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Ladakh: In the land of the grey ghost

  • In remote Ulley valley in Ladakh, a bottom-up conservation programme driven by local villagers is providing alternative livelihood options
  • Snow leopards, free from human-animal conflict in Ladakh, have now become the focus of winter tourism for wildlife enthusiasts

A snow leopard emerges from its den.
A snow leopard emerges from its den.

I would like to see a snow leopard, but if I do not, that is all right too.

—Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard.

Where is it?" I whisper.

“There, look straight up that ridge," Norbu whispers back.

“I can only see rocks," I whisper again.

“Follow my finger, look at the ridge edge," Norbu says, pointing.

I look again, squinting in the late light of the freezing winter sun. The serrated edge of the ridge stands out like ragged teeth. Then I perceive a semicircle, its contours softer, out of character with the surrounding jaggedness. Then, on either side of the semicircle, two pointy edges twitch. They waggle. And all of a sudden, I find myself staring at a snow leopard. Now that I see it, lying on the skyline ridge, sunning itself, it’s unmistakable. I can’t imagine how I missed it. But then again, locating wildlife in a landscape this vast is difficult for an untrained eye.

I look at the cat again, this time through one of the three tracking scopes that Norbu and the others have set up. Through the round viewfinder, the snow leopard becomes thrillingly bigger. The 600ft that separates us and one of the world’s most elusive creatures vanishes. It fills up the view—the large, squat, heraldic head with its characteristic small, furry ears, the grey and white patchwork fur; its long, fat, furry tail curled around its body. The leopard yawns and starts washing its face. Its eyes are almost shut in ecstasy, like all cats in the world. Lick, rub, lick, rub. It goes on for a while as we watch, mesmerized. Then it yawns. It shakes its head, raises its face and then stares right down the scope…at me.

It’s an indescribable feeling; that of the wild looking back at you. Those impersonal, yellow, unblinking eyes, impossible to pin any anthropomorphic motives to, the irises black dots with an unfathomable wild intelligence.I’m struck by the incongruity of the scene. Here we are, in Ladakh in late January, breathing in freezing air, while a keen, searching wind tries to reach in through the many layers of wool and down and cotton we are wearing. And yet, we’re not exactly in the middle of nowhere. A hundred feet below us is the Leh-Srinagar National Highway 1 (NH1), winding its way through a steep gorge carved by the Indus. A couple of small trucks pass, then a few army jeeps. If any of the people in the vehicles were to look up, they would see a gaggle of people standing a short distance away from three cars, staring up a crumbly, dusty shale ridge crisscrossed by electricity wires and a few pylons. We are in the wild, and yet, we are in the middle of civilization.

The Indus itself presents a sorry sight, its tumultuous flow reduced to an anaemic trickle by the huge Nimoo Bazgo hydro dam a few kilometres upstream. Yet, look back up the ridge, and a snow leopard’s presence turns this everyday mountainside into magic.

Living with the wild

Tsewang Norbu, 48, runs the Snow Leopard Lodge in Ulley village, 4,300m up a side valley to the north of the Indus, deep in the Ladakh range. His village of six scattered family homesteads, where some 35 people live, is one of the most remote in the Sham region in central Ladakh. Although a serviceable jeep track extends up to Ulley from the larger village of Yangthang lower down the valley, its isolation is spectacular. I was in the valley for four days, and although I’ve visited Ladakh before in summer, Ulley was dramatic under a thick blanket of winter snow.

Like the rest of the inhabitants of Ulley, he too is a farmer and a sheep herder, living in a small outpost surrounded by towering granite cliffs that march further north up an ablation valley to a pass to the Nubra valley. His view of the mythical shan, as the snow leopard is called in Ladakhi, the “grey ghost", is less rapturous than mine. But it is infinitely more intimate. Ever since he was a boy, in fact ever since there has been a village here, for generations, the people of Ulley have had to contend with extreme altitude, meagre natural resources, and the snow leopard. Some of Norbu’s first interactions with the animal were when he was out herding.

“I remember working as a shepherd with my father from the age of 9. We used to have about 100 goats back then. My father was a shepherd all his life, till the day he died. He would walk at the head of the herd, and I would walk at the end," he says, sitting in the warmth of the lodge’s dining room, next to a kerosene heater. Two people herding a large number of livestock was always a risk, he says. “If we stopped to make and drink some tea, or if we were even a little distracted from the herd, then the snow leopard would come and kill a goat. So we had to continuously scan the mountains around us. We would look up at the ridges, under which our goats would pass. Sometimes, while looking up, I would suddenly catch a glimpse of a shan." Norbu’s eyes twinkle as he describes the dread and fascination of seeing the lurking shadow, stalking their herd.

