Sighting snow leopard a source of livelihood for youth in Himachal Pradesh tribal belt
Spotting snow leopard in Himachal Pradesh has become a source of livelihood for many unemployed youth in the tribal region of Lahaul and Spiti valley.
Also know as ‘grey ghost’, this elusive cat inhabiting high mountainous region is sighted best in the winter season when mountain goats such as the bharal come down to the valley for food, bringing the snow leopards on their trail.
With limited avenues of earning, government has trained local youth to sight this ‘vulnerable’ cat and other animals without disturbing the flora and fauna in the region.
“During winters, more and more wildlife enthusiast visit Spiti valley to spot snow leopards. We charge Rs 1,000 to Rs 5,000 from a tourist group wanting to spot the snow leopards. This is exclusive of the entire tours and excursion package. Its a good source of earning for us,” says Chhering Tashi, a graduate from Kibber village which is located 14,200 feet above sea level. Over the last three years, Tashsi has studied the habitat of snow leopards in the region.
“Snow leopards are so well camouflaged that you could be looking right at one without realising until it would have moved! This is why it is crucial to have an excellent guide,” another tour guide said.
Snow leopards in Himachal Pradesh are usually found at an altitudes between 9,800 to 17,000 feet in high and rugged terrains.
Their habitat ranges from Kibber wildlife sanctuary in Lahaul and Spiti to Pangi in Chamba district and Lippa Asrang in the tribal Kinnaur district.
“Cold desert region in Spiti has a limited avenue for earning livelihood. However, in the last few years, we have witnessed an increase in the number of tourist, especially wild life enthusiasts, who are signing up for the trek,” he said.
Snow leopards prefer to inhabit steep cliff areas, rocky outcrops and ravines. These habitats provide them with camouflage they need to ambush unsuspecting prey.
They stalk their prey and usually spring from a distance of 20 - 50 feet.They are mostly active during dawn and dusk. Unlike other big cats, snow leopards are unable to roar. Solitary in nature, they pair only during the breeding season.
The wildlife wing of the state forest department in collaboration with Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied sports in Manali has trained as many as 30 guides besides local youths from the region for leading tours to wildlife sanctuaries in the region.
“Youths have been specially trained to sight several wild animals in the region without disturbing the flora and fauna,” said Spiti divisional forest officer Rajeev Sharma.
Though the state forest department is yet to undertake a census to ascertain the total number of snow leopards in the region, the wildlife wing of the department pegs the population at 30 in upper Spiti region.
Sharma said the department has also set up as many as 40 camera traps to study and monitor the presence of big cats, following which the department will check the data of camera traps to ascertain the presence of more snow leopards.
The wildlife wing of the forest department is also running a snow leopard project in collaboration with Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, in which the department will execute a management plan to improve the habitat of snow leopards in the valley.