Phuchung Lachengpa, 34, is WWF-India’s true champion. He is a field coordinator working in Sikkim’s Khangchendzonga landscape and is trained to conduct ecological surveys for developing a better understanding of the conservation needs of the snow leopard, its prey species and habitat. He has worked tirelessly with WWF-India, installing and monitoring camera traps, conducting prey species surveys and documenting threats to snow leopards.
Hailing from Lachen village, about 100 km away from Gangtok in Sikkim, he was one of the first community members to be trained by WWF-India to conduct snow leopard surveys. “It’s been 14 months since I first began work with WWF-India. This job allows me to be in the mountains and I love living outdoors,” says Phuchung.
The ability to photograph snow leopard using camera traps, binoculars to observe the daily life of the natives of the mountains and using tools such as a GPS to keep records of the locations of the animals held Phuchung spellbound. The job literally meant roaming freely in the mountains and Phuchung was hooked! Passionate and committed, he has lived in Lachen in North Sikkim all his life. “I grew up in these mountains and love seeing the beautiful animals in the wild. My dream is to click a photograph of the elusive and mysterious snow leopards,” says Phuchung.
Upsides of his job
He has trekked these mountains numerous times, camped for weeks for monitoring and collection of camera trap images up in the mountains and braved the harsh weather conditions. It’s amazing to see how unquestioningly he conducts his daily duties. His love for wildlife is palpable. “I have spotted some unique species on these mountains such as the Himalayan monal (a large-sized pheasant), Tibetan gazelle (also known as Goa and native to the Tibetan plateau) and Himalayan blue sheep (also known as bharal or naur),” mentions Phuchung. “I feel completely lost when I am in a city or a town even when it is only for a few days, but here in these rolling meadows and rugged mountains, I feel at home. I will not trade this for anything else,” says Phuchung.
Working with WWF-India
Camera traps in the region have captured images and video footage of the elusive snow leopard that were never spotted. The photographs and video are some of the best evidences of snow leopards which were caught on film, earlier this year, as part of monitoring interventions set upin North Sikkim by WWF-India. Phuchung was one of the five field team members who were instrumental in setting up these camera traps. “My community members knew that there are snow leopards in the mountains around our village, yet no one had seen a photograph of a snow leopard. Now, when I return from my field surveys, excitement builds up in my village as people want to see what I have got in my cameratraps, especially the snow leopard photographs.”
An inspiration to Lachenpas
Over the past one year, he has also been instrumental in helping create awareness by convincing his community members to cooperate in waste management. “I keep collecting trash when I am conducting surveys, and I advise people not to hunt or harass animals,” said Phuchung. For Phuchung, working with WWF-India has allowed him to see snow leopards through a different lens. He advises his community members about the importance of snow leopards and the connections between their own life and the natural world. Sikkimese people worship Khangchendzonga as their guardian deity and with someone from their own community leading the efforts to save snow leopards, it now seems that snow leopards are in safe hands.