How tourism can help save snow leopards - Himalayan Homestays
Written by: Kate Vannelli, published May 2018
Imagine your frustration when, upon emerging from your house first thing in the morning, you find your hard-earned, well-maintained herd of ten goats and sheep, all dead. There are snow leopard tracks in the snow. Those animals were valuable and you had been depending on them to get you and your family through an extremely difficult and long winter. Now what?
This scenario isn’t as uncommon as one might hope. In the Indian Himalayas, based in the city of Leh, Ladakh, one organization is approaching this problem in an innovative way. The Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust (SLC-IT) is tackling multiple problems through a program called ‘Himalayan Homestays’. This is an ecotourism venture that brings tourists from all over the world into local villages and into people’s homes, in hopes of seeing the world’s most elusive big cat, the snow leopard, in it’s gorgeous natural habitat. You may be wondering; how can a tourism venture help people keep their livestock safe from predators, such as the snow leopard? Let us count the ways!
First, tourists come and stay with local people. The villages that have the program receive hospitality training from SLC-IT, as well as supplies to help them host visitors. The houses have a rotation system so no one household receives all of the benefits from visitors; they are shared. People often stay a night or two in a village during their trek, and the money from this goes directly back to the host family, as well as into a village fund to support various conservation projects in the area. The local people decide together which local project to implement, and have control over the rotation system and the Himalayan Homestay program in their village. The most obvious benefit from this is the additional income for the locals that the tourists provide, which can help offset livestock losses from predators. Tourists have the benefit of supporting a venture that gives directly back to the communities they visit, and the host villages receive additional income to assist in their livelihoods.
There are also less tangible, but equally important benefits. Let’s look at local perceptions (this is the topic I was studying for my Master’s degree). Understandably, if predators are consistently taking livestock and disrupting livelihoods and providing nothing obvious in return, the general perception of these animals is going to be, and for the most part is, negative. Enter Himalayan Homestays. Not only are people receiving economic benefits for just having the possibility of a snow leopard sighting near their village, they are interacting with people from around the world who are fascinated with their wildlife. Naturally, and you know if you’ve ever spent time around an ‘animal nerd’, this enthusiasm can be contagious. Many of the local people I interviewed expressed that they had never realized how beautiful the snow leopard is until they interacted with people traveling from across the world just to see this animal. And these benefits extended beyond the snow leopard. The Ladakhis who had benefitted from Himalayan Homestays also relayed having become much more aware of their local wildlife in general, from the blue sheep to the quail-like Chukars that roamed the outskirts of their villages. The more wildlife thrived around their village, the more tourists were likely to visit, and this fact did not go un-noticed.
Increased tourism in a natural area has it downsides as well, the most obvious being environmental degradation and increased trash. However, SLC-IT is addressing this as well, by implementing recycling and trash infrastructure in the villages with tourism, as well as increased education outreach on this topic for both tourists and locals. The topic of effective trash management came up constantly during interviews, and village cleanliness was a point of pride for many.
Overall, Himalayan Homestays has made a positive difference, both economically and perception-wise, in the mountain communities positioned alongside snow leopards and other wildlife. This program is able to expose many to the beauty and benefits wildlife can hold, as well as providing additional income to offset losses. Being able to conduct research in this unique setting was something I’ll never forget. The extraordinarily kind people, the hardworking team at SLC-IT, and of course the incredible landscape and wildlife… The ghost cat eluded me, however there were times where I swear I could feel feline eyes on me. The famous words of Peter Matthiessen in “The Snow Leopard” ring true:
“It is wonderful how the presence of this creature draws the whole landscape to a point, from the glint of light on the old horns of a sheep to the ring of a pebble on the frozen ground.”
More about the Author: Kate Vannelli, contributing editor
Kate Vannelli is a conservation scientist passionate about the natural world and wildlife. After obtaining a BSc. in Environmental Science at the University of Oregon, which included an internship with the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, Kate spent three more years in Namibia as a staff member at the Cheetah Conservation Fund. Here, she was able to be involved with many aspects of wildlife conservation in the field. This experience helped to develop her career towards community-based conservation and led to a MSc. with the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent, in the United Kingdom. Here, she conducted research on the community aspects of snow leopard conservation in the Himalayas, and gained experience with qualitative survey methods, conducting consultancy projects in Scotland and England. Following graduation, Kate returned to Namibia to assist with the Namibia national leopard census, using camera traps and questionnaires to gain insight on the pressures facing the Namibian leopard population. Kate would like to continue to develop her career working towards environmentally sustainable development, ideally interfacing between science, policy and community-based conservation efforts.