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Living with ghosts: Big cats in little Tibet

  • Written by  Daniel Allen
  • Published in Wildlife
Living with ghosts: Big cats in little Tibet Daniel Allen
26 Aug
A progressive approach to conservation unites snow leopards and local villagers in the Indian Himalaya

In the remote Ulley Valley, 45 miles west of the Ladakhi city of Leh, the hunter becomes the hunted. Scanning snow-dusted slopes and rock faces with a pair of antique binoculars, Tsewang Norboo, headman of the village of Ulley, squints in the late afternoon sun. Eventually the ethnic Tibetan gives a shrug, hunkers down behind a boulder, and lights a cigarette.

‘A snow leopard could be less than 30 feet away we still might not see it,’ he says, eyes bright in a heavily sunburned, weatherworn face. ‘That’s why we call them “grey ghosts” here. They come and go, and you never know they’re there.’

With its arid, rocky landscape, oxygen-starved air and death-defying trails, the Ulley Valley has always presented local families with an extreme challenge. At an altitude of over 4,000 metres, eking out an existence in this remote region means adapting to some of the most physically demanding conditions on the planet. Here in northern India’s so-called ‘Little Tibet’, a stone’s throw from the Chinese border, life is a battle with nature that can never be won.

Yet Ulley, and a scattering of other hamlets nearby, continue to defy the odds. High above the village’s small cluster of rough, mud-brick buildings, Tsewang Norboo is on a mission to round up his yak and dzo (a cross between a yak and a cow). The sound of bells, faint on the stiff breeze, indicates his herd is close at hand.

Reports of a snow leopard in the area have Norboo concerned for the safety of his animals.

‘A leopard won’t usually take a fully grown healthy yak, but it will take a calf or sick adult,’ he says. ‘They also like to take the tail of the yak. You can see that many of my animals have their tails missing.’

In the past, snow leopards would mostly attack Norboo’s yaks at night. But with big cat numbers on the increase in Ulley, the herbivores are now at risk of predation during the daytime too.

‘My son is guarding the herd right now,’ explains the headman, pushing on up the scree-covered slope. ‘But we must get them all into the village corral by sunset. If not, the ghosts will surely come.’

Ladakh yak (Image: Daniel Allen)Ladakh yak (Image: Daniel Allen)

King of the mountains

What the tiger is to the lowland jungles of India, so the snow leopard is to some of the word’s highest plateaus and mountain chains. From the Himalayan and Pamir massifs in the south, across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and rugged hinterland of Central Asia, to the Altai and Sayan mountains of Siberia in the north, this elusive feline lives in some of the most inaccessible parts of Asia.

The remote habitat and retiring nature of the snow leopard makes it the least well understood of the world’s nine big cats. In his renowned 1978 book, The Snow Leopard, American author Peter Matthiessen recounts his (ultimately fruitless) two-month search for a leopard in the Nepalese Himalaya. Using technology such as GPS tracking collars, it is only recently that scientists have begun to get a handle on the animal’s behaviour.

Unlike humans, the snow leopard is perfectly suited to its elevated environment. Clad in dappled, grey-yellow fur, it is incredibly difficult to pick out among rocks and snow. A long, thick tail gives the cat poise and balance, and can also cover its body, mouth and nose in sub-zero temperatures. Enlarged nasal cavities and lungs counteract the effects of oxygen-poor air, while wide, fur-covered feet act as natural snowshoes.

‘In the areas where they live, snow leopards are top of the food chain,’ says Dr. Tsewang Namgail, director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT), a non-governmental organisation headquartered in Leh. ‘Their presence indicates a flourishing ecosystem. Unfortunately, humans don’t always appreciate their presence.’

A snow leopard with prey (Image: Daniel Allen)A snow leopard feasts on a fresh kill (Image: Daniel Allen)

Cats in conflict

With a large home range, snow leopards frequently come into contact with the isolated communities that share their mountain territory. When impoverished herding families lose livestock to leopards, they are frequently driven to hunt them down.

Tsewang Norboo, who was born and raised in Ulley, has been herding yaks, cows and dzo since he was a boy. He knows only too well how snow leopards can affect local livelihoods. A single cat running amok in a herd of yak or goats may plunge a family into crippling poverty.

‘For a long time we viewed these cats as a terrible menace,’ he says. ‘In the past they would hunt and kill a lot of our animals. When you are living on the edge, it’s a question of survival. You have no choice but to try to kill them.’

Conflict with humans has negatively impacted snow leopard populations in many countries. With cat numbers thought to have decreased by 20 per cent over the past two decades, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates there may be less than 4,000 animals left in the wild, distributed across an area of nearly 800,000 square miles (roughly the size of Greenland).

Snow leopards prey on whatever ungulates (hoofed mammals) are available, from wild pigs and argali (wild sheep) to Himalayan tahrs, takins and markhor (all types of wild goat). In Ladakh, which is home to between 300 and 500 cats, their natural prey mostly consists of bharal (blue sheep) and ibex.

In areas where a lot of livestock is lost to snow leopards, a paucity of the cat’s natural prey is often a contributing factor. In many parts of the leopard’s range, hunters have completely wiped out species such as ibex, antelope and blue sheep.

‘Deprived of their normal diet, leopards are forced to take yak, goats and domesticated sheep instead,’ says the SLC-IT’s Namgail. ‘In many countries this problem is exacerbated by the fact that more and more children are now going to school. This means fewer people guarding animals, leaving them susceptible to predation.’

