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The Grey Ghost

By Harshad Sambamurthy
March 15, 2016

Photo by Harshad Sambamurthy

Solitary, camouflaged, melting into purple sand, sat a majestic snow leopard 1000 feet away. Observing us with an air of majesty, her quietude was infectious and one felt an inner tranquility amidst her mysterious radiance. She rose up and began an effortless ascent up the declivitous slope demonstrating her incomparable strength and dexterity. In Ladakhi, she is know as shan or the Grey Ghost of the Himalayas, a most elusive mammal. Sightings are oftentimes blurred with visions or are reduced to dreams, or are considered gifts bestowed upon the fortunate soul before whom the shan trustingly appears from shadows of nothingness.

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Fewer than 7000 snow leopards are found across a dozen Central Asian nations and populations are decreasing, due to climate change, habitat loss, human encroachment and poaching. Locally driven environmental education programmes are necessary to help conserve these remarkable cats.

One study found that under a worst-case scenario only 50% of the leopards’ current range will be habitable in 2070. However, warmer climates will result in the movement of leopard habitat northward. Such shifts will help transform colder regions like the Taiga forests of Mongolia/ Russia (north of the present range) into the alpine steppe ecosystems the big cats prefer. On the other hand, mountains are only so tall and, once at the top, a leopard can only move down. Climate change will also increase precipitation, leading to an increase of lush vegetation at higher latitudes, making these areas more conducive to farming, instead of sheep herding. This will increase the likelihood of human-animal conflict and render useless current conservation strategies, such as livestock insurance and predator-proof corrals.

In Rajasthan, the Ranthambhore Foundation provides alternative livelihoods for tiger poachers as conservationists, tour guides and trackers. Such a model is replicable, and I remember Gyaltsan, our guide in Ladakh, mentioning that the Snow Leopard Trust provides locals with equipment such as telescopes and binoculars for treks. The locals also possess invaluable field knowledge that helps educate tourists on snow leopard and Himalayan wildlife conservation. Local engagement I learned, first hand, to be very effective. Wildlife conservation must be planned and implemented in partnership with local communities under the larger umbrella of rural development initiatives.

Environmental education is a critical component of any conservation effort, and early exposure amongst locals in snow leopard territory will eventually, and hopefully, lead to adult conservationists. Pioneering proponents like the Snow Leopard Conservancy, Snow Leopard Trust and WWF have all played important roles in raising awareness amongst local communities. The Snow Leopard Network (SLN) was formed in 2002 to facilitate the exchange of information and promote scientifically based conservation through networking and collaboration between individuals, organisations, and governments.

Turning awareness into meaningful action demands the following:

  • Encouraging artists, writers and poets alike to join the SLN, and help stimulate and inspire creative action.
  • Developing a student division (as a sub-network of the SLN), whereby students living in snow leopard territory or students from abroad with an interest in snow leopard conservation can form a network of next-generation leaders, raising on-ground awareness, running overseas campaigns and raising funds for the SLN and the student-run network as well.
  • Encouraging zoos that keep snow leopards to join the SLN. Zoos, as tourist attractions wield tremendous power in helping raise awareness globally, not limited to countries where the snow leopard is endemic.
  • Creating an online repository of resources to be used by NGO’s, teachers, professors, environmental educators; helping propagate awareness and also stress the importance of global, transnational knowledge sharing.
  • Leveraging the power of social media platforms for online-driven awareness campaigns.

There are major challenges with environmental education. Critics suggest that environmental education has “failed because it is not keeping pace with environmental degradation, with human impacts on the environment” (Nijhuis, 2011). Conservation, and environmental education for that matter, seem to have drowned in a culture of negativity and hopelessness. Psychologically, when an issue is portrayed as ‘hopeless’, one would rather take the easier path of apathy and indifference, preferring to get on with one’s daily life. Such indifference is often the result of depressing coverage and bleak portrayals of conservation issues — painting a picture of a lost battle where, on borrowed time, we are struggling to make any positive impact whatsoever.

But such negative attitudes must change. And that change is possible only when environmental education plays a key role in shaping perception, increasing transparency and establishing a conservation ethic based on solutions rather than problems. Conservation may be an act of hope but environmental education is the catalyst for that hope

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I dreamt that night, under the stars, that I stood in front of her in that barren desert. The two of us like phantoms or apparitions floated through the landscape. I remember she whispered a prayer, reminding me that our fates were intertwined. Time and space vanished altogether and silence pervaded. A gentle breeze caressed my face as I awoke that morning clutching the snow leopard doll given to me by our host.

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Bittel, J. (2016) “Can Snow Leopards Survive Climate Change?” NRDC. Web.

Cecil, R. (1986)“Educational Programming for Snow Leopard Conservation” Proceedings of the Fifth International Snow Leopard Symposium. Pg. 247-248.

Hance, J. (2016) “Has Hope Become the Most Endangered Species in Conservation?” The Guardian. Web.

Hillard, D., Weddle, M., Padmanabhan, S., Ale, S., Khuukhenduu, T., Almashev, C. (2016) “Environmental Education for Snow Leopard Conservation” Elsevier Inc. Print.

Jafri, R.H., Shah, F. (1992) “The Role of Education and Research in the Conservation of Snow Leopard and its Habitat in Northern Pakistan” Proceedings of the Seventh International Snow Leopard Symposium. Pg. 271-277.

McCarthy, T., Mallon, D., Nyhus, P.J. (ed.) “Snow Leopards: Biodiversity of the World: Conservation from Genes to Landscapes” Elsevier Inc. (2016).

Nijhuis, M. (2011) “Interview with Charles Saylan: Green Failure: What’s Wrong with Environmental Education?” Yale Environment 360.