Sunday, November 26, 2006

Interview with Snow Leopard Conservancy program director

‘Human threat to snow leopard’

Concerns have been raised worldwide over the decreasing population of endangered snow leopard found in the upper reaches of Himalayas. Until a few years ago, this magnificent animal was on the brink of extinction when some individuals and organisations took up the fight for its survival. Snow Leopard Conservancy is one such premier institution.

A man who is passionately involved in this battle in India is Rinchen Wangchuk, programme director of Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC) - India. Son of an illustrious father, Colonel Rinchen, who was conferred with Mahavir Chakra twice, Rinchen Wangchuk, a Ladakhi Buddhist based in Leh, oversees projects for the conservation of this big, magnificent cat and provides necessary input for developing the ongoing programme in India.

Rinchen’s commitment to working for the conservation of wildlife, especially the snow leopard, has grown out of his own Ladakhi village upbringing and his experiences as a skilled mountaineer.

With fellow Indian climbers, he conquered the 24,660-foot Saser Kangri II in Ladakh’s Nubra region. Trained in community-based tourism from The Mountain Institute (Nepal) and RECROFT (Thailand), Rinchen also assisted researchers to develop the Earth Watch programme, “Land of the Snow Leopard.” Besides, he has served as a naturalist and assistant on several BBC and National Geographic documentaries filmed in Hemis National Park, Ladakh, including the widely acclaimed “Silent Roar: Searching for the snow leopard.”

Rinchen Wangchuk recently spoke to KAVITA SURI in Leh about SLC efforts to conserve the snow leopard and sensitise the local population about the threatened animal. Excerpts:

Q: The snow leopard is a seriously threatened animal and thus an endangered species. But how serious is the threat?
Well, the snow leopard is a seriously threatened animal. Found in the upper reaches of the Himalayas including India, Nepal, Tibet, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Bhutan etc, it is a threatened species in all these regions. The threat is serious. The ever growing human population has threatened the snow leopard’s survival. Villagers with growing domestic herds have moved into snow leopard habitat crowding out the native prey, thus making the conflict with villagers and pastoralists more intense. Also, an ever growing market for the bones, skin and organs of snow leopards for traditional Asian medicine is another real challenge.
The real question is how to maintain depredation at a manageable level while helping local people to perceive the greater worth of having a live snow leopard than a pelt of one that took their livestock.

Q: How is the Snow Leopard Conservancy working in India?

In India, the Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC) is working to promote innovative grassroots measures that lead local people to become better stewards of endangered snow leopards, their prey, and habitat. SLC-India is a registered charitable trust established specifically to work with local communities within India’s snow leopard range. We at SLC save snow leopards through direct partnerships with local people. It creates conservation and education activities that grow from within communities, building strong foundations for locally-driven protection of snow leopards and their habitat.

In high altitude mountains, people regularly lose their livestock to the snow leopard due to which they even poison or kill snow leopard. SLC helps communities to improve their corral and herding techniques to reduce livestock losses. At the same time, it trains and assists communities to set up home-stays, work as wildlife guides and set up small eco-tourism enterprises. The income these mountain people earn from tourists who come to see and learn about the snow leopard helps offset livestock losses, and pay for children’s school fees and the cost of alternative fuel to reduce reliance on scarce fuel wood.

Q: Which areas do you cover in India for snow leopard conservation?

Much of the SLC’s work is in the Ladakh region.. Mostly it is in the Hemis National Park but now we have started a project in Zanskar also. Named after the famous monastery, Hemis Gompa, the Hemis National Park, known as the snow leopard capital of India, has an altitudinal range of 3,300 to 6,000 metres. Established in 1981, the 3,350 square-kilometre Park offers excellent habitat for snow leopards and harbours four species of wild sheep and goats, giving it international bio-diversity importance.

The Park is famous for its population of the rare snow leopards and the ibex. It has been earmarked as one of the snow leopard reserves under a Central government project to conserve the species.

Q: You just said that you are working with local communities for the conservation of the snow leopard. Would you please elaborate how you are working with them to protect the endangered animal and its prey?

