Homestays for snow leopards in the Himalayas

Snow leopards thrive in high altitude regions like Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas.

Source: Al Jazeera English Online

2015 declared International Year of the Snow Leopard to help conservation efforts for the endangered cats.

Ladakh, India -  On a recent June evening, as the sun cast the day's final, crimson rays over the mountains surrounding Saspochey, a hamlet at 3,658 metres in the Indian Himalayan region of Ladakh, Sherab Dolma prepared her living room for guests.

An old Ladakhi stove with intricate metal work took centre stage in the room. Soft, warm carpets hugged the floor and traditional kitchen utensils stood neatly stacked in a wardrobe. A young boy with sunburned cheeks and a dirty, green hat stormed in and out of the room.

As her guests seated themselves, Dolma served hot tea in delicate ceramic cups.

Dolma has been running a homestay for  three years, letting out rooms with stunning views over the Zanskar range. Tourists flock to her tiny hamlet in the hope of spotting a special guest - the snow leopard, a wild cat that thrives in high mountain terrains.

It is estimated that India is home to 400-700 snow leopards of a global population of 4,500-6,500, spread across 12 countries.

As part of conservation efforts, these countries have declared 2015 as the International Year of the Snow Leopard and have been promoting cross-country projects to save the endangered cats.

Ladakh - in the state of Jammu and Kashmir - with 60 percent of India's snow leopard population, is well known among wildlife enthusiasts for offering some of the best sightings of snow leopards.

That helps Dolma business.

"I earn 30,000 Indian rupees ($472) per year from the homestay business. The snow leopard and other wildlife here are like jewels," Dolma said as she prepared a meal in her compact kitchen.

A few years ago, Dolma wouldn't have spoken so kindly about snow leopards.

"I had lost many sheep and goats to snow leopards. So had many others in the village. That left us in a lot of loss. We were helpless. People would even go after snow leopards to kill them," she said.

The biggest threat to snow leopard populations globally is this conflict with humans . Decrease in the number of natural prey species leads to snow leopards hunting livestock. This in turn triggers retaliatory killing by herders and farmers.

The Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT), a community-based conservation NGO, helped Dolma and eight other villagers set up homestays in Saspochey.

Tsewang Namgail, director of the SLC-IT, who was visiting the village to raise awareness accompanied by a handful of his cheerful Ladakhi staff and international volunteers, told Al Jazeera how his organisation worked with the villagers.

"People in these remote areas live under poor conditions. They have to think about their day-to-day struggle," Namgail explained.

"When we go to a village and ask them to protect snow leopards, they sometimes laugh at us because they lose livestock to snow leopards," he said.

"We also wanted to improve their livelihoods. That's when we started the Himalayan Homestays," Namgail told Al Jazeera.

The Himalayan Homestay program, which began in 2003, seeks to reduce the dependence of the herders on livestock and the pressure on the pasture lands, allowing natural prey species like the Tibetan blue sheep to thrive.

Snow leopards belong to what's termed an umbrella species - a species that symbolises the health of an entire eco-system.

"Snow leopard is an apex predator so they are very important. When we work towards conserving this species, in the process we are helping a lot of other species," Namgail said.

Sitting in his office in Leh, Ladakh's administrative capital, Jigmet Takpa , chief conservator of Forests for Ladakh told Al Jazeera of the historical and cultural significance of hunting that has led to a decline in snow leopard numbers.

"Ladakhis, whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist, were hunters. They were poaching. It is in the culture. Even today, the hunting ceremony is still conducted during Losar (a Buddhist celebration)," Takpa told while looking at the view of snow-capped mountains through his window.

"This led to fast depletion of already scarce wildlife in the region," Takpa explained.

Takpa criticised the conventional notion of conservation, saying that it is a tough task to restore a previously depleted ecosystem like Ladakh.

"All over the world and even in rest of India people think conservation means taking a big chunk of area which has a good biological value and declaring it as a conservation reserve. And this normally involves displacing all the people who live inside the area. This is based on the theory that man and wildlife cannot coexist," Takpa said.

The Forest Department approach is contrary to this line of thinking, said Takpa.  "We say human beings and wildlife have to coexist and help each other in sustaining themselves."

The government has followed in the footsteps of the SLC-IT, and is now running homestays in national park areas.

The conservation programs do not benefit everyone in the vast deserts of Ladakh.

There were unconfirmed reports about a snow leopard having been killed the previous month in Tar, a sleepy village with about 12 homes right across the valley from Saspochey.

A two-hour hike up from the main road, Tar has no access to electricity or medical facilities. Most residents are in their 50s and 60s, the younger generation having left in search of better educational and career opportunities.

Tsering Dolkar, a 60-year-old woman with a wrinkly face, is the appointed head of the village. Dolkar complained about the losses the villagers endured due to snow leopard and Tibetan wolf  attacks on livestock.

"Last year, one of my goats was killed right here," Dolkar said, pointing towards a green terrace on her fields.

"This year we lost 20 of our livestock  already. We don't go and file complaints or reports because nothing comes of it," she said with visible disappointment.

Dolkar said a few years ago a government official had come to evaluate whether Tar could have homestays but she never heard back from them.

"How can we kill a snow leopard?" Dolkar said of the rumours.

"We saw a dead snow leopard but it must have slipped off the cliffs and fallen down," Dolkar said, shrugging her shoulders.

As for the human-animal conflict, "What can we do?" said Dolkar helplessly. "Nothing".