Saving the endangered snow leopards of India has become a life mission for one tour provider, who has found ways to make wildlife tourism a viable source of income for local people.
Ornithologist and photographer Nikhil Devasar has spent fifteen years taking small groups to the remote Ladakh region in northern India to find snow leopards, a species considered to be the most secretive of the big cats.
He works with guides from local villages for expert advice and to help support the communities through responsible wildlife tourism, which has been proven to help compensate villagers for financial losses from snow leopard predation of livestock.
Snow leopards are endangered for several reasons including poaching for their skins, unsustainable hunting of their prey and the growing threat of climate change.
Photo credit: Marc Ameels, Enchanted India, Snow Leopard tour from Ladakh
Nikhil’s work is helping to promote snow leopard conservation in India by teaching resident communities about the importance of the species, both economically through tourists eager to see them and ecologically as a way of controlling herbivore populations.
By reducing the conflict between snow leopards and people, it is possible to work towards a more positive relationship among those sharing such a rugged and dramatic landscape.
Snow leopard Q & A
Nikhil explains his particular passion for the animals and how he has tailored his business to help them.
You have based your snow leopard tours around Ladakh in northwest India. Why is Ladakh a good place to see this species?
Snow leopards are elusive – they are known as the Himalayan Ghost. Human density in snow leopard habitat is among the lowest in the world so there is almost no disturbance from humans, unless they are hunters. Ladakh, like the Spiti Valley, are strongholds for snow leopards in India.
However, their prey numbers are declining and [they are] highly vulnerable to poaching for fur. Climate change means much hotter days. These creatures face the prospect of a significant transformation of the habitats that sustain them.
What is the general opinion of local people with regards to snow leopards?
People in the area respect the leopard and do not intrude in his space. However every once in a while the leopard enters the village and picks up livestock – the locals don’t take too nicely to that and if they could they would kill the animal.
There is no real data [for leopard killings by people] as that area is very remote and most such cases go unrecorded. These conflict issues haven’t changed in recent years, but it has normally been observed in harsh winters when the leopards can’t get food due to the snowstorms.
Why did you get involved with snow leopard conservation in India?
It provides me with a means to work with an animal that little is known about and also to work with people in the remotest parts of the country, where they are snow bound for seven months at a time and can’t leave their houses.
The idea is that the local community benefit from the leopards and consider them a friend so they help in protecting them against poachers.
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
There is nowhere to stay in the areas where the snow leopard lives, so we had to put up tents which are not really very comfortable and as cold as -45°.
At some places we have now developed home stays where people can live with families and enjoy the Ladakhi hospitality.
They are all Buddhists and very kind, as that is an important part of their culture. Now we have started home stays with the locals we all benefit.
Photo credit: Enchanted India
How the home stays work
A large part of the change in local attitudes towards snow leopards has stemmed from the Himalayan Homestays Programme (HHP).
Launched in 2002, the initiative provides resident communities in Ladakh with extra income generated by hosting tourists hoping to see snow leopards.
A study published in 2019 by conservationist Kate Vannelli from Global Conservation Corps states that involving local villages in wildlife tourism “encourage[s] more positive perceptions of wildlife species, in particular the snow leopard”.
Co-author of the study and director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy-India Trust Tsewang Namgail explains that “people who used to kill snow leopards in revenge, before our intervention, are today trying to attract the cat to their villages”.
Photo credit: Enchanted India
An interview with villagers who took part in the HHP revealed a sense of responsibility, pride and newfound appreciation for snow leopards, while many of the attitudes among those who did not take part in the programme remained negative.
The HHP is a mutually advantageous initiative that provides tourists with accommodation, locals with an extra source of income and greater support for the endangered snow leopard.
By involving Ladakhi inhabitants in ecotourism and changing their perceptions of this elusive cat, both the HHP and Nikhil are working to protect the Himalayan ghost and its future survival.
More information on joining a snow leopard tour.