Snow Leopard Conservancy training session in the village of SaspotseySnow Leopard Conservancy training session in the village of Saspotsey (Image: Daniel Allen)

Community-based conservation

The following morning Ulley wakes to the sight of freshly snow-capped peaks. As lammergeiers (bearded vultures) take to the air overhead, Tsewang Norboo finishes his breakfast of chapatis and butter tea and reaches for a large scrapbook. On every other dog-eared page, photos of livestock carcasses depict local leopard kills in gory detail. They include a couple of yaks from Norboo’s own herd.

Yet far from being angry about this logbook of predation, the Ulley headman is surprisingly relaxed.

‘This book is part of our local insurance programme,’ explains Norboo. ‘All the farmers here pay into it. When we lose an animal we can claim compensation. Once the claim is proven, the money is always paid out quickly. Last year we received Rs. 26,000 (nearly £300) for six leopard kills.’

Launched in 2011, the new scheme, which includes a number of villages across Ladakh, is run by the SLC-IT. Founded in 2003 and now headed up by Tsewang Namgail, the Indian NGO’s main focus is to reduce human-snow leopard conflict.

If providing compensation to villagers is an important tool in reducing retaliatory leopard killings, then preventing leopard predation is arguably even more important.

At night the yaks and goats of Ladakh’s remote mountain villages are typically kept in low stone corrals. Yet it’s all too easy for highly agile snow leopards – which have been known to jump up to nine metres from a standing start – to scale the walls. The SLC-IT’s solution has been to provide wooden frames and wire mesh to many Ladakhi villagers to enable them to cover their corrals. This simple measure has already seen livestock kills drastically reduced.

‘It may seem like a small measure, but the help we have received for the corrals has made a huge difference,’ says Tsewang Norboo. ‘Snow leopards have tried to get into my corrals several times, but have been unsuccessful. My wife is also happy that our sons can sleep at home at night, instead of being out on guard duty.’

‘With a well-developed system of protected areas in Ladakh, there are generally enough wild prey species to sustain snow leopards,’ says Tsewang Namgail. ‘Our measures will hopefully force the leopards to target them, rather than livestock.’

A typical entry in the compensation record (Image: Daniel Allen)A typical entry in Tsewang Norboo’s compensation record (Image: Daniel Allen)

Homestay heaven

The SLC-IT’s efforts already appear to be paying off. Today Ulley is one of the best places to see snow leopards, with as many as ten big cats estimated to live in and around the valley. The area has become a magnet for wildlife enthusiasts and nature photographers, who come here to catch a magical glimpse of the grey ghost. The best period for sightings is from December to March, when winter snows drive the leopards, and their prey, to lower elevations.

Even at other times of year, however, Ulley and its surroundings are bewitchingly beautiful. A land of misty valleys, golden-leaved poplars and remote gompas (monasteries), Buddhist culture has left a strong imprint on both the local people and landscape.

Given Ladakh’s natural and cultural charm, it comes as little surprise that the SLC-IT’s multi-faceted approach to snow leopard conservation also involves tourism.

‘For adventurous tourists on the trail of snow leopards, the opportunity to experience authentic Ladakhi culture is a huge draw,’ says Tsewang Namgail. ‘This is why we started our Himalayan homestay program. Leopards bring the tourists, who in turn give a little back to local people. Everyone wins.’

In exchange for training in hospitality, hygiene and housekeeping, and essential items such as blankets and bed sheets, the SLC-IT’s homestay households must agree to stop hunting snow leopards, even if their livestock are taken. Ten per cent of the income generated by each homestay is also paid into a community fund that is then used for the improvement of the entire village.

For tourists, who generally pay around Rs. 500 rupees (£5) per night, the opportunity to stay in villages such as Ulley is a typically memorable experience. With their in-depth knowledge of the local landscape and fauna, many villagers double up as guides and trackers, and are often the best chance that outsiders have of seeing a leopard.

In Ulley, the community fund has been used to set up a solar-powered heater that provides hot water to local hikers for a small fee.

‘In a place where the average household income may only be £300, the extra £200 or more that homestays and hot water fees can bring in can make a huge difference,’ says Tsewang Namgail.

Tsewang Norboo, who had an annual income of just Rs.12,000 (£135) back in 2002, now earns nearly Rs.200,000 (£2,270) through his homestay and guided tours. ‘The extra money means my son can go to school in Leh,’ says the headman. ‘He is getting an opportunity at education that I never had. Indirectly, it’s all thanks to the snow leopard.’

Ladakh homestays provide much-needed income for local families (Image: Daniel Allen)Ladakh homestays provide much-needed income for local families (Image: Daniel Allen)

Future focus

The SLC-IT now has homestays in over 40 villages across Ladakh and is planning to roll out the program in other areas. It also conducts school workshops to spread awareness about the importance of conserving Ladakhi wildlife, and is enlisting the help of local villagers to conduct snow leopard population surveys. In places like Ulley, it is even teaching people to produce soft and wooden toys from sustainable materials. These are then sold to tourists.

‘We still have a lot of work to do,’ says Tsewang Namgail. ‘But Ladakhi people are now receiving tangible benefits from their willingness to co-exist with snow leopards and other wildlife. Cat sightings are on the increase. We are making progress.’

To many of us in the West, the snow leopard inhabits an inhospitable, icy realm beyond human interference. In reality, only a fraction of the land populated by these cats is officially protected, and even then it may still support villages and livestock.

In Ladakh, the projects run by the SLC-IT are making live snow leopards more valuable to more people every year. As a role model for the conservation of high mountain ecosysems, they may just lead to a halt in the decline of this majestic animal.

For more on the topic of extinction, pick up Geographical’s special themed September 2016 issue, on sale now.

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