Indian kids camping out in tents and learning about their mountain environment

February 21, 2010

Kids in Spiti, northern India, learning about their Himalayan environment with Snow Leopard Trust and Nature Conservation Foundation India program. Photo Snow Leopard Trust Blog.

Every year the Snow Leopard Trust and the Nature Conservation Foundation India take high school kids on learning camps in the Spiti Valley of the Himalayas. The kids, who rarely do this sort of thing, get to live in tents and learn about the plants and animals (including snow leopards), which share their environment. The Trust has been doing this since 2007 and over 400 school children and 30 teachers have participated.

Read more about their experiences and comments from the kids on the Snow Leopard Trust blog.

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Want a long trek in the Himalayas? Curl up with a great read.

January 27, 2010

Garry Weare

I’ve just finished a wonderful book about the Himalayas. Snow leopard country. It’s called “A long walk in the Himalayas – a trek from the Ganges to Kashmir” by Garry Weare.

Weare’s story of his five-month trek from the sacred source of the Ganges through the Kullu Valley, remote mountains of Zanskar and Ladakh (known as Little Tibet) to his beloved houseboat on a lake in Kashmir is an entertaining read. Throughout many years of travel in the Himalayas he has come to know the region, its peoples and cultures well and he writes about them with compassion, empathy and understanding.

"A long walk in the Himalayas"

Weare has serious Himalaya credentials. He’s a life member of the Himalayan Club, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a noted mountain photographer and a founding director of the Australian Himalayan Foundation.

The book is a travel log, a meditation on walking, a memoir of places visted and loved and a tale of adventure. His journey, which is taken with a secret stash of rum and whisky, involved walking 2500 kilometres, most of it above 5000 metres and crossing at least 20 passes, a tough experience and he lost over 15 kilos.

During a trek in September 1995 Garry was lucky to actually see a snow leopard. “I had left camp early to cross the Konze La, a pass in western Ladakh. There had been an unseasonable snowfall and ….I stopped to watch a herd of yaks. At that point I sensed I was not the only one watching the yaks. Glancing around I caught a glimpse of a large cat. I had seen enough snow leopards in zoo enclosures to know what I was looking at. I just had a glimpse and no more but it was sufficient and for a while I did not move, hoping against hope that the elusive cat would reappear. It was not to be.”

Garry recently tod me, “The cat sighting was after a particular early but heavy snowfall in September. However as you appreciate the best opportunity to get a cat sighting is during the winter soon after the first winter snowfall when the bharal (Himalayan blue sheep, a favourite snow leopard prey) head to the valleys and the cats follow.” Lucky him!! Is all I can say.

Currently Garry is working on a Primary Health Care project in Zanskar and Ladakh, Northern India supported by the Australian Himalayan Foundation. The project trains the local Amchis, traditional faith healers in basic western medical advice.  Often these Amchi are the only medical help available to villagers in remote parts of the mountains. Last year the ABC’s ‘Foreign Correspondent’ did a segment on this project (see it here.) Absolutely fascinating.

You can support this and other Australian Himalayan Foundation projects here.


Herders leaving way of life as climate change affects them

January 8, 2010

A former nomad is now trying to earn a living as a weaver in Ladakh, Indian Himalaya, as climate change impacts her traditional way of life. Photo by Nisa Khatoon, WWF.

With the Copenhagen conference late last year I posted a few stories on how climate change is affecting the Himalayas and in consequence the local people and the wildlife. Researchers recently found dramatic changes in Ladakh, northern India where nomads made their living for centuries herding goats, yak and sheep. They found that many herders have abandoned this way of life as huge fluctutaions in winter snowfall threatens livestock. If there is too much snow the animals can’t reach the fodder and die of starvation.

But in this desert mountain land where 80% of farmers and herders depend on snow melt for water it is the increasing years of too little snow which leads to drought and changes in pastures. It also means frequent locust swarms destroying crops and traditional grasses which are replaced by unplatable new grass that animals won’t eat.

