"It was like seeing a white ghost,” Chyangba Bhutia says, in broken Hindi, over the phone from Gangtok. “It was right there, in the flesh... 50m away from me.”
Bhutia, 61, is talking about an incident that happened 10 years ago. The resident of west Sikkim’s remote Chogra village was returning home after leading a group of tourist trekkers in Sikkim’s Khangchendzonga National Park when he saw a snow leopard emerge from behind a rock. “I grew up listening to stories of the snow leopard but to actually see it, this majestic creature... it was like a dream,” says Bhutia, who has never spotted the animal again. “That’s what I love about my work.”
Besides being a tourist guide and a small-scale farmer, Bhutia is a Himal Rakshak, a group of local volunteers trained by the Sikkim government and the non-profit WWF (World Wide Fund) to monitor biodiversity and wildlife habitat in a state with over 80% of its geographical area under forests.
The community-based conservation initiative, started in 2006 and funded by the state, today has 39 Himal Rakshaks, mostly tourist guides and small-scale farmers in the 30-60 age group, to monitor the Unesco World Heritage Site in the eastern Himalaya. Familiar with the area, the flora and fauna and weather conditions in a way no outsider can be, they try to track the health of the region, taking photographs, setting up camera traps and reporting wildlife crimes and illegal grazing in the park.
They set out on observatory patrols four times a year, in certain months (December-January is closed owing to the extreme winter and July-August owing to the risk of landslides), earning ₹1,200-1,500 a day. On average, they cover 10-11km a day on foot, travelling in groups of eight to 10, equipped with walkie-talkies and cameras.
Spread across 10,000 sq. km, the landscape that forms their workspace lies in the shadow of the 8,585m Khangchendzonga peak, the world’s third highest, and comprises snow-capped mountains and steep-sided valleys. Lakes and glaciers dot the barren high altitudes. The variations in climate, elevation and vegetation make it the perfect home for nearly half of India’s bird diversity, many rare and endangered species of plants, and animals like the red panda, the Bengal tiger, clouded leopard, gaur, Asiatic black bear and musk deer. Like many other biodiversity hot spots in the country, though, the Khangchendzonga has been under threat from hunting and trapping of animals, illegal extraction of medicinal and aromatic plants for trade, grazing, and unregulated tourism.
“The park can be an exceptionally brutal terrain if you are not used to the climate. We don’t have the adequate infrastructure and facilities to make patrolling visits with support staff from outside. To be honest, the climate conditions can become so extreme that people hardly apply for such work. All of this really hurt the health of the area, from tree cutting to poaching. That’s where Himal Rakshaks come into the picture. They were earlier herders and lived in and roamed these hills for years,” says Tenzing W. Bhutia, range officer at the park. “They have a kind of knowledge and awareness that we will never have. They educate us in what can help improve the health of the area.”
There is no specific documentation of the impact of the programme, though the forest department does believe it has helped to check hunting and poaching. “There’s less illegal grazing also. The other locals also cooperate with them,” says Tenzing Bhutia. “The fact that they are still working with us, giving regular reports and helping us take care of the forests, means we would be lost without them.”
We need them more than we think we do, insists Lak-Tsheden, coordinator of the Khangchendzonga Landscape Program at WWF India. “For the longest time, we had heard there were snow leopards in Khangchendzonga but there was no photographic evidence till a few years ago. They have helped identify critical snow leopard areas that can form the basis for landscape-level conservation in the Himalaya, and it’s vital for the state-level snow leopard population assessment, which is part of India’s larger National Snow Leopard Population assessment.”
Even when they are not out patrolling, they spread awareness of the need to keep the park clean. As Gopal Limboo, a rakshak and a guide, puts it: “Treks happen six months in a year; that’s when we make most of our money. It also means a lot of tourist activity, which, if we don’t monitor, can result in a lot of littering. I always end up picking garbage while trekking; people just don’t listen.
“We have to constantly remind them about cleanliness, otherwise the beauty of this place will get affected, which means tourism will get affected.”
Lak-Tsheden, who has been part of the initiative from the beginning, training volunteers in how to use the GPS and set camera traps and encouraging them to push other residents to join the initiative, wishes younger people would show greater interest. “It’s difficult to get the support of the young ones because they want to move to cities, do fancy jobs. There’s nothing wrong with it, but who will take care of nature in the future?” she says. “We do have some former poachers as Himal Rakshaks, so there’s definitely something that brings people in. Only if more people could come forward.”
That’s why Ramsingh Limboo, 38, the youngest Himal Rakshak, makes it a point to narrate stories of the forest to the children of his village, Yuksam, whenever possible. “I grew up listening to my parents telling stories of how our gods live in these forests and only when we protect them will they protect us,” he says. “Our children need to appreciate what nature gave us; we are nothing without it. It’s in our hands to give our future generation a better world.”