Dressed in an olive-green jacket and military-style cargos, Norbu is a master wildlife tracker. Armed always with a pair of powerful Olympus binoculars, he joins the lodge’s team of trackers early mornings and evenings, each huddled over a spotting scope pointing at different points of the valley. These are all local men from the two villages of the Ulley valley, as well as from the villages of Saspochey and Hemis-Shukpachan in the two adjoining valleys. The timing of the tracking is predicated on the daily round of the snow leopard. “Those are the times that the leopard is on the move," he says, as he peers through his binoculars, adding:,“We can’t track in the darkness. And during the day it doesn’t move much. If we see one in the morning, then we can follow its movement for a while. Then it settles down for the day, around, say, 10am. After about 3.30pm it gets up again and starts moving. We can track it then until darkness falls." And what does the leopard do in the long morning hours? Apparently, it finds a convenient rock or ledge, curls up, wraps its gigantic tail—which is 90% the length of its torso—around like a scarf, and snoozes.

A male Asiatic ibex with a juvenile.
A male Asiatic ibex with a juvenile.

Norbu is full of stories of the shan. A respected voice in local affairs, one of his responsibilities is to identify livestock kill for a livestock insurance scheme that the villagers of Ulley run. As a result, he knows the grey ghost’s habits very well. “How can you tell that a villager’s goat or sheep or yak has been killed by a snow leopard?" he asks rhetorically. “Because I know how a snow leopard eats. It starts with the legs, working its way down from the shoulders. Then the chest, the head and, only right in the end, it goes for the entrails of the kill. There is a reason for that. As soon as the stomach is torn, then the smell of the kill spreads and attracts other scavengers, from foxes to dogs to eagles. So there’s a pattern to how it eats."

How is this different from the other main predator, the Tibetan wolf? A shanku, as the wolf is called in Ladakhi, is not a solitary predator, like the snow leopard, says Norbu. They usually hunt in packs, and usually eat their kill at one go. A snow leopard eats its kill over at least three days. Sometimes, if it kills a yak, it can feast, on and off, for a week.

The snow leopard we spot by NH1 was tracked by Norbu. One of the area’s network of trackers had reported a fresh kill the previous day, relaying the message over satellite phone to Ulley from Hemis-Shukpachan. An urial, a small wild sheep, had been killed by a snow leopard. So Norbu went and sat patiently at a distance from the kill for two days, in the mornings and evenings, waiting for the leopard to return to feed. The evening we see the beast, it is Norbu who alerts us at the lodge.

One evening, while I’m hanging around the trackers, one of the men manning a scope in a green trench coat, Tenzing from Yangthang, calls me over and tells me to look. “Ibex," he says, smiling. When I peer through the scope, I am struck by the impossibly dramatic sight of a large, lone male Asiatic ibex, standing in profile atop a granite cliff edge. Its huge horns double back over its head, while a long, wispy beard accentuates its jaw. Like the snow leopard, the ibex also seems purpose-built to inhabit this vast, sweeping mountain vista.

A photographer walks up through the snow-covered Ulley valley.  Photographs courtesy:  Snow Leopard Lodge
A photographer walks up through the snow-covered Ulley valley. Photographs courtesy: Snow Leopard Lodge

Daleks, 32, from a village called Digar in the Nubra valley, is spending his first winter season in Ulley. He’s working as a naturalist with tourists who come to the valley in the hope of sighting a snow leopard. “Ibex and bharal (the Himalayan blue sheep) are the main prey of the snow leopard," he says, “But you get more bharal in Hemis National Park in Zanskar, here there’s more ibex." Norbu agrees. “Before I set up my home-stay in 2004, we would sometimes get some wildlife enthusiasts who had heard how rich this valley is in ibex," he says. The ibex is, of course, very important in the ancient culture of Ladakh. Petroglyphs depicting ibex hunts, dating back to the second and third millennium BC, are found all over the Indus and Zanskar river valleys. Further down the Indus to the west, where the river enters the Baltistan region in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the Dard ethnic community of the Dah-Hanu—believed by anthropologists to be the original inhabitants of the trans-Himalayan region—venerate the ibex as the livestock of the gods and fairies that inhabit the mountains.

Indeed, Ulley is surrounded by wilderness and layers of history. While the pass at the head of the valley has long been used for trade between the villagers of the Indus and Nubra valleys, on a crag just above Ulley village rise the ruined foundations of a watchtower built by the old Namgyal kings of Ladakh. That would date it to at least the 17th century. Above it, one day, I spot a snowcock(a species of pheasant).

