Years from now, when the history of snow leopard conservation in Ladakh is written, two names will shine brighter than the rest—Rinchen Wangchuk, the late co-founder of Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT) and Dr Tsewang Namgail (46), the current director of SLC-IT and, arguably, Ladakh’s most accomplished wildlife scientist.
Image above of Rinchen Wangchuk (Left) and Dr. Tsewang Namgail (Right)
It’s impossible to overstate their incredible contributions towards protecting the snow leopard, an apex predator that plays a critical role in maintaining Ladakh’s ecological integrity. From starting India’s first successful community-based snow leopard conservation effort through the promotion of homestays to educating Ladakh’s masses about this
elusive cat, they have rendered yeoman service to the cause.
In the arms of Mother Nature
Rinchen Wangchuk, the son of Colonel Chewang Rinchen, a decorated Indian Army soldier honoured with two Maha Vir Chakras, grew up in the serene village of Sumur in Nubra.
“As a young boy, I grew up chasing Lynxes and going out with herders. I was always drawn to outdoor life and mountaineering. In high school, I started taking Western groups climbing some of the 6,000-metre peaks we have here. As a mountaineer, I got drawn more to the beautiful wonders of Ladakh’s rich biodiversity and tracking snow leopards and wolves. This led to me becoming a nature guide. I began leading some wildlife documentary film groups that came here to film snow leopards. From there, I got more involved with the scientific community,” says Rinchen in this short documentary.
Meanwhile, Dr Tsewang Namgail grew up in the remote yet picturesque village of Skubuchan, which lies about 125 km from Leh. Until he was nine, he studied with fellow village children out in the open amidst nature without a classroom.
“That really exposed me to wildlife and my natural surroundings. On weekdays, I would go to school, while the weekends were spent herding sheep and goats on higher pastures. These experiences exposed me to wildlife, including the snow leopard. As a child herder, I had lost a few sheep and goats to snow leopards. Until I left my village, I never really experienced a formal upbringing, particularly when it came to education since our teachers wouldn’t attend regularly,” recalls Dr Namgail, speaking to The Better India.
Despite Rinchen’s quaint early upbringing in Sumur, his father’s vocation meant travelling to different parts of India and changing schools regularly. After completing his graduation from Delhi, he returned to Ladakh in the late 1990s to work with the International Snow Leopard Trust as a field associate, conducting various surveys.
“Alongside colleagues like Jigmet Dadul (one of India’s leading Snow Leopard naturalists and trackers), we would spend entire winters living in tents and monitoring snow leopards. This was when we realised the plight of rural communities that had to co-exist with this beautiful animal. As beautiful and enigmatic as this animal was to us, it caused a lot of nuisance to farm communities. While earning an income working as a naturalist, I wanted to do something for these communities. It began with volunteering to survey the proposed high-altitude Hemis National Park. I realised that we needed a long term local solution to the problem. It became imperative that we find incentive-based conservation initiatives to help farmers and get them involved in conservation efforts,” says Rinchen in the short documentary.
Dr Namgail took a different route. After completing his MSc in Zoology from Panjab University, he obtained an MSc in Wildlife Biology from the University of Tromso, Norway, and PhD in Wildlife Ecology from the Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Following his stint in Europe, he was a postdoctoral researcher at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) for three years before returning to Ladakh in 2013.
Protecting the Community
As a field associate, Rinchen Wangchuk framed a question that would address the fundamental challenge of snow leopard conservation. How do you reconcile the notion of snow leopard conservation with the needs of local communities who lose their livestock, particularly sheep and goats, to these elusive creatures? Snow leopards were predominantly suffering retaliatory killings at the hands of these communities. Today, there are a little over 250 snow leopards left in Ladakh.
“On one hand, we have an obligation to conserve these animals, while on the other, they pose a genuine threat to livelihoods. In the early days, there were times when I would visit some of these remote villages in the Hemis National Park with Rinchen Wangchuk as an independent wildlife researcher and speak to them about the conservation of these animals. They would stand surprised at our desire to protect an animal they despised, and even name our organisation after it,” recalls Dr Namgail.
To address these concerns, Rinchen established the SLC-IT in 2000 (registered in 2003) alongside Dr Rodney Jackson of the US-based Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC), to promote local efforts towards community-based conservation efforts. Until 2010-11, the SLC-IT worked as an affiliate of the SLC, before turning independent.
