My Quest in the land of leopards | WWF India

Early in March 2017, I started preparing for my field trip to one of the mountain ghost’s key habitat, Ladakh—in the western Himalayas in India for a research project. Air is the only means of travel possible around this time to this remote cold desert of the Trans Himalayas as roads remain shut in winters. I found myself having the odd satisfaction and contentment one gets when following their heart and heading in the right direction; the kind of emotions I felt three years ago when I first got introduced to the enigmatic creature that the Snow leopard is —and was completely beguiled and awed by it— and its conservation in the Himalayas through a lecture by a snow leopard expert during my graduation days and thought to myself- “this is exactly what I want to do!”.

After multiple attempts to reach Leh failed due to inclement weather and a range of other issues, I finally felt relief when my flight finally landed at the narrow and short airstrip of the Leh airport. After acclimatizing for a few days, my research began in earnest.

My field research covered around 16 villages in four weeks, all located at an elevation of more than 13,000 feet. I felt mesmerized and blessed to just be in the high Himalayas. The fact that my project with WWF was attempting to address some of the most pressing conservation issues with an aim to foster human well-being as well as nature conservation was the icing on the cake.

Ladakh is home to the camouflaged creature the snow leopard.

Once I started interacting with the local communities to understand how they relate to wildlife, a picture of a nuanced and at times ambivalent ways in which people relate to wildlife and especially the predators such as snow leopards emerged. On a freezing winter night in January 2016, a snow leopard secretly entered the traditional open corral of Habib Ulla’s household without making the faintest of a sound. As dawn approached, the predator had already killed twenty-five adult sheep and goats, housed in the low walled and decrepit stocking pen with hardly any protection. Habib was dismayed as he woke up to the scene of havoc wreaked by the Shan (snow leopard as colloquially addressed in Ladakhi). The carnivore refused to leave the scene, exclaimed Habib as he was unable to get rid of the cat. The wildlife department team was informed and the animal was captured and released into the wild. Within months, it returned to the same settlement twice and killed more livestock. He used thorns of the wild berries on top of the walls of corral, which also proved to be ineffective. For people like Habib Ulla, who have livestock as their sole income source, such attacks are particularly damaging.

A traditional corral of Habib Ulla, in Horzey village where a snow leopard entered thrice due to low walls and open roof. The herder later used bushes and thorns of wild berries to fence the walls of corral as a protective measure against predators

Livestock depredation by snow leopards is a major cause of conflict between communities and the cat and local people sometimes retaliate in exasperation. Retaliatory killing of snow leopards is considered to be one of the major threats to their survival since much as 55 percent of snow leopard poaching is retaliatory in nature.  However, I was surprised to see his positive and accepting attitude towards wildlife and laws of nature especially when he just had incurred such an immense economic loss. Bad construction and positioning of corrals and/or negligence or lax herding, can often be the main cause of snow leopard attacks on livestock. Herders here live a fragile existence where everyday is a struggle to survive and loss of livestock to disease and large predators results in significant economic hardship to local people. With almost 93% of the surveyed households losing livestock to carnivores, in 2016-17, it was remarkable to see such tolerance and positive attitudes of people towards these carnivores and their willingness to coexist.

WWF India in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Protection, Jammu and Kashmir had set up predator proof corrals for people who had had depredation incidences in the past or were more susceptible to them. The response that people had in common when asked about the effectiveness of predator proof corrals as a deterrent as opposed to the traditional corrals, was that they could sleep peacefully at night.

Predator proof corrals set up by WWF in various villages with covered roof and a door as a measure to keep depredation incidences by carnivores at bay.

By now, I had spent a couple of month in field and had begun understanding the local traditions, their culture and their attachment to their livestock despite a rapid onslaught of development in a better manner. 

As spring was fast approaching here in the high cold desert of Ladakh, the sun’s last rays cast a golden glow as I sat in the cozy Buddhist household belonging to 63 years old Phunchok Wangchuk one late evening. Keeping with the trademark Ladakhi hospitality, the family served hot tea and with a deep sense of loss, the owner of the killed deemo (female hybrid of yak and cow) started narrating the incident as if he had lost a dear one. The deemo hadn’t returned in the evening along with his other three yaks from their daily grazing routine in the nearby mountains and upon searching was found injured atop a hill near the village with an old and tired snow leopard sitting across it. It was at this moment when I realized that loss of livestock isn’t just economic, but brings with it hidden costs like emotional hardships, and loss of opportunities.

A month in the surreal and beautiful Ladakh has taught me that one can’t just merely solve the matter of human-wildlife conflict and save snow leopards unless one respects and understands the plight of people surviving with them and gives them voice. Visiting and connecting with the people from this part of the world is like witnessing life lived from another perspective, harsh yet unmatched in simplicity, tranquility and resilience. It was as much as an inner journey as a field trip. My journey concluded with a deep sense of respect and honour for the people of the high altitude as I didn't just return profoundly enamored by the mountain cat but also its surreal landscape and the people coexisting with it.

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