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Nepali man takes snow leopards' welfare to new heights

For Tibetans in Nepal, the world's least studied big cat is a god and a demon at the same time
A snow leopard in Nepal. Snow leopards are considered a mountain deity in the Himalayan nation that locals worship and offer prayers to them.

A snow leopard in Nepal. Snow leopards are considered a mountain deity in the Himalayan nation that locals worship and offer prayers to them. (Photo: Tashi R Ghale)

 

Published: March 05, 2024 10:54 AM GMT
Updated: April 02, 2024 06:34 AM GMT

According to Rinzin Phunjok Lama's grandmother, the snow leopard is a mountain god and should be respected.

In her version of local folklore, sabu, as snow leopards are called by Tibetans in Nepal, are depicted as a god and a demon at the same time.

“My impression of this elusive yet mysterious cat was of something like a monster. My childhood curiosity grew stronger as I grew up,” recalled Lama, aged 33.

The snow leopard is considered a mountain deity that locals worship and offer prayers, he said.

When their livelihood is under threat, snow leopards rear their ugly head, said Lama while narrating incidents of them prowling in Bargaun, a village in Humla district in northwestern Nepal, bordering China.

During the winter when people stay indoors, Lama’s grandmother used to tell stories of houses and livestock that were "eaten away" by the sabu.

The entire community, engaged in pastoral activities, invokes the snow leopard's godly nature when livestock is taken out for grazing.

In fact, depending on the size of the livestock, prayers vary. During the winter, they are conducted when herds are moved to a lower altitude for feeding in stalls.

“Despite the threat, I found people in awe of snow leopards and hold a soft spot for them,” he added.

As the first conservation biologist from his village, Lama has undertaken field visits and community-based conservation efforts to protect snow leopards, Himalayan wolves, Tibetan argalis and musk deer.

Changing weather patterns are having an adverse impact on the diversity of the vast Himalayas, he lamented.

Rainfall is erratic, winters are getting drier, and the traditional water sources are drying out. The threat of a flash flood or landslide loom large, he noted.

In fact, the whole weather pattern has turned erratic. “The amount of snow that hits in a day can be equivalent to a whole three-month-long winter period these days,” he said.

It is a tough time for snow leopards that are already threatened by human-wildlife conflicts and poaching.

This motivated Lama to come up with sustainable livelihood practices to help villagers reduce the retaliatory threat they pass on to snow leopards. Honey-making, handicrafts, and herbal products were added to the local agrarian economy.

As a conservation biologist, Lama’s first serious encounter with conservation occurred in 2014 when he tried to conduct a snow leopard survey.

Since then, Lama has encouraged many youngsters to become "citizen scientists."

“I was the first graduate in conservation from Humla and I don’t want to be the last,” he added.

Tracking snow leopards along the cold barren slopes in the towering Himalayas is a matter of life and death, warned Lama.

In October 2022, Lama nearly died when a falling rock missed him by a whisker while conducting a survey.

Working in one of the most isolated landscapes on Earth is always challenging, he observed. 

But when it becomes too tough, Lama remembers his grandmother’s tips: “You should be as resilient and adaptable as a snow leopard.”

Lama’s perseverance yielded him rich dividends. This year, he was presented with the prestigious Future for Nature (FFN) Award.

He edged out over 250 candidates to win the award which comes with a cash prize of 50,000 euros (US$54,224).

For Lama, this was the second international honor recognizing his work helping the vulnerable big cats. He has put in place a network of school students, herders, religious and spiritual leaders and government agencies to ensure the welfare and safety of snow leopards.

In July 2021, Lama, currently associated with Third Pole Conservancy, was awarded the Rolex Award for Enterprise.

“I am grateful for the global endorsement. I am not doing something unique. But through my work, I am emphasizing that locals can become the real stewards of their land given the opportunity and the exposure,” Lama told UCA News.

Snow leopards known as "ghosts of mountains" are a neglected species. They are the least studied among the big cats and their population is estimated between 4,000 and 7,000, living in 12 range countries, including Nepal.

However, Nepal has not yet conducted a comprehensive head count. Thus, unofficial figures put the number at 500.

A 2016 report published by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, stated that between 221 and 450 snow leopards are killed every year by herder communities due to the man-animal conflict in the range countries.

Lama’s mission is to reverse this. He relies on his grandmother’s tips when the going gets tough spotting the big cat which prefers to roam at elevations not less than 3,000 meters (9,800 ft) in the Himalayan nation.

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