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.
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).
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.
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.