The road network also made it possible to reach Leh in a short time in the case of an emergency.
Snow Leopard Lodges
Our snow leopard lodges were set up in both of these areas, in partnership with the villagers. These lodges were basically pre-existing homestays done up by the villagers to meet higher standards using money loaned by us on a zero-interest basis. The ownership of the lodge remains with the villagers, who lease the properties to us during the winter months.
Thus, now it was possible for visitors to acclimatize to the altitude in a beautiful hotel in Leh and then drive for 2.5 hours on comfortable roads to reach the land of the snow leopard, something unheard of in the past. The snow leopard lodges are set up with heated rooms, electricity, a fully serviced kitchen and dining area and the comforts of a proper heated toilet and bathroom, moving away from the hole-in-the-ground dry toilet concept of the traditional homestays. The only challenge, if it can be perceived that way, is the absence of running water in the sub-zero winter conditions. To make up for this, solar-heated hot and cold water are provided in buckets throughout the day. The snow leopard lodges are also ideally located so that most of the snow leopard viewing takes place from the grounds of the lodges. The day expeditions mostly involve driving the road networks coupled with short walks into valleys that cut into the big cat habitat.
Finding the Wild Cats
Snow leopard tracking is one of the most unique wilderness experiences on the planet. It is nearly impossible to even find signs of a wild cat by one’s own efforts, let alone finding them. The unforgiving alien terrain, the vast territories held by the big cats, and their superb camouflage makes the task even more difficult. No wonder they are locally known as the “Grey Ghost of the Himalaya.”
The reason one has a chance of encountering a wild cat on these expeditions, despite all these odds, is the brilliance of the trackers. Their knowledge of the snow leopards and the landscape, their superhuman eyesight, and the depths of patience they exhibit while tracking a cat is something that can’t be explained easily in words. You need to see it to believe it!
The cats’ movements are mostly restricted to high ridge lines, descending to and crossing valley floors mostly at twilight or at night. During the day, the cats prefer to seek out high vantages, where they rest and scan the landscape. Viewing ranges can vary from 200 to 300 meters to sometimes over 500 meters. The use of high-quality optical equipment with photographic adapters for cameras makes it possible to document these cats clearly despite the viewing distance.
Conflict and a Solution
In the initial years, our only close encounters with snow leopards were rare occasions where they crossed roads or valleys, or when the cats were on a kill. The villagers owned considerable livestock, and those were often preyed upon by the leopards. At the start, we were excited when kills happened, as it ensured an up-close viewing. Villagers who lost their livestock were compensated by the wildlife department, SLC and by the lodge. But when the frequency of these livestock kills began rising, despite the presence of many wild ungulates, we needed a better solution.
The ideal solution had already been worked out and implemented by the SLC in other areas. A simple wire mesh on a frame was installed on cattle corrals to prevent attacks from above. The SLC applied this wire mesh to all the corrals in the area, in partnership with many organizations including the Snow Leopard Lodge. As a result, last year, all the close sightings of cats were on wild prey kills. This was a welcome and necessary change, as it made the wildlife tourism in the area more beneficial for all parties involved.
Setting an Example
As per data from March 2020, there are around 12-13 snow leopards, including two mothers with two cubs each, around the lodges, a dream number for an unprotected area. Community-based conservation travel is key to this success. Every time a guest stays at a snow leopard lodge, a direct fee is paid to the villages to be utilized for the common good. The models at Mangyu and Ulley exemplify the benefits of community-based conservation tourism.
By India Expedition Leader and Photo Pro Expedition Leader Surya Ramachandran.