Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Golden Gobi


I had lost the sunlight over an hour ago. Well, the sunlight barely made it into these narrow canyons during this time of the year. I was in the South Gobi region of Mongolia and this was the month of November. With no sun reaching the dept of these canyons, the temperature was well below freezing. The one thing I
The main highway cutting across
the Tost and Tosunbumba mountains
dreaded the most in this region was a bike crash. And just as the thought crossed my mind, the rear wheel of my bike wobbled in the loose gravel and I came down crashing. Lying on the ground I smelled petrol and so I immediately rushed to the bike and put it on the main stand. Only a little petrol had leaked. I had a minor bruise on my left thigh but otherwise I seemed alright.


I pulled out the map of the region and my GPS unit and pondered for a while. After a few minutes I admitted to myself that I was lost! With the sun going down my situation was worsening. My best bet was to head dead north, get out of the mountain and into the open steppe, and I should be able to see the road; simple! Find the highway in the steppe and get back to camp. If I could make it to the highway before total dark I should be fine.

An ibex in the late evening. Usually they
prefer the rugged rocky cliffs
I was here in the Gobi desert to try and assess the conservation status and distribution of wild ungulates in the newly proposed Local Protected area around the Tost-Tosunbumba mountains. Alongside, I also hoped to estimate the availability of wild-ungulate-prey for the snow leopard which would complement my work in India. This is also the site of the Long Term Ecological Study, a joint venture of the Snow Leopard Trust and PANTHERA. The only place in the world where you can study the snow leopard using, almost exclusively, a motorbike to get around. Orjan, a colleague from Sweden, is also doing his PhD here. He is incredible when it comes to collaring snow leopards. He has already collared 15 snow leopards and 6 of them currently carry their collars. The study is aimed at understanding the home range, movement and predation pattern of snow leopards. I felt that our work complimented each other very well.
"Nartai", Sunlight, as we called him, was the last snow leopard that Orjan had collared before leaving for Sweden


The most abundant ungulate in this region was the Siberian ibex Capra sibirica and the argali Ovis amon. Though the latter is comparatively much rarer. Outside the mountains and into the steppe there is also the Black-tailed gazelle, khulan and the occasional wild Bactrian camel that stray from the neighboring Great Gobi Strictly Protected area.
Argali, the biggest wild-sheep in the world.
They mainly preffer the rolling hills on the
periphery of the Tost Mountains

From my assessments so far, there is a healthy population of ibex. Large enough to support a viable population of the snow leopards. But the status of the other four ungulates is bleak. Interviews with the local herders suggested that the Khulan may even have gone locally extinct; sometime over the last decade. Nadia, an alumni of the M.Sc. Course at the Wildlife Institute of India, but a local Mongolian, helped with the interview surveys. She also found out that it was only a few male bactrian camels that made forays to this region , that too only during winters, probably in search of mates among the domestic free-ranging camel population. Over the last decade the Black-tailed gazelle has retreated further west and exists as a small population of less than 30 individuals. Even though the argali is distributed over a much larger area, their population seems small, as sighting an argali is a difficult task.
The gloden glow of the Gobi is deceptive. It masks the bitter cold!

Even if this area was declared a Local Protected Area, it was threatened by the mining companies that had already procured licenses to explore for minerals in this region. I had already seen some of the mining activity within the borders of the PA. Then there was also the illegal, open-cast mining for gold; aptly called Ninja mining. You hardly ever saw people doing it, just the scares left on the land! The border with China, the sink for all the minerals of Mongolia,  is barely 40 km away from here. The nightmare of straying into china that haunted me at my field site in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, India, still haunts me here!
The Golden Gobi!

As these thoughts were running in my head, I rode over a gentle rolling hill and the vast steppe opened in front of me. The warm glow of the setting sun reflected from the dry grass covering the landscape in shades of gold! I wondered why anyone would want to dig up a place as beautiful as this.