Ibex roam all about the upper valley, either solitary individuals or groups of females and young, with a couple of adult males standing guard. There are sprightly herds of urial near the wind-blown motorable pass of Phaube La, which connects the Ulley valley to the Saspochey valley.

While on a tracking trip, we spot a small red fox running away from a carcass in a shallow gully, fleeing with graceful, arching jumps. Another day, we’re treated to the sight of a Himalayan Golden Eagle hunting a flock of Alpine Chough near the old Buddhist Saspol Caves. The huge flock, hundreds strong, was feasting on a large thicket of sea-buckthorn bushes when the eagle swept down upon them, driving them towards high crags. The Chough fled in an evading swarm, drawing vast patterns in the sky, like a flight of starlings. The fact that the villagers here live with the wildlife at their doorstep never ceased to amaze. It made perfect sense, then, that they are involved in a major nature conservation programme.

A Tibetan wolf.
A Tibetan wolf.

Bottom-up conservation

The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is the apex predator of high Asia, and its habitat covers an area of approximately 2.8 million sq. km, stretching from the mountains of south Siberia, down the mountainous spine of the Altai, Sayan, Tien Shan, Kunlun, Pamir, Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalayan ranges, as well as the Tibetan plateau. Spread over 12 countries—Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Nepal and Bhutan—the snow leopard can be found over a large swathe of Asia. In the countries it inhabits, it goes by a variety of names. It’s called irbis in Russian, babri barfi in Kazakh, hiun chituwa in Nepali and barfani chita in Urdu. Despite its name, the snow leopard’s closest relative is the tiger (Panthera tigris), from which it is believed to have diverged approximately two million years ago.

In India, there are believed to be 500-700 snow leopards in the wild, 60% of them in Ladakh. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Red List, there are 2,710-3,386 mature individuals in the wild, with a rough average density of one-three individuals per 100 sq. km. The big cat, for long labelled “endangered" in the IUCN Red List, was downgraded to “vulnerable" in its latest report in 2016. But the report adds that the general population trend is sloping downwards.

I meet Tsewang Namgail, director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy—India Trust (SLC-IT) in Leh, a couple of days before setting out for Ulley. The organization was founded in 2000 by the late conservationist Rinchen Wangchuk and wildlife expert Rodney Jackson to conserve the snow leopard, its prey species and habitat. In the 19 years of its existence, the SLC-IT has developed and runs a grass-roots conservation and livelihoods programme that has been recognized the world over for its efficacy. Centred around the twin principles of preventing snow leopard depredation of livestock and the creation of supplemental income generation through a widespread home-stay programme, the NGO’s work has received many awards, including the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Earth Guardian award in 2015. Namgail, who now runs the NGO, is a wildlife scholar and conservationist.

Snow leopard tourists on a tracking trip.
Snow leopard tourists on a tracking trip.

“The home-stay model has been really phenomenal, the way that people’s attitude changed towards the snow leopard in the last 10-15 years with the income-generation opportunities coming in," he says. One of the most acute global threats the snow leopard faces is human-animal conflict, which plays out in the form of retaliatory killing by villagers following snow leopard attacks on livestock pens, says Namgail. “People who used to go up in the mountains killing wolf pups and revenge-killing snow leopards are now the same people who are trying to conserve the cat and ensure that it doesn’t feel threatened by humans. So how much better can it get, you know?" Ulley was one of the first places in Ladakh where the SLC-IT tried out its then new methods of putting wire mesh on sheep pens and home-stays.

Norbu fills in the details of Wangchuk’s sensitization work, when he travelled to Ulley in 2001. “He told me right at the beginning that you all should start becoming aware of the wildlife around you," says Norbu. “First of all, Wangchuk said, it is very important to conserve them. Before, whenever we would find an ibex or an urial kill, we would take it for the meat. He said we should stop doing that. If you take the shan’s kill away from him, then he will kill another one the next day."

Second, the SLC-IT started strengthening the traditional livestock corrals and covering their open roofs with wire mesh. “The traditional sheep pens were designed to keep livestock in, not predators out," says Namgail. This almost immediately put an end to large-scale massacres of livestock trapped in a pen with a marauding snow leopard. “It’s in the animal’s nature to go on killing sprees. If we drop our guard at the high pastures, then it will kill eight-nine animals in one go. Just for the sake of killing, not necessarily to eat," says Norbu, “In an enclosed pen, it’s even worse. Some kind of a bloodlust overcomes the snow leopard. If anything is moving, the beast will kill it. A shanku kills to eat. The shan kills for fun."

