Monday, March 7, 2011

Reaching out with Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust

For the Children I made a few trips out with Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust, to various flood affected areas in Ladakh last September (2010). When Radhika-lay suggested I help with reaching out to the children, I was both floored and frightened. Let me sweep animal poop, help mend villagers' livestock barrier, whatever. I am never good with kids, neither did I least suspected that I would be dealing with little ones especially when the organisation I was talking to deals with Snow Leopards! I worried about failing the children, worried about communication barriers, worried about lack of experience with children, worried about being worried out. But it was such a heart-opening experience, and a lung-bursting one too. To work on the games, jump about and act silly for the keeping the spirit and momentum up at high altitude was not easy. And I can't speak Ladakhi beyond "Julley!" and "Khumzang Inna Lay!" It was hot and draining in those stuffy tents. Most of the time I was struggling with being dehydrated my migraine was pounding right out from my ears. But every ounce of energy burnt was more than worth it. Joy is a transparent transaction. Joy is also deadly infectious, you just have to be willing. I feel redeemed learning how simple it is to make someone happy. Especially when the smiles and chuckles are beaming from tiny faces. Thank you Radhika-lay, I still remember Very Well that moment you sat across from my sofa saying how you think I would be great with kids. The kids were great for me and you probably saw that already. And to the crazy girls of SLC, I miss your crazy laughters so much girls!!!! Let's party again, "It's Time To Disco"!!!

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Grey Ghost Strikes Back

On the 16th of February, 2011 early in the morning we received a call from Mr. Tsewang Norboo of Ulley, in the Sham Valley of Ladakh. We reckoned from his voice something was wrong. With a gloomy tone, he finally spoke the words “the Shan has killed my 3 year old Dzo!” Dzo is a cattle breed found extensively found as livestock option in Ladakh. Norboo, was keen to collect the meat which he could sell and make some money of it. The team at SLC-IT suggested that since the Shan (Snow Leopard) was hungry, he would only end up killing another livestock, it was best to let the Snow Leopard have the kill. Since, the inspection was required of the kill, and the telephonic conversations weren’t really effective in comforting the loss, the SLC-IT team immediately left for the village of Ulley, which is a 3 hours drive from Leh.

The team reached around noon, to see Norboo, who was extremely disturbed by the event. Unfortunately, this was his second loss within a period of 15 days. He previously lost a Demo, which cost Rs. 7000/- and this Dzo, which cost Rs.10000/-. The SLC-IT team along with Norboo went to the spot to see the Snow Leopard.

The charismatic animal was only about 120 meters away. The team got a very good view of the animal from the hideout set up by Norboo. It was indeed exhilarating that the team got to see the Grey Ghost, which is rarely sighted, for more than an hour! The Snow Leopard seemed to be enjoying the kill. She was very relaxed and was not intimidated by human presence. Her hypnotizing eyes never left the sight of the carcass, though on some occasions, she would walk up to the hill to digest the food and swiftly come back to continue with her feast. She guarded her meal from black billed magpies, red fox, yellow billed choughs and other vultures. She was in no mood to share her food.

Since, there was a tour group expected to come to Ulley the following day, the team managed to convince Norboo not to collect the rest of the meat. This would have been an ideal site for the tourists, who were on a winter trip to see the elusive cat. To make it a win-win situation, the travel company would compensate Norboo for abandoning the meat.

With Norboo’s consent, Jigmet from SLC-IT met with the travel agent the same evening and to talk about Snow Leopard in Ulley and Norboo’s loss. Mr. Angchok’s tour company agreed to send the tourists to Ulley the following morning. Since, the Snow Leopard was still guarding its meal; the tourists for the first time were able to see the Grey Ghost! As much as the tourists rejoiced the site from just over 120 meters, the Snow Leopard was rejoicing its meat, making it a once in a lifetime sight.

The tourists were extremely happy at the same time, empathized with Norboo’s loss. They gave Norboo Rs.2000/- as a gesture of goodwill. And as agreed upon, Mr. Angchok Sonam will be paying Rs.10000/- to Norboo.
SLC-IT implemented a pilot program for livestock insurance in 2009, where 80% compensation was given to two families, who had lost a Dzo and Yak to the Snow Leopard. SLC-IT will be implementing another Community based Livestock Insurance Program (CLIP) this year, where large bodied livestock of 2 to 5 years will be insured. With minimal premium to be paid by the families, the initial investments will be made from SLC-US and community conservation fund. SLC-IT hopes that the losses in this winter would encourage more families to participate in the program.