“One step the SLC-IT took is to secure corrals that housed the livestock. Rinchen understood that retributive killings of snow leopards often took place due to multiple livestock killings when the predators managed to enter poorly constructed corrals. We would supply wire mesh to cover the roof of their livestock pens, wooden beams to hold the wire mesh, and material to strengthen their door and door frames to secure the livestock. Sometimes, we encourage them to build entire corrals made of stone from scratch because their livestock pens are attached to their homes, and they are difficult to repair,” says Dr Namgail.
Since its start in 2000, the SLC-IT has helped build more than 200 livestock corrals across Ladakh. However, this initiative’s biggest success story to develop predator-proof livestock enclosures is in Zanskar, where the programme began in 2011. Some of these villages are really remote, and transporting this material is very difficult. These corrals serve entire villages and not just individual households.
“Around 5,000 people have directly benefited from these corrals overall. We estimated that for every 1 corral we build, which can last for 60-70 years, we could save at least 2 snow leopards. This is a very rough estimate based on the frequency with which people kill snow leopards inside their corrals. We always build these corrals in partnership with these communities. Local villagers provide on-site materials like stone and brick. Villages that have trees provide the wooden beams that support the steel mesh on the top. In villages with no trees, we provide them with wooden beams and material for door frames. They build these corrals, while we supply off-site materials and facilitate the process,” he says.
Most of these corral projects are located in the Sham Valley, Rong Valley in Changthang, Zanskar, and some in Nubra like in the very remote Digar-Tangyar rural areas. The SLC-IT also runs a voluntary programme for school and college students from around the world called VolunTourism.
Students spend a week to 10 days in remote villages across Ladakh and help build individual corrals while living with local families and learning about their culture.
Once they helped them build these structures, the next step was to soften local communities’ attitudes towards snow leopards. In 2003, the SLC-IT under the leadership of Rinchen started the pioneering Himalayan Homestay Programme in Rumbak Valley of the Hemis National Park to help villagers offset the financial loss they suffered after losing livestock to snow leopards. At the time, Dr Namgail was researching the Tibetan Argali (wild mountain sheep) and visiting these parts with Rinchen Wangchuk.
“It was actually some of the women in Rumbak village who first proposed this local homestay model to Rinchen. They suggested ‘instead of camping out and littering the place, why can’t tourists live with us inside our homes instead?’ If tourists stay at their homes, they can avoid the trouble of carrying a lot of the camping gear on horses that were grazing on the same pastures as the vulnerable Tibetan Argali and eating up all their food. The SLC-IT also conducted a survey among tourists and locals in the area whether such a model would be acceptable to them,” says Dr Namgail.
So far, the SLC-IT has helped establish 200+ homestays across Sham Valley, Rong Valley and Zanskar. These homestays are in critical snow leopard habitats or along popular trekking routes. Residents are earning anywhere between Rs 15,000 to Rs 2.5 lakh per season (tourist season lasts about six months) depending on the location and popularity of trekking routes. Besides homestays, the SLC-IT encourages the sale of local handicraft products that tourists can take home as souvenirs, creating Eco Cafes serving local delicacies along trekking routes and provision of solar water heaters.
“Conservation-linked homestays were first started in Ladakh and then slowly took off in other areas of the Himalayas. It became a good way of obtaining the support of local communities in snow leopard conservation. It was not snow leopards who were at risk of losing their lives to herders, but wolves as well. The same people who killed these predators in the past are now inviting tourists to their villages to see snow leopards and other wild critters. These homestays were first started in Rumbak in the Hemis National Park, which the state wildlife department took over in 2006,” says Dr Namgail.
“Under Rinchen’s guidance and leadership, the team at SLC-IT developed one of the most successful models of community-based tourism in the Hemis National Park, the Sham region of Ladakh and Zanskar. The Ladakh Himalayan Homestays programme helped the poorest families in villages along popular trekking routes earn an income from tourism. This helped, in part, to offset to a certain extent the economic losses incurred when their livestock was predated upon by snow leopards and Tibetan wolves and fuelled attitudinal changes of villagers towards predators,” writes Sujata Padmanabhan, for Sanctuary Asia, in a tribute to Rinchen, who passed away on 26 March 2011 at the age of 42.