I guess, the glitter of gold outshines the Gobi!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Counting Ibex in Mongolia

First week of October I started on an enormous task of estimating the population of Ibex in the Tost and Tosunbumba mountains in the South Gobi region of the Mongolia. After scouting around, getting used to the area for the first few weeks I started the actual work only in the last week of October.

The Steppe of Gobi and the Tost mountains in the background

The Tost-Tosunbumba mountains cover an area of about 2000 km2 and are almost in the middle of the Gobi desert. There is very low precipitation and temperature fluctuates between 30 degrees in the summer to -30 in the winters. Temperature now (Oct- Nov) hovers between -10 at night and 4 during the day. The mountains are not very high, the base of the mountain is at about 1800m and the highest summit rises only a little above 2500m. The terrain is very rugged in parts and absolutely gentle and rolling at others.

A rutting male ibex with a female.

I have divided the entire landscape into smaller units ranging from 20-150 km2. The larger units are further divided into smaller grids of ~20-30 km2. I am using a method developed by Forsyth and Hickling (1997) to count the Himalayan Tahr in the South Isle of New Zealand. In this method, one does a double count of all the herds in the survey area. Based on the age-sex classification of individuals in a herd, the observers the find out the herds that were counted only during the first survey, only in the second survey and herds counted in both the surveys. Using the differences in counting in both the surveys the observers then estimate the probability of detections which then helps to estimate the number of groups that were missed in both the surveys. The method relies on the robust mark-recapture theory.

It is the solitary animals or the small groups that are harder to detect!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Sunshine and her cub

An edited version of this article appeared in the magazine 'Hornbill' April-June 2011

What
could it be that the boy had confused for a sheep stuck in the snow?’ Curious, I had peered through the spotting scope. There were two of them ... was it Sunshine? But who was that with her? Why were they here in broad daylight...? Sunshine was afar in the low resolution photograph that Charu had sent to me. But, she was one of the most beautiful beings that I had ever seen. Though the photograph was not too clear, one couldn’t miss the striking features of this elusive cat – a Snow Leopard. Charu’s email read “results from last summer’s camera trapping exercise in Spiti”. The camera traps had captured many images of four different snow leopards. He had attached few low resolution images of all the four snow leopards. The first was a large male who had lost his tail; he had been named ‘Tail cut’. The second was another male but not as large as Tail cut; he had been named ‘Eureka’. And finally there was a photograph of a mother and her cub. The mother had been named ‘Sunshine’ and her cub had been left unnamed.



This fall winter I had set off on a mission to Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, with the hope of studying the foraging behaviour and eating habits of the blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), one of the most
important preys of the snow leopard. Spiti which lies in the rain shadow area of the Trans-Himalayan region is subject to harsh winters (the temperature drops down to -35º C). The ground is covered with over two feet of snow with gale forced winds blowing throughout. Following the blue sheep in such weather conditions was a tough task, but I was geared up to rough it out. On reaching Spiti in early December at the camp, a remote village of Tashigang, I was feeling strange to set base in a village comprising of merely 6 houses and 18 people. The winter had already set in and the night time temperature would drop to -20º C. Takpa and Kalzang, two local guys were to help me with my data collection along with Sushil, Thillay, Kalzang Gurmet and Sheru working in the Nature Conservation Foundation for wildlife
conservation in the region. Together we set up the camp; my home for the next six months!

Thus, began my quest of running the camp and working in the fields with the aid of Kalzang and Takpa. I began to follow the blue sheep, spending days and nights watching and taking meticulous notes on their foraging behaviour. One fine day on our way from the camp to the area, where I had last seen the blue sheep, we came across a dead blue sheep along with two sets of snow leopard pug marks around the kill. On following the tracks for a little while, we came to a site where the pair had rested, and then the tracks disappeared into the craggy cliffs,
which we could not follow.