On the positive note, Norboo was eager to receive more tourists in winter to see the Snow Leopards in Ulley. Though, he lost his valuable livestock to the Grey Ghost, he saw only in it, the Spirit of the Ladakh Himalayas.

The SLC-IT Team.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Last summer, I spent a total of ten weeks in Ladakh working with a number of organizations based

in Leh or villages elsewhere. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to some of the members of SLC-IT at the beginning of my stay, and from those brief meetings I knew I had to find a way to get involved. About halfway through my stay, Jigmet Dadul was kind enough to invite me along for a ‘day-trip’ to the village of Tangyar for a follow-up session with the villagers. Unsurprisingly, I leapt at the opportunity, though without any clue of what we were signing up for!

After a early-morning pickup along the main bazaar in Leh, we set off on a two or three hour Jeep ride to the top of Wuri La, a mountain pass 5,280m above sea level (17,325ft). Once we had taken in some spectacular views we set off down the other side, only to get caught behind a pick up truck seemingly stuck in the snow only a few hundred yards down the pass. For about a mile the other side of the mountain, the pass was covered in snow (this is July), though this was no problem for the jeep and Jigmet’s magical work at the wheel. Though before we could advance, the others and myself spent just over two hours heaving the pick up truck down the snowy stretch. The air was already incredibly thin, though things were made worse by the constant outpouring of diesel fumes into our faces. It was such a drag slowly advancing the car (with zero tread) that Jigmet announced that we would have to turn back. I was so keen to see the village and continue the trip that I convinced him to join me in one last push. With the help of some manly roars and maybe a little help from a higher power, the truck was out of the difficult stuff. Hallelujah!

On we went and the trip turned into a wildlife safari. We spotted a load of Yak on the mountainside though they were too far away to get a real look. Though we only had to turn the corner to run right into an enormous herd of them, baby Yak and all – I practically died. We also spotted Golden Eagles, Blue sheep, Marmot and even some Foxes. Awesome! However, the smooth ride came to an end around 2pm when we hit a twenty-yard stretch of snow and ice. We proceeded to get properly stuck, and after a couple hours the other chap pitched up adamant he could get passed. For the next five hours we tried our hardest to get at least one of the vehicles out of the mess. We practically built a road out of rocks and earth, pushed and shoved constantly, though with no success. With no socks and just my shocking trainers (they are going straight in the bin when I get home!), and the many hours spent in the snow, I had lost almost all feeling in my feet by evening time. I was frozen and I’d had enough. A Swiss woman had joined us on the trip and had been sent off to the village to find help around 3pm, and by 7 nobody I had come. So we both decided it was best just to walk down the valley and rescue the jeep in the morning. Jigmet assured me it was a mere hour or so away and so I set off positive everything was going to be ok (apart from the fact that my feet felt like ice blocks).

After two hours walking swiftly in the dark, there was no sign of the village. Though miraculously we turned down another valley to be met by a rickety tractor, the Swiss woman and a couple of shepherds armed with shovels. It turns out the walk to the village is actually around twelve miles, so its really quite remarkable that she managed to get down there, then rally the troops to come and save us. I was told to wait with the Swiss lady and I obliged as I assumed they would not take long and I was sure I could keep warm. With only a fleece, my hairy beanie (a lifesaver) and having to deal with cold wet feet, I was asking for hypothermia. Although the day had been tough, I would not have really considered it so severe that it was an exercise in dealing with anguish and adversity. However, the two hours we waited in the cold was pretty difficult for me both physically and emotionally. To keep warm we paced up and down with the odd set of star jumps. I felt incredibly free surrounded by awesome mountains and a star-filled sky, though at the same time trapped in a challenging situation by events totally out of my control. Around eleven I convinced the lady that we should just walk down to keep warm and get to the village rather than wait, which I knew meant risking my safety and health. Thirty minutes down the road we turned round to see bright lights screaming towards us. It was all rather biblical. Around midnight we were crammed into a small house to enjoy some food and then it was straight to bed after an exhausting day.