Over the years, many experts contend that there has been a complete shift in local attitudes towards snow leopards in the last 10-15 years. Converting these angry farmers into active conservationists is a significant achievement. Today locals scan the higher reaches to see whether a mother snow leopard has given birth to cubs or not in positive anticipation.
“However, occasional killing on high pastures persisted. To resolve this, SLC-IT started a community-controlled livestock insurance program, whereby the villagers collected premiums from insured animals, and SLC-IT provided a matching fund to create a corpus. The villagers then got compensated from the corpus, which keeps growing in the bank,” notes this story in the Vikalp Sangam publication.
Another facet of their conservation effort was developing a biodiversity resource kit for schools in Ladakh called the Ri-Gyancha meaning ‘jewels of the mountains’ in Ladakhi about a decade ago, alongside Kalpavriksh, a Pune-based NGO.
“The kit contains information about biodiversity, ecosystems, Ladakh’s wildlife, threats faced and conservation actions. It also contains detailed descriptions of 80 activities that can be conducted as part of the program. The kit is illustrated with many photographs and drawings and is in full colour to make it appealing to teachers and children. It includes ready-to-use educational materials such as posters, a board game, card games, worksheets and puzzles,” notes the SLC-IT website.
They also conduct regular workshops in schools and colleges in Leh and Kargil to spread awareness about Ladakh’s biodiversity and help youngsters understand the role of ungulates or snow leopards in maintaining the region’s ecological integrity.
Since Rinchen’s passing on at the age of 42 because of a deteriorating neurological condition, Dr Namgail has carried on his mentor’s work. However, between 2011 and 2013, the SLC-IT went through a period of real uncertainty.
It was a serendipitous meeting with the outgoing director in Leh Bazaar during his holidays in 2013, which got him to stay and take over the SLC-IT reins. “It was a difficult decision because I had a good thing going in the US, but at some point, I always wanted to come home and do something for these animals that I held so dearly. After much thought, I took over because Rinchen was such a good friend and mentor to me,” he says.
Since taking over, he has only strengthened the SLC-IT’s initiatives across Ladakh.
“In the early years, Rinchen found it difficult to obtain funding. Whatever initiative he envisioned and started, it was on a smaller scale. In my view, Dr Tsewang Namgail is Ladakh’s most accomplished wildlife scientist. Over the years, he has conducted critical scientific research on not just the snow leopard. Moreover, he has expanded the scale and scope of SLC-IT’s work, particularly in Zanskar and the upper Indus river belt,” says Khenrab Phuntsog, a wildlife guard in Hemis National Park, to The Better India.
During his tenure, he has started a series of initiatives, particularly from 2015 onwards. He started the monastic education programme. SLC-IT apprises Buddhist monks, nuns and religious heads of all the major conservation issues and the wild animals that are threatened or endangered. In return, they impart the message of conservation through the lens of Buddhist principles like inter-dependence and non-violence to their followers.
They have also engaged local villagers in surveying wild animals around their villages and the higher pastures where they take livestock to graze. For the past five years on Snow Leopard Day, these villagers have been going up on the mountains conducting surveys and recording whatever they have roaming in these areas. These findings go into creating a biodiversity profile of the respective villages. The SLC-IT is in the process of analysing all the data that has been collected in the past five years. The results will be published in a local publication sometime next year.
Also, as reported in The Better India, Ladakh has struggled with an explosion of feral dogs, threatening both people and the local wildlife. This is a human-made problem.
“We have realised that spaying and neutering these dogs may help in the short term, but in the long run, unless we manage the wet waste which is being created mostly by tourism and the military, we won’t succeed in managing the problem well. Last year, we developed a biodigester prototype to produce biogas at military camps funded by the United Nations Development Programme under their Secure Himalaya Project. We set up one at a paramilitary camp in Choglamsar area of Leh, housing the unit inside a greenhouse. We showed them that this biogas digester could operate in winters as well,” says Dr Namgail.
But the question is whether the armed forces have the will to assist conservation efforts. In remote areas right alongside the border where the military is camped, there are endangered species like the Wild Yak, Tibetan Antelope, Snow Leopard and Black-Necked Crane under threat from these feral dogs. This is why they must act soon.
Meanwhile, the struggle goes on for the likes of Dr Namgail, who carries forward Rinchen’s legacy. “After all, protecting and conserving the snow leopard in particular and wildlife in general is my life long mission,” he says.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)