My routine was pretty much in flow, I would take a day off once every ten days. On one of those idle days, I was lazing around the terrace of our camp with my spotting scope, sipping on a hot tea, imploring lady luck as I hadn’t spotted anything yet. Time passed by… a little boy from the village walked up to the roof of the camp and started peering through the spotting scope. He saw something and concluded that it was 'a blue sheep stuck in the snow'. I laughed his remark off, “blue sheep are adapted to living in these conditions and would not get stuck in the snow”! He acknowledged my argument, and did not pursue the subject any further. But then, my curiosity got the better of me. What could it be that the boy had confused for a blue sheep stuck in snow? I peered through the spotting scope. What I saw was one of the biggest surprise of my life. It was a snow leopard, a kilometre away, silently plodding through about two feet of powder snow; with only the head showing it seemed as if it was swimming in the deep snow!



I kept my spotting scope focused and tried hard to see where the snow leopard was headed. Suddenly, I noticed another movement through the corner of the spotting scope. There were two snow leopards, walking parallel to each other maintaining a distance of about twenty feet! Enthralled, I decided to get a closer look and ran downstairs, calling Sushil, Kalzang and Thillay on the way. The next moment the four of us and a couple of boys from the village headed to a place where we could hide and wait for the approaching snow leopards to take a closer look and note the direction in which they were headed. Soon we were positioned at the right spot and the two snow leopards arrived without any further delay. They were across a deep gorge from us but the distance as the crow flies was less than a few hundred meters.

Snow leopards are known for their secretive behaviour. The first photograph of a snow leopard was taken in the 1970s. They are nocturnal, live in extremely rugged terrain and are very well camouflaged; appropriately called by some as ‘ghost of the mountains’. And here they were two of them, in bright day light, barely a few hundred meters from us. One was clearly older than the other. It had to be them! Sunshine and her cub… they were the only mother-cub pair existing in the area! It was unlikely that another mother-cub pair would have its home range overlapping that of Sunshine. While Sunshine lay in the snow, her cub played with her tail. All of a sudden both were still and alert, we could feel the tension in the air. Further away, on the same slope, we noticed movement… immediately we focussed our lenses… another snow leopard! We couldn’t believe our eyes. One of most elusive wild cat of the world and we were watching three together! Trans-fixed by this development we failed to notice the tension building up, around Sunshine and her cub. The cub’s movements softened; it crouched, belly brushing the floor, almost disappearing into the surrounding. The third snow leopard appeared to be a large male. He stayed about 100 m from Sunshine and her cub, hidden in a rock crevasse by now. The tension persisted for over an hour, throughout which Sunshine while basking in the open sunny slope kept a close watch on the new male, while her cub stayed put in its rocky hideout, peeping outside at regular intervals. There was no doubt in my mind that the large male was aware of the cub’s presence and location, but never displayed any aggression. In many large cat species, males are known to be aggressive towards cubs that are not their own, sometimes even killing them. That explained the undercurrent here... but why was the large male so calm? Was he the cub’s father? I will never know... Our insufficient observations didn’t allow us to pick up details on the male, we couldn’t even confirm if he was one of the resident leopards or a new visitor to the area.



By now it had been over 5 hours since the first leopard was spotted, soon it was evening and the sun dipped below the ridge-line in the west and the temperatures started to dip rapidly, a signal for us to leave soon (I was unable to hold the binoculars due to the cold). We left the snow leopards after it became too dark to notice any movement; even against the bright snow. That night I stayed up wondering about what must have happened after we left. Who was the large male? Would he attack the cub in the dark or would they just be fine together? What about Sunshine? This was the breeding season of the snow leopards. Would she mate with this large male? Was her cub old enough to wean off and look after himself? The next day, at the first light of the day, we were back at the site; but they were gone! The wind had cleaned whatever little remained to be read of the footprints. There was no evidence of the presence of the animals from the previous day, just uniform snow cover all across. That day onwards I was much more optimistic about sighting a snow leopard, I was watchful and rewarded soon.



