Residents of Ladakh, India, have become partners in big cat conservation, thanks to the gentle nature and tourism appeal of snow leopards.
It also helps that the region’s Buddhist people abhor taking any life.
The award-winning Himalayan Homestay program—whereby trekkers stay in people’s homes instead of camping—has benefited communities, snow leopards and their prey species, as well as the approximately 145 tourists a year who come to learn about the local culture. Visitors relish the local delicacies with all the members of a family and get hands-on experience with various traditional handicrafts, such as carpet weaving. The income generated is used by the family to offset the loss of livestock to snow leopards (between Rs. 15000 and 40000), something that happens less when pens are predator-proofed.
The program—initiated with support from UNESCO, the Mountain Institute, and the Snow Leopard Conservancy USA, and continued with financial and technical support from Panthera— has been instrumental in changing people's attitudes toward the snow leopard. People who killed snow leopards 15 years ago in retaliation for preying on their livestock are now attracting the cats close to their villages (by, for instance, putting salt on rocks for prey species like ibex). Today, they consider the snow leopard a tourism asset, an animal worth more alive than dead.
While local people are receptive to ideas in the wake of good economic returns, we strive to help them understand the intrinsic and instrumental values of the snow leopard—and change their mindset for good. For instance, we teach them how the cat plays a significant role in maintaining the integrity of the region's ecosystem. Disappearance of the cat can have a negative cascade effect all the way down to the plants because their prey feed on vegetation, and consequently to the hydrological system.
Today, many tourists combine snow leopard viewing with the homestay experience, one of its kind in the conservation world. One thing that sets the Himalayan Homestays apart from commercial guesthouses is the strong conservation linkage. Ten percent of homestay income is put into a village conservation fund, which the villagers use for activities geared toward protecting the environment. Some use the fund for cleaning villages, building and maintaining trekking trails, maintenance of cultural sites and planting trees, while others use it for running livestock insurance programs.
There are even two examples of the fund being used to create 'grazing-free areas' in which domestic livestock are not permitted so as to restore habitat for wildlife. These areas have since become valuable grazing lands and habitat for threatened species like the Tibetan argali and the Asiatic ibex, which are the main prey species of the snow leopard in this region.
Villagers not directly involved in running the homestays also benefit through programs like handicraft development. We train villagers in producing items like woolen soft-toy animals and carved wooden animals—perfect souvenirs for homestay guests.
In many villages, women also run eco-cafes along trekking trails, selling locally produced food and other products. They help minimize impact on the environment by filling up trekkers' bottles with boiled-filtered water instead of selling single-use bottled water. Many villages also provide solar eco-showers for tourist use in exchange for a modest fee. These are maintained by non-homestay families to generate additional income.
The homestays and related activities have also been crucial in empowering the region’s women, who used to rely on their husbands for petty cash but today make important economic decisions on their own. Many women also send their kids to good schools because they can now afford to do so. They also learn about hygiene, food preservation, language, cooking, and other skills from tourists.
Moreover, this pro-poor rural tourism initiative has been important in closing the income gap between rural and urban people. It is apparent that civil unrest in important tourist destinations like Kashmir and Nepal started with rural uprising due to income disparity between rural and urban populations. The homestay system in Ladakh has been a great instrument for preventing such a situation in the region.
The homestays have also played an important role in minimizing the impact of tourists on the environment. Using existing infrastructure rather than constructing new hotels and guest houses to accommodate burgeoning numbers of tourists in the region is also crucial for environmental sustainability. Resource usage in the homestays is minimal compared to that in commercial accommodations. Homestays also take the pressure off Leh, the main city, which is currently bursting at the seams, and distributes both the numbers of tourists and income generated from them more evenly.
There’s one caveat: with the increasing number of tourists on the trekking trails, a garbage problem developed. Plastic food wrapper litter is especially unnerving. SLC-IT and Panthera have been tackling this by providing trash cans to all the homestay villages and encouraging villagers to sort garbage and dispose of it properly.
The Himalayan Homestays has been a win-win, upholding the spirit of an old Ladakhi saying: “Neither does the lamb die, nor goes the wolf hungry.”