by Margi Prideaux
In the small Buddhist town of Kibber, in the Spiti Valley of northern India’s Trans-Himalaya, the Nature Conservation Foundation in India, working closely with the Snow Leopard Trust, has walked a road less travelled.
The endangered snow leopard is an integral part of Central and South Asia. They range from Afghanistan in the east, to Kazakhstan and Russia in the north, and across to China in the west. Their habitat is fragmented with little connection in between. Human communities across this region have a similar sparse and disconnected pattern. Finding effective ways to conserve large carnivores is challenging in almost every region of the world—in the Himalaya, their large home ranges and the threats the animals themselves pose to livestock makes coexistence with humans difficult.
The Nature Conservation Foundation focus their research in the Spiti, a desert mountain valley located high in the Himalayan Mountains. The name Spiti means ‘Middle Land’. Quite literately, this is the land between Tibet and India. The region’s Buddhist culture is similar to that found in the nearby Tibet Autonomous Region and the Ladakh region in India. The Kibber village has around 80 homes, made by hand of stone. Life here is modest, harsh but proud.
Last year I called one of their key researchers, Kulbhushansingh, to discover more about their programme. As the sun set over our farm, the phone line the world came alive with the wonderful sounds of southern India’s mid-day hustle, careening along outside the Nature Conservation Foundation offices.
With an affable, resonant timbre, Kulbhushansingh told me his tales. In 2008, he was researching the foraging behaviour of bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep, an important prey species for snow leopards in the region. He was in the Spiti Valley. It was cold and the snow was deep. These are tough conditions to work under, especially when you are investing days and nights trekking, watching and taking meticulous notes about mountain sheep habits. The leopards, often called ‘grey ghosts’, were unseen but always palpably nearby. He found fresh kills and pug marks, but the snow leopards remained beyond sight. After months of this routine, he was taking a rare day of rest in the village. The sun was out and so he sat outside his hut to relax. He wasn’t looking for wildlife so was surprised when a snow leopard and her cub suddenly appeared across a gorge, just a few hundred metres away.
Exhaustion and pain were banished. He scrambled up a nearby slope where he could watch the leopards, unseen. Joined by other researchers in the village and some of the local children, the group’s excitement was high. Hours went by while they watched this rare and mysterious mother and her cub lying and playing in the sun.
To see two snow leopards together was already extraordinary. Then a third leopard appeared high on the ridge. There was an electric tension between the animals. The cub hid behind a rock while the two adults studied each other across the distance. Dusk fell and darkness slowly masked the drama that would continue beyond human gaze.
Seeing these animals was a rare moment in a researcher’s life, but then Kulbhushansingh’s tale of wonder took an unexpected, very human twist. When he stood his feet were dangerously cold, after hours without movement. Frostbite was a real threat. He struggled back down to the village, his mind bouncing between jubilation and concern. Villagers bundled him inside and cut his now frozen boots from his feet, warming his limbs back to safety. While the commotion clattered around him, he recounted the day. An old woman sat quietly nearby. Perhaps she was compelled to speak to sooth the mixture of emotions flashing across his face. He expected admonishment for risking himself to see wild animals. Instead, her words touched his heart and in turn, years later, reached out and touched mine. ‘In my 80 years of living in this village and walking these hills I have never seen a snow leopard,’ she said. ‘It is through your work and your pictures that I hope I can.’ In that moment Kulbhushansingh recognised the deep desire we all share to see what is wild.
These relationships and insights are only possible with time.
This is time that Nature Conservation Foundation has invested to really understand the village’s problems. This helps them, as researchers, to work more constructively and collaboratively with the community to build long-term solutions tuned to the community’s needs.
They work on better enclosures to protect smaller livestock. They work with the community to change herding practises like moving bigger livestock to areas where they are not as easily preyed upon. They have created an insurance scheme to compensate the community when snow leopards kill livestock. They are backing these plans with sustained research to confirm how many snow leopards and wolf kills there actually are, and what livestock is actually being taken and when. They are also exploring new problems like why snow leopards take large livestock.
They are motivated by their belief that the future of snow leopards is in the hands of the people that share the region—the people who look across the same landscape, share the same seasons and feel the same wind, rain and snow. They strive to empower this community to forge a harmonious relationship with snow leopards.
With these solutions and relationships, the attitude of villagers towards wildlife conservation has also evolved. Most villagers have stopped killing carnivores or driving them away from kills. It’s a remarkable story of tenacious decades-long commitment to these villagers and these species.
It is a road less travelled, informed by their experience with snow leopards and the rugged, noble people who live alongside them.