See, about 2,000 people live in the Hemis Park in more than a dozen villages. We have helped the villagers in constructing summer corrals. We had conducted a survey in the Park and found that 58-60 per cent of the livestock and animals of the villagers were killed by snow leopards and foxes. Sixty per cent of the livestock was lost in the open, while 40 per cent was killed in the enclosures. The impact for a poor family was huge. Even if one of their yaks, which is very expensive, or other animals were killed, it was very difficult for them to bear the loss. So, the easy method for them was to kill the snow leopard or even poison the big cat.

So we provided supervisory support to the villagers for constructing solid enclosures, wire mesh, doors and roofing materials. This helped in checking multiple losses; the hatred towards the poor animal was reduced. Thus, we have been able to reduce the heavy losses of the villagers and thus save the snow leopard.

Q: What difference does such initiatives make to the locals as far as snow leopard conservation is concerned?

Apart from reducing depredation, our endeavour is to increase local incomes and strengthening community stewardship of alpine ecosystems. This is the challenge on which the Snow Leopard Conservancy is focusing its efforts; seeking ways of helping local people regain their willingness to co-exist with large predators. That is how we initiated the concept of home stays in Hemis. Each such trip helps funds the SLC to support this ongoing work.

Q: How does community-based eco-tourism help save snow leopards?

It does-by minimising livestock depredation while empowering local people to directly benefit from an ecosystem that includes snow leopards. The goal is that these local communities should become guardians of healthy populations of snow leopards. For this, we build on already-existing opportunities for generating income. We train and support village women’s cooperatives to offer tourists traditional Himalayan Homestays and Parachute Cafés. We also train men and women to be village-based nature guides, offering visitors short walks or day hikes to look for plants, birds and other wildlife.

These eco-tourism activities preserve the traditional culture while improving livelihoods; and it all adds up to communities being willing and able to protect their fragile, high-altitude ecosystem, and the snow leopards who make it their home.

Q: To create awareness among the Ladakhis, especially school children, regarding the snow leopard, you have undertaken some activity. Would you please tell us about it?

Yes, we at the SLC-India, have started an education programme. It is a collaborative effort between the SLC and Kalpavriksh, an NGO to facilitate the development and implementation of an education programme in Ladakh, focused on the conservation of snow leopards and other wildlife of the local trans-Himalayan region. This programme has been financially supported by the Association for India’s Development (AID-Columbus) and Snow Leopard Conservancy-USA.

While SLC-India has worked closely with local communities in villages in and around remote areas of Ladakh and Zanskar, including the Hemis High Altitude National Park, a need was felt for more focused efforts to raise awareness among the children about the environment with specific focus on Ladakh’s biodiversity and the conservation of snow leopards.

Ladakh is a region that is witnessing rapid changes due to recent external influences. Hence, it is important to enable the children to understand their rich natural biodiversity, to become its protectors and to grow up to be responsible citizens with sensitivity to their environment.

Retaliatory killings of the snow leopard and wolf do happen when local communities suffer livestock losses to these predators. Hence, the need for a programme was felt that could instil in children a sense of feeling in which wildlife and people might live in better harmony.

Q: Have you collaborated with local organisations of government agencies?

Yes, the SLC, in collaboration with Ladakh’s Department of Wildlife Protection, has produced interpretive materials for visitors to the Hemis National Park. A handout contains information about the park, its wildlife, and certain regulations of which tourists should be mindful.

Q: What is the status of present research that you are doing on snow leopards in India?

We have photographed territorial marking behaviour in wild snow leopards. This is the first time any of these behaviours have been photographed in the wild anywhere in the world. We laid camera traps which provided us with excellent opportunities for data collection. In addition to the videos, four still cameras were set up to monitor the snow leopard population. We could see snow leopards face-rubbing scent-spraying, and exhibiting a scent-triggered response known as flehmen (lip-curl with open mouth and bared canines). One male almost does a somersault in its eagerness to scent-spray!

We’re researching camera-traps as a non-invasive way of obtaining reliable population estimates of snow leopards in a given area by identifying the individuals who pass through the camera stations.

(The author is the Special Representative of The Statesman based in Jammu) &usrsess=1&id=137960

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