As he revisits Ladakh’s terrain, people and culture, Arnab Banerjee finds himself falling in love with the region all over again – and rooting for the survival of the magnificent snow leopard
“Have you seen the snow leopard? No! Isn’t that wonderful!” had said American wildlife writer Peter Matthiessen, very famously, in his book The Snow Leopard. Truth be told, very few of us have seen a snow leopard, one of the most enigmatic of the big cats, though the smallest in size among them, living in the wild in the mountains of Central Asia. But I was hoping to be included in the rare club of spotters. As I landed in Leh (in India, the ranges of Ladakh are where these animals mostly live), somewhere deep down I knew I was hoping for the impossible. The next day, at the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) India office, as I trooped in to learn more about the conservation efforts being pursued to save the animal from extinction, my hopes were almost dashed. Pushpinder Jamwal, project officer with WWF, a young, handsome lad from Jammu, had managed to spot the big cat innumerable times and had captured its images, too. But then again, that had taken him several months. It was from him that we heard how and why the beautiful animal is gradually vanishing.
With the rare cat residing at an altitude of above 3,000m, it is almost impossible to study its behavioural patterns. It survives in temperatures as low as -40°C and amid some of the steepest terrain. And folklore says it ventures out in the open more often during the harsh winter months, its spotted white coat merging with the rocky icecovered terrain. Camouflaging itself such, it truly earns the nickname – the “grey ghost”.
While wild sheep and goat are its primary food, it also feeds on marmots, pikas, rodents and birds too. In India, the snow leopard is found in parts of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, north Sikkim and western Arunachal Pradesh.
For the past two decades, the animal has been facing incessant threats to its survival due to human encroachment, diminishing prey, loss of habitat due to global warming, diseases and poaching. The lack of conservation policies, enforcement and lack of awareness add to the woe. Desperate, the snow leopards stalk villages for cattle and livestock, the mainstay of villagers here. When a snow leopard attacks, it kills more than one victim. The trail of devastation leaves the villagers with only one choice – retaliation.
In search of the grey ghost
To resolve this man-animal conflict, adventure gear brand Woodland has teamed up with WWF-India and the J&K Wildlife Protection department to launch the High on Himalayas campaign. Launched in June 2015, this campaign is a consumer-awareness and crowd-funding initiative supporting WWF-India’s conservation work in the Himalayan ecosystem, both in western and eastern India. Thirty predator-proof corral pens have already been constructed in Matho, Kanji and Shang in Leh and Ladakh. More are being finished in Changthang and Rong. “A corral pen is an enclosure with an iron door, and a roof of wooden beams and wire mesh. The mesh protects the livestock from attacks. The villagers are given solar lanterns to hang near the pens to discourage nocturnal attacks,” informs Pankaj Chandan, team leader of the Western Himalayas Landscape, WWF-India.
Lessons in conservation
At the Nomadic Residential School in the village of Pugu, Changthang, we saw that the authorities have taken up cudgels to enlighten children about conservation of local flora and fauna. Through their skits, songs and dances, you can gauge the love these nomadic kids harbour for the surrounding nature. Soon it was time for us to head back, leaving behind this quiet land, its gob-smacking beauty, simple people and the mysterious cat.