A few weeks later, while observing a herd of blue sheep over the deep gorge formed by the Shilla nala (one of Spiti river’s tributaries), a rock suddenly moved in the valley below. The movement was not at the bottom of the gorge, but on a ledge on my side of the gorge; only a few hundred metres below me. A grey shadow slyly slid past a few rocks and settled down again. I focused my binoculars on the exact spot, but it was difficult to spot the shadow. It moved again and kept walking along the ledge and finally… a beautiful snow leopard emerged from the stealthy shadow. It must have been on the ledge for quite some time but I had noticed it only when it moved, warily it kept walking. I knew it hadn’t noticed me as I was watching it from the top, literally a bird’s eye view. The peculiarity of this leopard confirmed my doubts – it was Sunshine’s cub. I had often seen pug marks of an adult leopard and a cub in this area... but where was Sunshine? I followed the cub along a parallel ledge vertically above it. I lost sight of it for some time but knew where the ledge would lead him; I rushed along the ledge and waited for the cub to emerge at the other end. It took him a while, but he came and startled a herd of blue sheep that were feeding there. Although he walked like a ghostly shadow, his movements were awkward when he approached the blue sheep herd. His hunting techniques were still poor… which meant that he had not weaned off completely. Maybe Sunshine had gone hunting and her cub was just trying his luck around their den? The startled blue sheep soon left and the cub sat down under an over hanging rock. After a while, Takpa, my friend and assistant, came looking for me. We just sat there watching the cub sleep. Then just as silently as it appeared, it got up and disappeared like a shadow in the boulders at the bottom of the valley bottom; never a sound nor a glint; always camouflaged in his surroundings.

I saw the cub only one more time before the end of the project, a brief glimpse. It peeped at us from behind some rocks. But now every time I return to the mountains and see a pug mark in the snow, it fills me with joy, hoping that it is the shadow, a little older now... holding its own territory... hunting for itself!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Conservation Leadership Program Traning Course

(An edited version of this post has been posted at http://blog.conservation.org/2011/08/conservation-leaders-build-skills-in-canadian-rockies/)

Group photo at lake Louise (Photo courtesy of Robyn Dalzen)

At a recent Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) international training workshop in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, participants were in the middle of a heated role-play debate over drilling for oil in and around important wildlife habitats.

“Twenty five percent of the profits from this oil well will be used for local community development,” negotiated the petroleum company representative.

“But we don’t want the oil wells here, and we don’t need the money,” argued the community members. The outcome was inevitable; the community members were not going to budge.

Seldom do things turn out so easy in real life conservation. In my own project in India, convincing the government to divert an upcoming road away from an important snow leopard (Panthera uncia) habitat has surely been a challenge!

To better equip us to tackle difficult conservation issues, one representative from each of the 30 CLP award-winning teams — spanning 20 different countries — participated in a two-and-a-half week training course at the University of Calgary’s Barrier Lake Field Station.

Lake Barrier field station (Photo courtesy Danka)

We debated many issues, assessed case studies and geared up for our own projects back home. We actively participated in workshops taught by experts in their field on project planning, behavior change through education, media and messaging, and engaged in discussion sessions on advocacy, climate change and fundraising. We also had “culture nights” where we learned about each other’s cultures, and each participant gave a presentation on their project.

A multitude of languages were spoken, but the message of conservation remains the same. I was inspired by the range of conservation projects being conducted by my fellow participants, ranging from expanding marine protected areas in Brazil to evaluating the only remaining Marquesan kingfisher (Todiramphus godeffroyi) population in French Polynesia; from assessing the threats to vipers in Armenia to conducting new research about a rare subspecies of chimpanzee in Nigeria.

Over the course of the training, my own work back in India became clearer to me. I learned important lessons about behavior change and how to reach out to people and strike an emotional chord to achieve this task.

