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Looking for the snow leopard

GLIMPSES OF LADAKH The villages where the programme has been started are those that have taken an oath not to engage in retaliatory killings of the snow leopard and the other major predator of domestic livestock, the wolf PHOTOS: BY AUTHOR

GLIMPSES OF LADAKH The villages where the programme has been started are those that have taken an oath not to engage in retaliatory killings of the snow leopard and the other major predator of domestic livestock, the wolf PHOTOS: BY AUTHOR  

A unique homestay programme at Ladakh offers tourists a slice of village life and a chance to spot the endangered snow leopard

If you thought that tourism had nothing to do with conservation of an endangered species such as the snow leopard, read on. It was during a three-day trek in the Sham area to the northwest of Leh in the Himalayas that I discovered this unusual connection. It was the start of spring, and I had never known Ladakh to look so brown on the many trips I had done during other seasons.

The Sham trek is considered an easy one which you may be advised to undertake before the more strenuous ones in Zanskar or Markha valley. The altitudes vary between 3,474 m and 4,110 m, so in effect, you never are really much higher than Leh at about 3,550 m.

The trails go over undulating mountain paths, and a few mountain passes from where you are treated to spectacular vistas of the Himalayas. The area is rich in wildlife, but the sheer expanse of the terrain, however, makes it difficult to spot wildlife easily. It could be a while before you spot a wild ungulate or hear the call of a Himalayan snow cock. And of course, several years before you spot the elusive snow leopard!

Looking for the snow leopard

The snow leopard is at the top of the food chain in the high mountains of the cold Himalayan desert, and has co-existed with human communities for generations. Attacks by the leopard on domestic livestock are not uncommon, and this behaviour had earned the ire of local communities, which have sometimes lost up to 50 animals in a single encounter, when the predator jumped into the enclosure where the animals are kept at night.

Looking for the snow leopard

The Ladakhi homes are spacious, with plenty of room that most cannot even dream of in metropolitan India. The homestay rooms usually offer you spectacular views of the surrounding landscape through glass windows, and are brightly furnished with carpets and chogtses (low tables that are intricately carved or painted). The homestays offer allows you to get a glimpse of what life is like in rural Ladakh, and gives you an opportunity to closely interact with people whose lives are largely governed by seasonal rhythms. It takes little effort to feel at home with a Ladakhi family; they are warm, spontaneous and simple people.

The villages where the Himalayan Homestay programme has been started are those that have taken an oath not to engage in retaliatory killings of the snow leopard and the wolf, the other major predator of domestic livestock. The families are helped to offset livestock losses by the income that they get from the homestay programme. Ten per cent of the earnings are kept aside in a Village Conservation Fund, which has been used in garbage clean-ups of village surrounds (garbage largely from the camping sites), improved animal husbandry practices, repair of mane (prayer) walls, etc. In many homestay villages, local youth have been trained to be Nature guides and they show you around their village or take you on a day trek. The Homestay programmes have been started in rich snow leopard habitats. In Ladakh, the programme was first initiated in the Hemis National Park along the Markha valley trek. Currently, there are about 40 homestays in the Sham and Markha trekking routes. Plans are afoot to offer similar facilities along the Zanskar trekking routes as well from this year. The ultimate success of the programme will depend on the status of the snow leopard, currently listed as an endangered species, with a population of about 500 that remains in the wild in India. As tourists to Ladakh, we have the opportunity to support community-based tourism initiatives such as this one, and help, albeit indirectly, in the conservation of an endangered big cat.

SUJATHA PADMANABHAN

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