“The grasses have started to die out due to less level of snowfall in the region. It has been a continuing phenomenon for a decade or so, and now it has become alarming,” said Nisa Khatoon, a researcher with the World Wildlife Fund based at Leh.

Ladakh is a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in northern India. The whole region is in the high Himalayas. The capital Leh is at 4000m. Ladakh's culture is based on Tibetan Buddhism and it is sometimes called "Little Tibet." Map from Wikipedia.

Today there are over 50 former nomad families in Leh, capital of Ladakh, trying to earn a living by newer means. “Some of them have set up small shops selling various items while most the women are working as daily wage labourers,” Khatoon said.

“Some of us have started tea shops and shops selling various items,” said Csawang Rigzin, who gave up his nomadic life three years ago. Now “we are not able to earn up to our expectation. We had high hopes when we came here but now we are shattered economically,” he said.

Thiksey monastery is one of the main Buddhist monasteries near Leh. Photo from Wikipedia.

“Many of the nomads sold off their livestock and went to the town to seek a better place but now they feel they are nowhere economically,” said Rigzin Chondol of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, which is active in the area. “Earlier a nomad family used to earn a good amount of money, which often used to be 50,000 to 60,000 rupees ($1,100 to $1,300) a year but now they are not able to make savings.” Full story here.


Chance of a lifetime..in the footsteps of wild snow leopards

November 23, 2009

Beautiful rare wild snow leopard seen by KarmaQuest / Snow Leopard Conservancy trek participants in northern India during a previous winter trek. Photo by Brian Keating.

there’s still a bit of time to sign up for the Snow Leopard Conservancy and KarmaQuest trek in search of wild snow leopards in the Himalayas. This is such an exciting project (a two week trek in February 2010 to search for wild snow leopards and their prey). The previous winter teams have all seen wild snow leopards ….amazing…you all know that this is a rare thing indeed, rarer than the proverbial hen’s teeth.

check out the project info here.

This would have to be one of the most amazing wildlife experiences ever…truly the chance of a lifetime!


Searching for Snow Leopards in February 2010

October 26, 2009
Jigmet Dadul, best snow leopard tracker in Ladakh. Photo kind permission of Snow Leopard Conservancy.

Jigmet Dadul, best snow leopard tracker in Ladakh. Photo kind permission of Snow Leopard Conservancy.

In 1997 I trekked in Hemis National Park, in Ladakh, in the northern Indian Himalayas. Along with 8 other volunteers and two snow leopard researchers (Dr Joe Fox and Dr Som Ale) we searched for scrapes, scat and any markings that told us that snow leopards still survived here in these awesome mountains after decades of being hunted for fur and body parts. We found a few signs but never saw the elusive cat. Not surprising as until recently even researchers working for decades in the wild seldom spotted these cats.
At that time the local villagers felt snow leopards were the enemy – the cats often killed domestic livestock if they weren’t able to get wild prey. Trekkers passing through these mountains had no idea that an animal called the snow leopard even existed let alone that this was one of its native habitats. There was huge uncertainty about their future. Could the beautiful snow leopard ever gain a claw hold for survival in these spectacular mountains?

But next February, in 2010 I’ll be there again…this time 12 years older, a bit rounder in the middle and in the dead of winter…yikes…

Cafe stop high on the trek. Parachute Cafe. Photo by kind permission of KarmaQuest.

Cafe stop high on the trek. Parachute Cafe. Photo by kind permission of KarmaQuest.

12 years later so much has changed. Thanks to the Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC) and other conservation groups the villagers today supplement their agricultural-based livelihoods by helping keep the snow leopard alive. They have home stay businesses where trekkers use traditional accommodation, eat local food and learn about the Ladakh way of life. Village women also have businesses tending parachute cafes for thirsty trekkers on high mountain trails. *

KarmaQuest Ecotourism and Adventure Travel, a US-based company has been running winter snow leopard tracking trips with one of the world’s most renowned snow leopard researchers, Dr Rodney Jackson, Director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy to this part of the world since 2005. And why go in winter? Well winter is the time snow leopards come down to lower altitude and offers the best chance of seeing these rare and endangered cats in the wild.