The next step was to find a way to provide an additional means of income, not just to offset livestock losses, but also to reduce dependency on livestock-rearing as an occupation. The first home-stays were established in 2003 in villages along summer trekking trails within the Hemis National Park, and in villages like Ulley. “In 1974, when Ladakh was opened to tourists, we had 530 visitors. These days, we get up to 300,000 tourists a year. Whatever income is coming from tourism is mostly going to travel agents and hoteliers, especially in Leh. Villagers in remote areas weren’t getting anything," says Namgail.

While Wangchuk and Namgail were thinking of spreading tourism income wider, the specific idea for home-stays came from women in a village at Hemis. “They said that we see the trekkers camping everywhere. Why don’t we host them in our homes? They can pay a minimum amount and they can see a bit of the local culture as well. And some percentage can go towards snow leopard conservation," says Namgail.

Once villagers overcame their initial hesitation to let strangers into their homes, the home-stay programme was up and running. In 2009, a National Geographicdocumentary team arrived at Hemis to make a film on snow leopards and hired local youth to act as spotters. “They were offering 2,000 bonus to anyone who could spot one," says Namgail. This fuelled excitement in Rumbak village inside Hemis. The locals realized that the shan, which they thought was as mythical as the yeti, could actually be seen and tracked. Subsequently, says Namgail, many in the area developed tracking skills. This, in turn, added a new dimension to the home-stay programmes—winter wildlife tourism dedicated to looking for snow leopards and other local wildlife. Once Jammu and Kashmir’s department of wildlife took over the running of home-stays from the SLC-IT at the Hemis National Park in 2010, the organization started expanding the programme elsewhere in Ladakh.

The SLC-IT is also encouraging villages threatened by livestock depredation to run local livestock insurance schemes. The state government used to run a livestock compensation scheme, but this wasn’t very successful for a variety of reasons. It was extremely difficult for the government to verify if the sheep, goat or yak in question had really been killed by a snow leopard or a wolf, and hadn’t just fallen off a cliff. “Under the conventional compensation scheme, often after running around for up to two-three years, the villagers would get a fraction of the value, about 5-10% only," says Namgail.

Under the insurance scheme, which began in 2006, all the households of a village collect premium on their livestock and the SLC-IT provides a matching fund at the beginning of the scheme. The corpus is then put into a bank account. Of this, up to 50% can be disbursed as compensation, while the rest accumulates interest as a fixed deposit. “Under this scheme, if somebody’s animal gets killed, that person gets full compensation. There’s no room for cheating here. It’s the villagers’ own money, and they know exactly why an animal has died. If it’s genuine, you get the money," says Namgail.

For him, it’s about finding different ways to reduce risk for villagers whose main wealth lies in livestock. This has also helped change attitudes towards the snow leopard, since villagers now worry less about the shan killing a sheep or goat. So far, the scheme has been implemented in four villages in the Sham region, including Ulley and Saspochey.

These efforts have been yielding results, as a snow leopard study published in January in the PLOS One Journal (a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science), called Modelling Potential Habitat For Snow Leopards In Ladakh, India, shows. Based on an extensive survey—interviews, sign surveys (scats, rock scents, scrapes, pug marks), snow tracking, camera traps and spatial data—the report found that 30% of Ladakh’s 90,000 sq. km is suitable snow leopard habitat; of this only 12% of it is highly suitable; 54.6 % of all predator-proof corrals and 58% of all home-stays are in the “highly suitable" area. This modelling report, the first of its kind on snow leopards in India, has come up with enough habitat data to be used for future investment in tourism infrastructure and help conservationists better identify optimal locations for human-wildlife conflict mitigation and winter snow leopard tourism opportunities.

A view of Ulley village and the Snow Leopard Lodge. Photo: Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times
A view of Ulley village and the Snow Leopard Lodge. Photo: Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times

Winter beckons

Aly Rashid, a naturalist and co-owner of the Reni Pani Jungle Lodge at the Satpura Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, has been leading pop-up snow leopard sighting trips to Ladakh since 2017. These 12-day trips cover both the Hemis National Park and the Ulley valley. Rashid says these trips allow Reni Pani to offer a diversified view of India’s wildlife heritage, while also generating revenue for local home-stays in Rumbak and Ulley.

They have two fixed departures in February every year. “We don’t take large groups, only between 4-10 people, as we want to focus on the experience," says Rashid on the phone in late January, on his way to Leh to lead Reni Pani's 2019 snow leopard trip. For Rashid, the new focus on winter snow leopard tourism makes sense for the Reni Pani Jungle Lodge. “Even in Satpura, we focus on local wildlife beyond the tiger, like the sloth bear, the leopard. In Ladakh, there’s not just the snow leopard, but also ibex, bharal, urial. It makes for a great experience for discerning wildlife tourists," he says.

