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.

September 28, 2009
Longtail Wine, Napa Valley.

Longtail Wine, Napa Valley.

Recently I posted about raising our glasses to snow leopards with Snow Leopard Vodka – a product that shares a percentage of revenue with conservation projects. I found yet another reason to raise our glasses to these beautiful cats – this time with Longtail Wines from the Napa Valley. Longtail is partnering with the Snow Leopard Conservancy to help raise money and awareness. Let’s raise another glass!

Celebrating Himalaya Day

June 2, 2009
Nepal Himalayas. Photo by Sibylle

Nepal Himalayas. Photo by Sibylle

Last Friday I celebrated Himalaya Day (29th May) with about 70 people from the Melbourne arm of the Australian Himalayan Foundation. There was good Indian food and a video of the Foundation’s current work in Ladakh where Garry Weare has a team teaching simple principles of western medicine to the local amchis.

For many centuries, amchi (traditional male and female doctors following the Tibetan medical tradition) have been the only access to medical treatment throughout Ladakh. Today they are still the main medical health providers especially in remote areas.

Alfred Gregory holds the ice ax he used on the 1953 Everest acsent. Photo The Age by Joseph Feil.

Alfred Gregory with ice ax he used on the 1953 Everest acsent. Photo The Age by Joseph Feil.

The AHF also do fund raising for the Snow Leopard Conservancy’s Ladakh programs. Special guest for the evening was Alfred Gregory, known as Greg and now 96 years young, who became world famous after he was chief photographer on the successful 1953 Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Everest expedition. Last year Greg published a beautiful book of his photographs from the expedition and all over the world. Although Greg was originally British he now lives in Emerald, just outside of Melbourne. Greg  recently became an Australian citizen, prompting us all to be very pleased that we had an Australian on this first successful Everest expedition 🙂

Alfred Gregory “Photographs From Everest to Africa.”

Saving sheep from snow leopards, saves the snow leopards

May 24, 2009
Snow leopard proof corral. Photo Snow Leopard Conservancy

Snow leopard proof corral. Photo Snow Leopard Conservancy

When snow leopards kill domestic livestock in the villages of the Himalayas they are usually then hunted and killed by the owners in retaliation. It’s easy to understand why villagers would do this. Often these sheep and goats are the only livelihood they have, representing meat and money without which they and their families would starve.

Snow leopard proof corral in Pakistan. Photo by Snow Leopard Conservancy

Snow leopard proof corral in Pakistan. Photo by Snow Leopard Conservancy

About 10 years ago many of the conservation agencies working with villagers realised that there was a simple solution to this problem – building better snow leopard proof corrals. Although the idea is simple, the tools and material like cyclone wire are relatively expensive and so donated by the agencies working with village people. With co-operative planning the Snow Leopard Conservancy for example, investigated the existing predator proof strategies of villagers in India and Pakistan.

They’ve come up with solutions that meet local needs and completed over 30 corrals (livestock pens) throughout northern India since the program began, serving over 200 households and over 3,000 head of livestock. Now that the xorrals have proper doors, windows and roofs made of wire mesh the snow leopards are no longer able to get into them. This story shows us another example of the potential for snow leopards and people to live side by side in a shared habitat.

ABC Foreign Correspondent program on snow leopards

April 30, 2009

The ABC’s Eric Campbell has trekked through the high altitude Hemis National Park where I did the Earthwatch Snow Leopard Project in 1998. He’s made a program for Foreign Correspondent to be screened on Tuesday 5th May at 8pm on ABC.

Eric Campbell Foreign Correspondent ABC

Eric Campbell Foreign Correspondent ABC

This part of northern India is now being called  “snow leopard heaven” because of the conservation programs supporting the cats, their prey species and the local villagers living there. The work being done here could be a template for saving big cats around the world. It’s a dramatic and remote landscape where people still largely survive off subsistence agriculture, as they have for centuries. There are no roads, and virtually no mod cons. Many villagers have just a few hours of solar power each day, and use animal dung to heat their homes and cook. ABC Foreign Correspondent

Campbell meets local farmers who are being trained to use remote control cameras to track the leopards. They’re also given assistance to construct predator proof pens for their livestock. Women can now earn money by providing food and accommodation for trekkers. And the farmers are educating school children about biodiversity.

Attitudes have changed, and snow leopards are now valued and protected.

There is also an interview with film maker Mitchell Kelly who was the first person to film snow leopards hunting and mating in the wild. (See Video clip from Mitchell’s film “Silent Roar” on the Video page of this Blog).

Getting photos of those wild snow leopards

March 4, 2009

Camera trap. Photo Snow Leopard Conservancy

Camera trap. Photo Snow Leopard Conservancy

Thanks to camera trapping techniques we’re getting more and more photos of snow leopards in the wild. Camera trapping is pretty expensive and time consuming. Expensive not because of the gear which is often a pretty standard camera but because of the effort it takes to make it happen. Firstly you’ve got to get a team into areas that are always remote cos that’s just were our dear furry friends hang out. Then you have to live there for a period of time because they don’t always come out on the first invitation. Sometimes like Steve Winter (see his award winning pic) it takes at least a few months of patience in harsh weather and altitude conditions. The current project the Snow Leopard Trust is running in Mongolia has researchers staying many months over a period of years!


The technique is used in a small area where you know there are at least a few snow leopards passing through because you’ve seen scats (droppings) or scrapings. The camera is set up on paths and trails and the picture is taken when the camera is triggered by the passing animal. The trigger goes off as the sensor senses body heat. Things can go wrong of course, like the batteries running out, the animal being too quick to be well photographed, the camera getting damaged etc. But as we can see from the many photos now being released the technology is really helping researchers learn more about snow leopard numbers and habitat.


If there are a couple of snow leopards in one area and the camera catches them then because each animal has unique markings in its rosettes you can distinguish between different individuals, although it’s usually hard to tell if they’re male or female.