Growing up in Chilling, a small village approximately 60 km from Leh, 42-year-old Khenrab Phuntsog would regularly spot snow leopards at a distance while taking out the household goats and sheep for grazing up on mountain pastures nearby. With Chilling situated inside the famous Hemis National Park, it wasn’t hard to spot snow leopards if one climbed up to the higher ground.
However, it was during preparations for his grandmother’s cremation, when he was aged 12, that he actually came within 100 metres of a snow leopard. It was a sight he would never forget.
“I had gone with two local painters for the finishing touches on the structure where my grandmother was to be cremated. While they were at work, one of the painters pointed towards the opposite mountain slope at the snow leopard quietly waiting just above a herd of blue sheep. Initially, the rest of us didn’t see it. But when it took a couple of long leaps down, we saw it. It had caught one of the sheep and went for the kill,” recalled Khenrab in a conversation with The Better India.
It was that magnificent sighting that inspired Khenrab to first volunteer with the Wildlife Protection Department, and eventually, join it as a wildlife guard at the age of 22 in the year 2000. Since then, he has rescued 47 snow leopards.
Tracking Snow Leopards
As per the last scientific survey conducted through camera traps in 2012, the number of snow leopards in the 3,350 sq km-large Hemis National Park stood at 11, compared to 7 in 2006. However, for those surveys, camera traps were only installed across 300 sq km.
“We are now in the process of completing another census for snow leopards using extensive camera trapping methods in different parts of Ladakh, including in Changthang, Hemis National Park, Kargil and Nubra Valley. In Hemis National Park, we have about 60 snow leopards today. For this census camera traps were installed in half the total area unlike in 2006 and 2012. If you take all of Ladakh, however, my guess is that the figure would be above 250. This census is being carried out under the guidance of the Wildlife Institute of India. The results of this census may come by the end of this year or early next year,” he said.
Wildlife guards like Khenrab identify areas like ridgelines, broken cliffs, deep valleys and hanging rocks where snow leopards usually traverse, to install camera traps. Rolling and flat land isn’t really conducive terrain for the snow leopard, although for this census camera traps have been installed in not so conducive terrain as well, to ensure that none are missed.
Knowing where to install camera traps is a result of Khenrab’s 20 years of experience in tracking the elusive snow leopard. As a tracker, the first things he looks out for are indirect signs like pugmarks, scrapes, faeces, scent-sprays, claw-rakes and the remains from kills.
“The best times to spot them are early morning and late evening. When looking for scrapes or faeces, you can find them in the bottom of the valley or along the ridgeline. They make a pile of sand with their hind legs sitting on the ground and then urinate atop it. This is how they mark territory. They also rub their necks or cheeks on hanging rocks, leaving behind fur. One doesn’t look for high hanging rocks but suitably sized ones, where they can stand up and rub their necks. Here they also urinate and spray a pungent liquid from scent glands located under the base of the tail. Each one has its own unique scent,” says Khenrab.
In February-March, which is the mating season for the snow leopards, these hanging rocks are used frequently to scan and smell for potential mates. If these signs don’t work, they start calling each other on top of these ridgelines since this is the quickest way to communicate. Once you know where to look, the likelihood of spotting a snow leopard directly through your binoculars increases.
Rescuing Snow Leopards
During the late 1970s and 80s, some snow leopards were killed by the local populace in retaliation for their attacks on livestock. These predators would enter various corral pens in villages and kill livestock, a major source of income for many families. When snow leopards get sick, old or can’t hunt in the wild, they target livestock in corral pens
These kills have significantly reduced since then because of awareness raised by the Wildlife Protection Department and other government agencies about the legal penalties involved for killing snow leopards, including jail time. Today, whenever a snow leopard enters a human habitation, the people immediately call the rescue team of the Wildlife Protection Department. After it’s in the safe hands of the rescue team, a vet assesses its medical condition. Once the snow leopard is deemed medically fit, it is let back into the wild.
“From 2000 onwards, the introduction of ecotourism, particularly in villages in the vicinity of areas like the Hemis National Park, played a big part in furthering the change in mindset against killing these predators. When tourists began visiting villages like Chilling to spot snow leopards and live in local homestays, the villagers began to earn enough to offset any livestock loss to the predator. Along with my colleagues Smanla Tsering and Tsering Tashi, I was involved in training local eco-guides, who ensured tourists kept the premises clean, facilitated their interaction with homestay owners, and knew where to take them to spot these creatures,” says Khenrab.
But the process of rescuing snow leopards is a hard job with lots of risks.
“When I began my work rescuing these predators in 1995, we had no equipment. We would merely carry empty gunny sacks, ropes and sticks for these rescue missions in different villages where snow leopards were stuck inside corral pens. It was extremely risky work. One of my senior colleagues nearly had his entire hand bitten off during one such rescue,” says Tsering Tashi, a range officer posted in Changthang.
During his two-decade tenure as a wildlife guard, Khenrab has been involved in rescuing 47 snow leopards. And in the early days, these rescues were conducted without tranquilisers.
“My first rescue mission with Khenrab was in Ney village sometime in the early 2000s. The snow leopard was caught inside a corral pen with multiple rooms, while villagers outside were standing around terrified. We noticed that the snow leopard was sitting near one of the windows. I explained to Khenrab that we must first close the window from outside. Once we closed the window, we drove the snow leopard into the last room of the corral pen. There was just one door. We had carried a blanket with us inside the corral pen, while an elaborate net trap set up at the door. Two others were standing guard outside,” recalls Tashi.
As they entered the room with a blanket, Tashi warned Khenrab not to run away if the snow leopard jumped on them because the animal was also scared for its life.
“So, when we closed in on the snow leopard, it jumped towards us. We wrapped the snow leopard in our blanket first before driving it inside our net. Post-2000s, however, we started getting some equipment like camouflage nets, blowpipes and tranquillizer guns. Most of my rescues were without tranquillizers since possible overdoses can harm them,” explains Tashi.
“With modern techniques, it’s critical to understand how much of a drug needs to be used in a dart before tranquillizing the snow leopard. You have to assess the size of the animal before loading the darts with drugs. Also, you still have to be careful because it’s an aggressive animal. It’s very important not to get too close and also to prevent sudden movements and carefully calculate how to trap it. If you rush the process, the animal gets very aggressive,” says Khenrab.
Tashi goes on to add, “Khenrab has a genuine love for snow leopards. Even if called upon for a rescue past midnight, he never shies away from taking up the assignment.”
Every year, about 21 to 45 snow leopards are killed in India for poaching or as retaliation for livestock loss, according to a 2016 report by Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network.
“In Ladakh, the biggest threat to their survival is habitat destruction due to rising urbanisation and development activities that are happening around villages and in areas where their prey feast. When massive areas are cordoned off for developmental activities, losing all the alpine plants and other scarce vegetation is detrimental to herbivorous animals like blue sheep, goats, marmots, etc. These, in turn, are food for snow leopards. Another threat is a scarcity of water as a result of fast-shrinking glaciers, thanks to climate change,” says Khenrab.
Despite these threats and 20 years on the job, his passion for snow leopards hasn’t waned. “My objective is to create a safe habitat for them. There is no one to represent the snow leopards. I like to believe I represent them. They are critical for the maintenance of the ecological balance. We must do everything to protect them,” he concludes.
(Edited by Nishi Malhotra)