The next morning we learned that we were the first people to make it down the pass this year and that they were all amazed that we were mad enough to attempt it. We had made it though, and what a gorgeous place to be! Tangyar (pronounced ‘Tangy-Air’) was the village nestled in the Nubra Valley I thought we were visiting, though we were actually staying in the summerhouses about an hours walk across a river valley from the village. In the summer months the thirty or so households move to small abodes in the fields to work the land so they can survive the winter. No phones, no cars, no cigarettes; only animals, wonderfully wrinkly women (decked out in traditional dress) and stunning views of the green and yellow (mustard seed) fields. I had hoped that we might complete the meetings and workshops by lunchtime so we could get back to Leh before people started worrying about my whereabouts. Though once again, Ladakh provided us with a setback, yet as per usual, these initial tribulations resulted in wonderful experiences. Some canal had burst its banks the day before and so the villagers spent the entire day working to repair the damage. This meant that we would have to stay another night. So in the morning I busied myself by building a parabolic heater (solar oven type thing) with Jigmet, which was to be donated by the SLC-IT so the women could set up a parachute café on the road. After a pucker lunch I trekked over to Tangyar for some sightseeing. I later returned from this exhausting expedition and spent the rest of the day basking in the sun stroking the injured pashmina goat. Pretty cool eh?

As the sun began to set on the fields, the women returned and finally it was possible to hold the meeting. The SLC-IT has been selling handicrafts made in Tangyar (Snow Leopard Habitat) for the past year and they wanted to hold a follow up meeting to discuss production, marketing (which I may get involved in whilst I’m here) and other tips of the trade. So around 8 in the evening twenty five or so women squeezed into our modestly sized room and each had brought a bag of their own products; hats, gloves, socks and these adorable woolen animals (yak, ibex and snow leopards). Everyone nattered away for a couple of hours and Jigmet bought a number of the products to take back to Leh. Not long into the meeting I stood up to take some photographs, at which point the women noticed my height. From then on all eyes seemed to be on me. They thought it was hilarious when they talked Ladakhi to me and I pretended to understand by replying with a ‘khasa-le’ or ‘acha’. Around ten, things wound down and the party started. Fresh Chang (barley wine/beer) was served and after every sip my glass was refilled. Outside they had set up a tent and connected the village battery to an old tape player; it was going to be a long night. All the men were in bed whilst the women all came together and cooked a feast and danced away. At first I was dragged out and asked to do an English dance (whatever that is) and I really felt on the spot. Though once I some Chang in me (I was surprisingly tipsy by the end of the night, though luckily walking in a straight line was fine), I was laughing. For at least an hour and a half I was not allowed to leave the small dance floor as I was surrounded by women of all ages all egging me on. The SECMOL dance workshop helped me out and I had such a great time. The battery died around midnight so everyone huddled into the room again for a slap up meal. A real cultural experience!

Another 5am wake up was tough and I was sad to leave such a peaceful and fun loving place. I heard that they are all actually most happy in winter, when they just sit around, drink Chang and celebrate the end of a busy season; it would be awesome to come back then! Since attempting to return to Leh the way we came was craziness, we had to take a different, much longer route. However, this inconvenience was countered by the fact that I was able to experience driving on the highest road in the world, Kardung La is a whopping 18000 or so feet above sea level. The ascent and descent was absolute agony though, the roads were appalling and I got out of the car for a break feeling like a gang of youths had beaten me up with a baseball bat. Anyway, we finally made it back and even today I cannot fully express my thanks to SLC-IT for such a marvelous journey. Keep up the good work!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Wild Felines – Bindu’s Field Trip with The Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT)

In my research for Ladakhi home stays I was tipped off by a fellow traveller to knock on SLC-IT’s door. Radhika, the Deputy Director of SLC-IT was the only soul in the office and furnished me with the home stay maps I was after. In the conversation that unfolded between us it became plainly clear that we both had a deep connection to nature and were having a love affair with the Himalayas; we became friends instantly. What followed was an invitation from Radhika to join herself and her team on a field trip to Zanskar to make a video diary of my experience. How could I refuse? I jumped at the chance!