The other trip members and I will join the SLC-India staff on their winter monitoring activities, studying the snow leopard when it descends from the snowy mountaintops in search of food, studying prey species and the snow leopard’s habitat.

Solar cooking technology. Indian Himalayas. Photo by kind permission of Snow Leopard Conservancy.

Solar cooking technology. Indian Himalayas. Photo by kind permission of Snow Leopard Conservancy.

No doubt we’ll all be thinking about the 2007 winter group that was lucky enough to observe a snow leopard eating its kill for more than an hour. Thus far KarmaQuest group members have seen a snow leopard every year! Considering that less than 100 Westerners had seen a snow leopard in the wild before 2005, this is a phenomenal rate of success!  And all thanks to the years of study, tracking and conservation efforts by Dr. Jackson and his Ladakhi team, of which Jigmet Dadul – reputed to be the ‘best snow leopard tracker in Ladakh’– will be there to help us beat the odds.

There are still trip places available for this fantastic opportunity. Check out the website from the folks over at KarmaQuest  and talk to Wendy Lama, an Ecotourism Specialist who has been travelling and working in this part of the world for many years. This is the trek of a lifetime, it would be wonderful if I saw you there too. The deadline for signing up is November 30, 2009.
*Parachute cafes – my other half wondered “are they cafes where adventure parachutists drop in to for a tea or latte?” No….they portable cafés made out of – you guessed it – parachute material.


Indian army searching for snow leopards on sacred glacier

August 21, 2009
Gangotri glacier. Photo National Geographic George F. Mobley 1984.

Gangotri glacier. Photo National Geographic George F. Mobley 1984.

The Indian Army is getting involved in helping the environment and India’s endangered flora and fauna. 15 men will be going up to the sacred Gangotri glacier in northern India near China’s border to search for snow leopard sightings and evidence of a rare plant, the legendary Brahma kamal, a medicinal plant named after the Hindu God of creation. According to Commanding Officer Ajay Kothiyal, the research material would be forwarded to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) and its scientists.

“Due to the area’s inaccessibility and extreme weather conditions, there has been little research on the flora and fauna in the Himalayan region. Flowers like the Brahma kamal, blue poppy, snow lotus and some local medicinal plants find mention in books only (written years ago) and so do rare species like the Ibex (snow goat) and snow leopard. We want to make available some recent data on their availability,” said Kothiyal.

The men will be climbing up around 4500 to 5500m and Kothiyal says “They will photograph and videograph all the rare flora and fauna they come across.

The Gangotri Glacier is a traditional Hindu pilgrimage site. Unfortunately researchers have found that the glacier is retreating possibly due to climate change.

Full article here.

“Retreat of the Gangotri Glacier and climate change”. Article by NASA’s Earth Observatory


First snow leopard sighting in Kashmir in 10 years

June 22, 2009

“It was the shortest seven minutes of my life” Aishwarya Maheshwari, a researcher with WWF India (a wildlife protection group) said after making the first confirmed sighting of a snow leopard in Kashmir in over 10 years. The region has seen a decade of political conflict and fighting between India and its neighbor, Pakistan.

Maheshwari and his three field assistants were observing a herd of Asiatic Ibex (a type of mountain goat) almost 4000m above sea level in the mountains of Kashmir, northern India when they saw pug marks and scat of what looked like a carnivore.

Suddenly there was a cloud of dust and through their binoculars they spotted a snow leopard chasing the Ibex who were running in all directions. The researchers were able to watch the cat for 7 minutes before it ran away.
This is good news for Maheshwari and his WWF India team who are doing a baseline wildlife study of the area.