New Study: Snow Leopard Conservation and Ecotourism

A portrait of a snow leopard.
Snow Leopard by Nathan Rupert. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Snow leopards (Panthera uncia), the ever-elusive ghosts of the mountains, are undoubtedly one of the most charismatic species on Earth. Unfortunately, they are in decline: threatened by habitat loss and degradation, climate change, decreasing availabilities of natural prey, poaching, and human-wildlife conflict.

I have written about the latter threat many times. When creatures like snow leopards attack livestock, it can engender hostility towards the species among local people – sometimes leading to the direct persecution of wild animals. Of course, this is an oversimplified summary of human-wildlife conflict, which can be much more complex.

To help curtail human-wildlife conflict in the Himalayas, the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT) launched the Himalayan Homestays Program (HHP): an initiative that trains Himalayan villagers to host travelers in their homes. HHP participants are then able to diversify their incomes, while trekkers get to learn more about local culture than they would otherwise. In addition, since many visitors to the Himalayas want to see snow leopards, HHP participants have an extra incentive to protect the cats. At least, that is the goal.

Kate Vannelli and her co-authors recently conducted a study to see if the HHP was influencing villagers’ tolerance of snow leopards. To do this, she conducted semi-structured interviews with 49 residents of the Ladakh region of India. Semi-structured is the label given to interviews that involve a list of pre-determined questions or topics, but that are flexible enough for researchers to pursue unforeseen leads or ask follow-up questions.

Spituk Monastery in the Leh district of Ladakh, India.
Spituk Monastery (AKA Spituk Gompa) in the Leh district of Ladakh, India. Spituk Gompa by Amit Rawat. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Through those semi-structured interviews, Vannelli, Hampton, Namgail, and Black (2019) sought to determine:

  • Does the HHP alter the way people view snow leopards and promote pro-conservation behaviors?
  • If the HHP does encourage the above changes, then how?
  • Which types of values (intrinsic, instrumental, or economic) do Ladakh residents place on wildlife, and when do they value wild animals most highly?

Vannelli et al.’s (2019) findings were quite enlightening.

Most interviewees had positive views of tourism in general, although they expressed concerns over the litter and pollution left behind by travelers. To their credit, the SLC-IT is working to address this problem.

From a conservation standpoint, an important result was that HHP participants held more positive attitudes towards wildlife than non-HHP participants; the former placed greater value on wildlife than the latter, but the types of values shifted depending on how long respondents had been part of the HHP (Vannelli et al., 2019).

A group of women making spices in the Ladakh region of India.
A group of women grinding lavender flowers and a local herb outside the village of Korzok in Ladakh, India. Woman Making Spice at Tso Moriri, Ladakh, India by Travel. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Communities that had joined the HHP in the past 3-7 years tended to project instrumental values onto wildlife. Instrumental values are positive reactions people have to wild animals, which may stem from: a species’ beauty, its spiritual significance, the roles it plays in maintaining healthy ecosystems, and more (Vannelli et al., 2019). By contrast, villages that had been in the HHP for 10 years or more placed both instrumental and economic values on wildlife. Vannelli et al. (2019) did spot a potentially worrying pattern in these long-term HHP villages, however.

Communities that had been in the HHP for 10+ years were starting to invest heavily in tourism. As villagers become more dependent on tourism, economic values come to dominate both instrumental and intrinsic values (the belief that wildlife matters in and of itself). The problem with this is that tourism is a fickle industry: if Ladakh residents learn to value wildlife for mostly economic reasons and then tourism dries up, villagers may become less tolerant of snow leopards.

Thus, Vannelli et al. (2019) recommend encouraging Ladakh residents to value wildlife for instrumental – as opposed to purely economic – reasons. This is because instrumental values are more stable than economic ones, and appear to be more powerful than intrinsic values. A helpful step may be to promote multiple sources of income, since instrumental values were most pronounced in communities that only partially relied on tourism.

For their part, Vannelli et al. (2019) acknowledged that the SLC-IT is espousing both instrumental and intrinsic values among local people.

The smiling face of a man in northern India.
This photo has little relevance to the surrounding text, but I am including it because it is awesome. Construction Worker at Tanglang La on Sunday, India by Travel. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Closing Thoughts

Vannelli et al.’s (2019) study is a crucial one. Not only does it demonstrate that the HHP does seem to be aiding both local people and wildlife, but it identifies possible risks that conservationists can now address.

Click Here for Vannelli et al.’s (2019) New Study about Snow Leopard Conservation and Ecotourism in the Indian Himalayas

13 Thoughts

  1. The Indian government has become more mindful of wildlife conservation in the past decade. We’ve been seeing many conservation projects taking-off and some are quite successful. Like the Save the Tiger campaign. The population of the Bengal tiger has increased in India and we’re a step closer to protecting the animal from extinction.

    The goal is the same with the Snow Leopard Conservancy.

    The primary problem like you’ve mentioned is keeping the economic and intrinsic motivations separate.

    Unfortunately, this may be harder to do in a place like Ladhak; which is one of the northernmost and most isolated regions of India, where temperatures fall close to zero, vegetation is sparse, there is no industry (hence no employment) and where people need to relocate for jobs and school. With such humongous challenges ahead of them, any economic opportunity would seem irresistible. And this is where the locals’ inherent love for wildlife might get overshadowed by their desire to earn a living.

    But with time, I think people will realise that without the snow leapord, there will be no economic opportunities – hence they’ll be willing to tolerate them. Additionally, the Buddhist and Hindu cultural belief that animals are sacred and must be venerated, may be motivation enough to protect snow leopards.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Nisha,

      Yes, I’d heard that the Indian government had had some success in getting tiger numbers up. That’s great! There’s still much more work to be done though.

      Yea, there can potentially be many drawbacks to relying too much on financial incentives to get people to protect wildlife. When used carefully though financial incentives can be ver beneficial, and it seems like the Snow Leopard Conservancy is aware of the dangers. In general though, it’s NEVER a good idea for a community’s entire economy to be based around one industry, even if that industry has benefits for conservation. Therefore, for the good of the communities, we should always encourage diverse local economies.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. True.

        Look at Everest’s Sherpa community. Again, a slightly similar example – An isolated community, with no means of livelihood other than being guides on Everest.

        Not only is the mountaineering industry affecting the prestine environs of Everest (the humongous piles of garbage and the increasing carbon footprint), it’s also putting the lives of the Sherpa community at great risk.

        But it’s very difficult to find sustainable alternative solutions for these situations. There isn’t much one could do, unless say, governments train locals on different trades and outsource work to them from other states. But that again incurs huge expenditure in the form of logistics, training and manpower planning.

        Gosh! It seems like an endless and hopeless cycle. I guess we can only hope that the consequences of single-economy dependence won’t be devastating for all involved.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, I’d heard that all the trekkers have been leaving Everest in a bad way, and that the Sherpas are routinely expected to put their lives at risk for the benefit of tourists. But like you said, it can be hard to find alternative income sources in such remote areas!

          Liked by 1 person

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