Zanskar here I come!
So there we were setting off in the SLC Maruti Gypsy, Jigmet at the wheels (the Ladakhi equivalent of Nigel Mansil), and Tashi, Zanskari born and bred (a crazy dancer regardless of what music was playing). Yippie! We were leaving Leh; a sense of relief washed over me as we drove past the many shops, the inevitable commercial hustle and bustle of tourism.We were on our way to Zanskar! I was informed that there would be a fifth member joining the contingent to Zanskar. We would be meeting a K.C Namgyal at Kargil. Now K.C Namgyal was no regular guy but on the contrary, I was told that he was a direct descendent of the Royal family of Zangla, blimey! With Tashi blaring Ladakhi tunes from his mobile phone we swayed on our merry way with Jigmet pointing out wildlife hot spots for Urial, Ibex, and blue sheep. He did this all whilst driving and from vast distances; I mean the guy had a serious set of eagle eyes that I was completely envious of as it took me ages to see anything! Glorious sunshine poured on our path to the confluence of Zanskar and the Indus river at Nimu Village. This was my first sight of the mythical Zanskar river and it did not disappoint. She glistened, sparkled and shimmered a glacial hue of blue never ever seen by these eyes and looked even more fantastic juxtaposed to the silt colour of the Indus. I was skipping with excitement, imagination racing with what beauty lay ahead.
Ariving in Zanskar
Past Parkachik prayer flags and a stupa – we were in Zanskar!!!!!!!!!! The land I had only up till that point dreamt about and seen in photos from other people. We were now in Rangdum valley and the landscape shifted to an entirely different palette of colours, rustic reds with bright yellow and green marshland and ducks! The expansive valley floor dwarfed us as we tootled along in our Maruti Gypsy. Rangdum monastery was in the distance, occupying a location with a mountainous backdrop that simply was epic, cinematic in proportion. We reached the capital of Zanskar, Padum late that evening, found our accommodation and turned in for the night. Woke up the next morning and ventured into Padum market place for breakfast. 
Lungnak valley & beloved Tsarap
The next morning we bid farewell to Padum and set off into Lungnak valley. Sun shining and my love affair with the Tsarap river began. I have decided that if were to be a river it will be either the Tsarap or Zanskar river. Both embody this extraordinary glistening, glittering glacial blue hue that I absolutely fell in love with. Round a bend and a humungous rock on top of which sat Bardan monastery – exquisite location indeed. Onto Mune, where there is another monastery but what caught our attention was a farmer and his wife with their six yaks threshing their harvest of wheat and barley. She was singing from the top of her voice; a love song for her yaks, letting them know how much she appreciated them, how wonderful they were. Past Raru and Ichar village and we stopped at Dorzong and I sampled Pemar (roasted barley flour with butter and salt tea). It’s a staple food in this part of the world and I can see why, ideal mountain food – I loved it.  
SLC-IT home stays – community based tourism
I was on this field trip with the SLC-IT team to check-in with all those villages that had opted into its home stay scheme based on a community based tourism strategy. To become a home stay benefitted the villagers by bringing in additional income, a percent of which they put into a village conservation fund. The fund in turn could then be used to repair local attractions; stupas, mani walls, traditional zanskari bridges as well as set up an eco-café for trekkers to frequent. These incentives enabled SLC-IT to educate the villagers about their natural habitat and local wildlife; especially the snow leopard. SLC-IT provided solar heaters to heat up water, livestock shelters and predator proof fencing. This appeared to be very effective in harmonising the relationship between wild feline and human beings in all villages where the scheme was active in that villagers had stopped killing the snow leopard and realised the precious presence of this animal in their environment was actually a privilege.
Phuktal Gompa
For many, including I Phuktal Gompa or monastery is considered the heart of Zanskar. So when we set off from Purne the following morning I was particularly excited and skipped with joy! For me Phuktal truly conjured up a place that was mystical, remote, difficult to reach but once you do all is one. The trekking towards Phuktal was some of the easiest I had experienced. It was a pleasant walk passing through mountain canvases ranging copper, reds, grey and emerald green rock. And the Tsarap set as a flowing living jewel mirroring the infinite sky.  
Tashi, KC and I walked across a bright red bridge and followed the trail winding up the mountain face passed stupas and chorten. And there we were at the Phuktal gompa gateway bedecked with prayer flags. Tashi and KC paused and let me go through first. I was touched by this gesture, felt like an honour. I walked through and saw caught a first glimpse of the holy abode. It appeared wispy, delicately enmeshed to the mountain face.
Phuktal was our last point together before we split into two groups. The plan was for Jigmet, KC and I to go further into the valley to perform a snow leopard depredation survey (hopefully spotting a snow leopard as frustratingly I had only seen pug marks up to that point) and carry out home stay assessment surveys. Radhe and Tashi were to head back up the way we came to have meetings with home stay owners updating them on recent developments and carrying out evaluation on home stay usage. The spanner in the works came when I discovered that the charger for my movie camera had burnt. The battery  we had been using to charge the camera was too high a voltage so alas we decided as a team that it would be better for me to head back to Padum with Radhe and Tashi where there maybe a small chance to get another charger and continue filming in Zanskar. I was personally very disappointed that I could not continue further into the valley but without my camera I could not record anymore footage for the video diary. At least by heading to Padum I had a chance of getting more footage. Big note to self emerged – always carry a spare charger!!!

Extracted from Bindu’s full blog post on