Once a threat, now an asset
(All photos courtesy of the Snow Leopard Conservancy)
By Leda Marritz
Would you go out of your way to protect an animal that was a threat to your survival?
In the trans-Himalayan region of India called Ladakh, villagers and snow leopards used to be in competition. The snow leopards, whose territory was shrinking, were turning to farm animals tended by villagers for their food. And the villagers were retaliating and trying to protect their livelihood by killing these rare and endangered cats.
It is in areas like Ladakh, whose intact ecology makes them habitable for extraordinary animals such as snow leopards, where a lot of wildlife conservation work is occurring. Some conservation organizations are focusing on programs that demonstrate the economic value that wild animals can bring to the local communities, and are including them in their conservation strategy and efforts.
The Snow Leopard Conservancy, a conservation group that operates in several Asian countries, helps villagers become stewards of the snow leopard and their shared habitat, thereby reducing human-snow leopard conflict. In the Ladakh-Zanskar mountain communities, the Himalayan Homestay program is one of their most successful efforts.
The homestay program, which has been developing since 2000, allows visitors to the region to stay with local families in their homes while they experience the extraordinary natural surroundings, trails, and, if they’re very lucky, snow leopards. During early discussions with the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT)and their local partners, villagers introduced the idea of a homestay program because they wanted to capture income from the extant trekking industry in surrounding areas.
Over 100 families, 40 of which are located in prime snow leopard habitat, participate in the program, and the average amount that a homestay contributes to a household’s income is significant and rising steadily, from $752 in 2007 to $1,201 in 2009.
“Household incomes are higher in prime snow leopard habitat, providing an important motivation for conservation,” says Radhika Kothari, Snow Leopard Conservancy-India Trust’s (SLC-IT) Deputy Director.
The success of the Himalayan Homestay program demonstrates the value of the snow leopard to the participating families. It also impacts the larger surrounding communities in the form of a dedicated Conservation Fund, a communal pot funded by a 10 percent cut of the profits from each home stay visit. The Conservation Fund is collected annually by an elected villager and used for mutually agreed- upon conservation purposes within the village. SLC-IT ensures that this money is collected and used appropriately, but the community members are entirely responsible for deciding how to disburse it.
Conservation Fund monies have been used for projects ranging from waste management to trekking trail upkeep. One community established a local wildlife refuge for the threatened Tibetan argali (mountain sheep). Others built predator-proof corrals for their herds, paid full-time herders to provide additional protection for livestock in distant pastures, and insured high-value livestock through a community insurance program.
So, what about the snow leopards? How do you measure the success of a program that doesn’t actually involve the animals themselves?
SLC-IT evaluates the Himalayan Homestay program by assessing whether and how it helps eliminate retaliatory killings and meet other conservation objectives. Livestock fatalities can still occur in open pastures or open corrals (no fatalities have occurred in the predator-proof corrals), and over-grazing by the farm animals is still impacting the snow leopards’ wild prey base. Still, SLC-IT has succeeded in keeping some pastures undisturbed for use by the wild herbivores. Snow leopards are notoriously elusive and difficult to track, but wherever corrals are predator-proofed, there have been many fewer retribution killings. Overall, there are between 5,000 and 7,200 snow leopards living in the wild.
Another important measure of success is the number of snow leopard sightings by visitors. Snow Leopard Conservancy began offering annual Winter Snow Leopard Quests in 2005, and snow leopards have been seen on every excursion since then.
Eco-tourism programs must strike a balance between being profitable and beneficial for local
communities without supporting excessive visitors or development that could threaten wildlife
populations or habitats. The Himalayan Homestay program offers very basic facilities, and the rough terrain and altitude attract only the most zealous nature lovers. By contrast with the many ecotourism experiences that are designed to create luxury accommodations in natural settings, this program offers a rustic and truly local experience.
By fostering community-directed initiatives and leadership, SLC-IT has been able to develop a homestay program that is sustainable, effective, and supported by the villagers whose participation is so critical to its success. After years of community mobilization, education outreach, and programs like this one, attitudes toward snow leopards have indeed changed. While retaliatory killings and a diminished prey base remain very real threats to the snow leopard population, many villagers now recognize how valuable an asset they are to their communities.
Recently, SLC-IT was looking for a name for a new Environmental Education Kit about snow leopards and other local wildlife and biodiversity issues. Responding to a request for input from from the community, one of the villagers who participates in the homestay program suggested Ri-Gyancha (“Ornaments of the Mountains”) to communicate the local sentiment for the rare and beautiful wildlife in their region. “This change from menace to ornament for us is the success,” said Kothari.
Dr. Rodney Jackson and Darla Hillard, the founders of the Snow Leopard Conservancy along with Mr. Rinchen Wangchuk, co-founder of SLC-IT, directed the planning, initial training, and development of this program. However, the program itself is managed and operated entirely by the participating villages. SLC-IT monitors the program and solicits visitor feedback to enable them to evaluate the program from year to year and continue to build on its achievements.