In our project, we aim to identify the villages most affected by livestock damage by the snow leopard. These are the villages most likely to persecute the snow leopard in retaliation. We hope to work with these villages and identify a win-win strategy to prevent livestock damage and encourage snow leopard conservation. For humans and snow leopards to co-exist, local people will need to change their lifestyle in many ways — altering their livestock herding methods, changing pasture use to facilitate wild-herbivore population recovery and, above all, shifting their attitudes toward the snow leopard itself.

A Columbian ground squirrel at the barrier lake field station.

For the participants and CLP staff members, we were peers in the classroom, an international audience in the presentation hall, teammates on the football and volleyball field, dance partners at the cultural nights and newfound friends. We parted with a heavy heart but armed to shoulder the responsibility of the small contributions that we are determined to make to conserve wildlife wherever we are.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Great Himalayan National Park

GHNP or Great Himalayan National Park is best known for being only one of the two places on earth with a viable population of the western tragopan Tragopan melanocephalus. Locally known as Jujurana, this species serves as the flagship for wildlife conservation in the greater Himalaya.

Because of its restricted distribution the Jujurana is considered Vunerable to extinction by the IUCN. Its only five population are known from Kohistan, Kaghan valley in Pakistan and Kishtwar, Chamba, Kulu and an area east of the Sutlej river from India.


Sunset at Dela

Two weeks ago I went briding with some friends to GHNP. The Jujurana was not our agenda because it is so rare to see one that you could spend months before seeing one. We had only seven days, so we decided on trying to see as much of the park as possible rather than just chasing one species.

The GHNP boasts of a little over 200 bird species. The park ranges form around 1000 meters to over 6000 meters above sea level. It has a diversity of habitats from broadleaf forest, through mixed conifer, oak-rododendron to alpine meadows. The diversity of habitats available means a lot of species turnover and thus a lot of species.


Ashwin and me on a birding trip


Over the six days, four of which were spent inside the core area, we saw over 100 species of birds. Our list boasts of some "difficult to see" species such as the orange bullfinch (Pyrrhula aurantiaca). Although none of us is a full-time birder we still managed to id over 13 species of warblers; five of which belong to the groups called leaf warblers (genus Phylloscopus) which are especially difficult to Id. The experience was much more exciting as we were on our own to id birds in an areas where none of us had been before. It was a huge learning experience for all of us.




Dela Camp at ~3400m

Other than bird also saw a big herd of blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) on our second day in the park. It was a special experience for me as I had never before seen the blue sheep in the greater Himalaya. All my previous work has been in the trans Himalaya. The same day on our way back to camp at night we also chanced upon a brown bear (Ursus Arctos) mother with two cub. It was late twilight and we narrowly missed getting between the mother and the cub. The alpine medow at Dela also offered some very exotic birds such as the Golden bush robin (Tarsiger chrysaeus), Smoky warbler (Phylloscopus fuligiventer), Grey-sided bush warbler (Cettia brunnifrons). All these birds are high altitude meadow and shrubbery specialist and cannot be seen anywhere else.

On our way back from Dela, We also chance on other mammal species such as the Yellow-throated marten, Himalayan palm civet and Goral. Great Himalayan National Park offered us the greatest Himalayan trekking and wildlife experience. I can't wait to get back!




Thursday, May 5, 2011

Cold-desert conflict: A snow leopards tale!

Edited version of this article appeared in Frontline Volume 28 - Issue 10 :: May. 07-20, 2011


A snow leopards in the high altitudes of the trans-Himalayan region. Project Snow Leopard, launched by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2009, focusses on conservation on a landscape level rather than in just protected areas.


