Amid the vast expanse of brown barren ridges, mountains crowned in snow, solid glaciers, icicles and cold streams from snowmelt emerges a narrow winding road. At a place where the road ends, people get off their vehicle, offload sacks of flour, rice, and other groceries and mount them on mules and set off to their villages. “The mules carry our gas cylinders too,” says 31-year old Tsewang Gylatsan, a villager from Rumbak.

The road to Rumbak Village in Ladakh ends here. The village, with its nine Ladakhi farmer families, is situated in the Hemis National Park and in order to reach there people have to walk about 10 kilometers.

Rumbak, a host to the critically endangered Snow leopards, is also home to nine Ladakhi farmer families. Besides bearing the harsh climate in an isolated, undeveloped and cold desert, the villagers also face another grave issue – conflict with Snow leopards. Snow leopards attack their livestock, grabbing away their main source of income.

In retaliation to this conflict, villagers kill the critically endangered snow leopards.

Conserving Himalayan Landscapes

Jigmet Takpa, Chief Conservator of Forests, Jammu & Kashmir Wildlife Department, says, “It is the basic assumption that wildlife has to move within protected areas. If they move out, they come directly in conflict with humans, after which, they are captured and relocated. Protected areas are set up to prevent such conflict. This, however, will not work in Ladakh as we have adopted the landscape method of conservation, where the entire area is protected.”

Whenever protected areas are set up, people living inside the forest are cleared and relocated. Once their rights are established, and there is no one residing in this area, it is declared as a protected area.

Ladakh, being a cold desert with sparse vegetation, forage area for animals is less, and spread out. A confined protected area will not work here as animals travel longer ranges. Takpa says, “In this model, people and animals co-exist, and if they co-exist, it is sustainable. There is no relocation concept here. What can they do outside the protected area? People here are economically poor and depend on forest resources for their livelihood as pastoralism and agriculture is their main occupation.”

The main problem the villagers face is snow leopards killing the entire livestock when it is in a killing spree. When the animal kills all the livestock and is exhausted, people stone it to death.

“To mitigate this conflict, we thought that the number of livestock and livestock owners should be reduced. For instance, if ten people are into livestock business, only one or two should maintain the livestock, and this is possible only if villagers are given an alternative livelihood”, adds the chief conservator.

Ladakhi Homestays address conservation and development

Though tourism thrived in Ladakh region, most of the income went to hotels and travel companies. Trekkers visiting these places brought their own tents and camping equipments, so they didn’t have much business opportunities in renting out their houses. Local people gained no benefit from the tourism boom.

Tsewang Namgail, Director, Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT) says, “Some villagers asked us if we could introduce homestays for trekkers and snow leopard enthusiasts. We had to first understand if trekkers would be comfortable with this idea. We surveyed trekkers, asked them if they would prefer staying with the locals, and how much they would spend for homestays.”

Some of the villagers were uncomfortable with the idea of having strangers in their house, but eventually, they agreed.

The project initiated by SLC-IT along with the local communities was later taken over by Jammu & Kashmir wildlife department.

“We gave the local people extensive training in cooking, behaviour etiquettes, identifying wildlife in this region, and how to treat the guests,” says Takpa.

Gyaltsan was trained in identifying local birds and snow leopards and he accompanies trekkers on snow leopard trails.

Over the years, Ladakh successfully established over 1200 homestays. The forest department formed a committee in every region, with one person from each village. The villagers were entrusted with the task of drafting their own rules and regulations, decide on the name of the committee and even register it. The locals named this project ‘Youth Association for Development of Hemis National Park’, which had its aims and objectives clearly spelt out.

The initial focus of the project was to address the snow leopards menace.

Earlier, the cattle pens were broken or poorly built. People were given wired mesh to cover this, and it helped in reducing the leopard attack largely. Further, the cattle coming from the plains were immunized to prevent epidemic outbreak among the local livestock.

Impact

The snow leopard project brought social and economic transformation in these villages. Says Takpa, “People consumed nutritious food, which was otherwise, not easily available to them. When they cook for trekkers, they also eat a healthy and wholesome meal.”

He added, “I was amazed to hear from the women that the discipline in the Ladakhi homes improved. Usually in summer, the men drink local beer and come home. When there are guests at home, they cannot do this, and slowly non-alcoholism has turned into a habit.”

Nwang Yongtan, a 75-year-old farmer is glad that their income and food issues are solved. Earlier, they used to travelled to far off places to cut logs, took it to town in a hope to sell and earn some money which was very unpredictable. With the homestays, their living conditions have improved.

When the initiative started, people were earning around Rs 20,000 per year, but now they earn Rs 1, 20,000 to 1, 60,000 per year.

The community benefitted through increased incomes. “I earn Rs 1,20,000 to Rs 1,30,000 per year, and 10% of this money goes to the community. I am sending my children to school,” says Gyaltsan.

The project looked at various elements – involving the local community, giving them a livelihood opportunity, conservation of Snow leopards and the eco-sensitive and fragile Himalayan landscapes.

Takpa says, “Allowing too many tourists during the season would threaten the fragile habitat, hence a limit of 35 visitors per day was set.”

Development Initiatives

Tashi Tsonma, a farmer, catches her breath, holding a bucket of hot water. She says, “Earlier, we went long distances looking for twigs and logs to heat water. Now, we have solar heaters in the village, and it is a huge relief.”

Solar power

The villages are now powered with solar panels. Image credit: Sharada Balasubramanian

Besides diesel generators, the government also installed solar panels for powering homes in these villages. However, Sonam Dolma uses only solar panels to light the long dark evenings. “With solar panels, we get power for almost six hours in the evening. Just that it needs some maintenance and cleaning, and it works very well from 7 – 10.30 pm. Life is comfortable now”, she says.

The money from the snow leopard fund is also used for whitewashing cultural sites, garbage management, etc.

The snow leopard conservation project motivated the villagers to work harder. In the process, the village witnessed developments. For instance, there was no medical centre in the village, today, there is a small clinic where three doctors take turns and visit. The village, which was cut off from the outside world, now has a satellite phone.

The women in these Himalayan mountains are economically empowered now. They have a handicraft development programme where women create products like snow leopard souvenirs from wool and there is a good demand for such products from trekkers. It is a good source of income for women here, and they do not depend on their husbands for money.

Further, a community control for insurance and livestock programme was set up for loss on livestock. According to Namgail, people spent Rs 20 per year, and the total collection was Rs 50,000. They had put equal money, created a corpus fund and deposited in the bank. This money was used to compensate for loss of livestock, else kept in the bank to accumulate over years.

Today, the villagers are even learning English.

Namgail says, “Those who earlier poached the animal for its skin or killed them for attacking livestock now walk the tall mountains, spotting snow leopards, and showing them to trekkers. The attitude of people towards wildlife has drastically changed. The Snow leopards are no longer an enemy.”

The story was published earlier on Nov 2, 2016 on The Edgein

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