Rashid’s group stays at the Ulley Snow Leopard Trails Homestay, the last and highest homestead in the village. Reni Pani Jungle Lodge’s pop-ups have had 11 individual snow leopard sightings in two years. This is quite successful, given that their groups visit Ladakh for just a few days every winter.

Stenzin Namgail, 25, the middle one of Norbu’s three sons, manages the Snow Leopard Lodge. His elder brother is a soldier in the Indian Army’s Ladakh Scouts while his younger brother is a wildlife photographer. He says that since their older family home-stay was expanded into the lodge, beginning in 2013, sightings have been good, as have the number of winter tourists. “Last season, about 80% of our guests saw the snow leopard. This season, we opened the lodge in November, and it will remain open till April. So far (till end January), 90% of our guests have had at least one sighting."

A soft-spoken young man, Stenzin says the four home-stays in the village, including his, contribute 10-15% of their earnings to a common village conservation fund from which every family benefits. This, coupled with the insurance scheme and regular charity work from some dedicated tourists with deep pockets, ensures that Ulley thrives without putting pressure on the environment. With 11 rooms, the lodge is the largest home-stay, and Stenzin doesn’t wish to expand further. “This is our third season with the full structure, and that is enough. This is a wide valley, with good water and pastures. Our dependence on livestock is lower, so there’s less grazing competition with ibex and urial. It’s a small village, so the wild animals face no disturbance," he says.

Norbu agrees. “This lodge will remain as it is. I don’t want it to grow any larger because if it does, then it’ll become unmanageable. Even the village will change, our way of life will perish. If it remains the way it is, hopefully it can run for a long time."

Norbu’s leadership in the village, and indeed the entire Sham region, has ensured that a viable community-led conservation and livelihoods programme has every chance of succeeding. Mumbai-based journalist Shail Desai worked as a volunteer with the SLC-IT over January-February 2016. Apart from helping the organization with writing reports and working with local schools on conservation-themed workshops and game kits, he also visited Ulley to see how the home-stays were working. He says Norbu is a savvy man who knows how to introduce mountain wilderness to tourists from the plains for whom wildlife spotting means getting into a jeep and going on a safari. “He gives a realistic picture. He tells tourists that here is a scope, you look through it, scan the mountains and tell me if you can see anything. And, of course, you can’t. Then he says, you see, this is how difficult it is to spot wildlife in the mountains, let alone a snow leopard," says Desai.

“There’s a small home-stay just opposite to the lodge, run by an old woman called Nilza Angmo. She can speak neither Hindi nor English. When we went, Norbu accompanied us, introduced us, broke the ice by translating our conversations and put her at ease, to the extent that soon she was offering us, total strangers, some local alcoholto drink. He has been there, done that, he really helps the village," adds Desai.

The traditional living and dining room inside Nilza Angmo’s home-stay.  Photo courtesy: Moving Images
The traditional living and dining room inside Nilza Angmo’s home-stay. Photo courtesy: Moving Images

‘Shan’, ‘shan’, burning bright

At NH1, while we’re gaping at the snow leopard, it decides that it could do with some food. It stands up, stretches, its back arched like a house cat, and parades down the ridge to its kill. A collective sigh of wonder passes over our group. The cat sashays lower and lower, walking in a zig-zag trail past boulders and bits of scrub grass. It is so harmonious with its surroundings that every now and then, it seems to vanish into thin air, only to reappear a few feet below.

Tsewang Norbu with his spotting scope.
Tsewang Norbu with his spotting scope.

The snow leopard’s muscles shimmer under its shaggy coat as its powerful paws pad over the scree. Its tail is a ceremonial banner trailing behind, its tip twitching ever so slightly. February-March are breeding months, during which time, says Norbu, the leopard will hardly feed. So stocking up on food is important. If it is a male, over the next two months it will mate and be on its way. If it is a female, it will give birth in summer, and care for its cubs for two years, raising them in some impossibly far-flung natural cave on one of the wind-tossed ridge tops, away from other predators such as wolves and eagles. It will kill and eat ibex, urial, snow cocks. It will also kill livestock, but it will probably not have to worry about man’s revenge, since there will be no retaliatory killings thanks to the conservation programme.

Before it disappears one last time behind a crag, where its kill awaits, the leopard looks at us again with its impersonal gaze. Then it looks away, dismissing us, and passes out of our story.

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