AN hour of hard climbing through knee-deep snow took me to the crest of the plateau at an altitude of 4,500 metres. I gasped for breath in the rarefied air of the endless Tibetan steppe grassland that extended in front of me. Resting my weight on an ice axe, I was admiring the panoramic view when a silhouette on the snow caught my eye. It was a snow leopard moving gently, almost like an elf, hardly leaving a footprint. It was about 200 metres away, perpendicular to my line of sight, and seemed unaware of my presence. I sank to my knees and reached for my binoculars.

The snow leopard is the most shy and elusive of all the big cats in the world. Very little information is available on its ecology and behaviour. In fact, until a few decades ago, it was as if the majestic beast was a mythical creature. Very few outsiders have seen it in its natural environment in the high altitudes of the Himalayas. I got this rare opportunity in Spiti Valley in the remote trans-Himalayan region of Himachal Pradesh.



THE CARCASS OF a bharal killed by a snow leopard and later scavenged by vultures, in the Rungalong plateau in the trans-Himalayan region of Himachal Pradesh.


Suddenly, the snow leopard stopped, crouched low, and started staring at something. From my position I could not see what it was looking at. I crawled to the top of a small hump in the rolling plains, taking care to avoid being seen by the animal. A group of about 30 bharal ( Pseudois nayaur) was grazing on a small patch of grass about 300 metres from the snow leopard.

The bharal is a species of wild goat found in the Himalayan and Tibetan plateau region and is one of the most important prey of the snow leopard. In appearance it is more similar to the hypothetical common ancestor of goats and sheep than either of the two. Of stocky build, it weighs, on an average, about 55 kilograms. The males have beautiful curled horns and sometimes reach well over 70 kg, while the females have thin horns that are only a few centimetres in length.

The snow leopard had moved behind a clump of caragana ( Caragana brevifolia) bushes and, from a crouched position, was intently watching the bharal. Local legend has it that snow leopards can ‘dissolve' in the mountains. Indeed, the leopard had merged completely with the ground and almost melted in front of my eyes. It was incredible to see an animal as large as the snow leopard ‘disappearing' in an open plain. Although I knew exactly where it was, I could not see its shape or outline or anything for that matter. I caught an occasional glimpse of it when it moved.

Using the cover of small rocks and bushes, it now started moving closer to the bharal. There was an unnerving silence all around. Just when I expected the snow leopard to move closer to the bharal, the silence was broken by the loud ‘honking' of a donkey. It came from behind me; the livestock of the village had moved closer and was now about 500 metres behind me. There were over 50 donkeys, 150 cows/cow-yak hybrids, and 250 sheep and goats, and they were being herded by two elderly men and two boys who were barely in their teens.



Excessive grazing by domestic livestock is the primary cause behind the reduced numbers of wild herbivores such as the bharal and the ibex

I thought a donkey had noticed the snow leopard and was braying in alarm, but through my binoculars I saw that the donkeys were just running after each other in a playful fight. The snow leopard withdrew further into the rocks and kept a close eye on both the livestock and the bharal.

Livestock is an equal or better alternative prey for the snow leopard. It can sneak close to the herds and when the herders are busy with their tea or chatting make off silently with a goat or a sheep or sometimes even a donkey or a cow. The snow leopard even attacks free-ranging horses and yaks, taking the young and the weak. Pastoralists from certain areas sometimes lose up to 18 per cent of their livestock to the snow leopard and other predators such as the Tibetan wolf. This behaviour of the snow leopard gets it into conflict with pastoralists, sometimes drawing serious retaliatory action from them. This is one of the biggest challenges for snow leopard conservation throughout its distribution range in Central Asia.



A GROUP OF bharal, or blue sheep, grazing on a patch of grass.

Livestock numbers up

The trans-Himalayan region is extremely low in productivity, comparable to the Arctic region or deserts. As a result, livestock and wild herbivores, such as the bharal, compete for the limited fodder available in the rangelands. The entire region is covered by over two feet of snow throughout winter, making it even more difficult for wild herbivores to find food. During this season, livestock are fed on fodder that pastoralists have stored. Thus, in the past couple of decades wild herbivore populations have declined even as livestock numbers have increased. This has led to the increased dependence of predators such as the snow leopard and the Tibetan wolf on livestock, intensifying the conflict between predators and pastoralists.

In the trans-Himalayan region, wildlife populations are spread across the landscape, the contiguity being broken only by natural barriers such as high mountain ridges and rivers and, more recently, by the large human settlements with a large number of livestock. Even wild herbivores are spread across the entire landscape but are found in extremely low densities. Project Snow Leopard, which the Ministry of Environment and Forests launched in 2009, recognises these problems and focusses on conservation on a landscape scale rather than in just the protected areas.



A YEARLING BHARAL sharpening its skills on the rugged and snow-clad mountain slopes.


Here, I had the rare opportunity of seeing the snow leopard faced with the choice of hunting a wild herbivore or livestock. Although just the presence of livestock would not tempt a snow leopard to take the risk, a hungry carnivore would not ignore the chance of picking up straying cattle.

The snow leopard retreated further into the rocks and I could not see it any more. I held my position for a long time. Before I realised it, evening was upon us. It got colder and dark. The livestock had also retreated towards the village. The stalemate had been resolved. The livestock had been ignored over the bharal, saving the herder and the snow leopard a lot of trouble.

THE EFFORTS OF the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, in the reserved area of Kibber village have had a positive impact on several wildlife species. Besides the snow leopard, the village reserve is now home to the bharal, the Himalayan ibex, the Tibetan wolf, the stone marten, the pale weasel and many bird species such as the golden eagle, the lammergeier and the Himalayan griffon.

The next morning I went back to the Rungalong plateau, the site of the pervious day's encounter with the snow leopard. A scanning of the landscape drew my attention to a flock of vultures. They led me to the place where the snow leopard had made its kill the previous night – a male bharal, about four years old. The vultures were tearing at whatever remained of the kill. The snow around the kill was sprayed in red, and the pugmarks told the story. There were few signs of a struggle; the marks on the throat indicated a swift kill. There was still some portion of the kill left, and I expected the leopard to return for it in the evening.

I returned to the village where I met the livestock herder. I told him what I had seen the previous day. He was first disappointed because I had not warned him of the danger. But then he added that snow leopards did not attack livestock very often in areas with a good bharal population.

Rungalong is adjacent to the reserved area of Kibber village, where the people, with support from the Nature Conservation Foundation, a non-governmental organisation based in Mysore, had stopped grazing their livestock so as to help revive the bharal population.

Local initiative

Charudutt Mishra of the NCF, who first came to this region as a PhD student, understood the problem of conflict between pastoralists and the snow leopard. He convinced the local people to set aside a certain area of their rangeland to facilitate the recovery of wild herbivores such as the bharal. At the same time, along with the youth of the village, he started a livestock insurance scheme that compensated pastoralists for loss of livestock to wild carnivores at the current market price of the livestock.

Changing attitudes



THE TIBETAN WOLF. In the past couple of decades, the decline in wild herbivore populations and the growth in livestock numbers have led to the increased dependence of predators such as the snow leopard and the Tibetan wolf on livestock.

These initiatives have helped increase the populations of wild herbivores and change people's attitudes towards wild carnivores in Spiti Valley and a few other places where this model has been replicated. In the eight years since the launch of this initiative, the region has seen an over-sixfold increase in the population of the bharal. Although its effect on the foraging pattern of the snow leopard is still scientifically unclear, local people strongly believe that an increase in the bharal population has reduced the danger to livestock from snow leopards and wolves.

The conservation effort has also had a positive impact on other wildlife species. The village reserve is today home to many animals such as the bharal, the Himalayan ibex, the Tibetan wolf, the snow leopard, the stone marten, the pale weasel and many bird species such as the golden eagle, the lammergeier and the Himalayan griffon. Also, encountering a snow leopard is much more common today than it was before.