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Patience and Hope in Snow Leopard Country

Colorful flags carry prayers on the wind high on Bongteyla pass (photo: Bhutan Foundation)
Colorful flags carry prayers on the wind high on Bongteyla pass (photo: Bhutan Foundation)

As the whole nation of Bhutan kicks off a year-long celebration of the 60th birth anniversary of the revered monarch, the fourth King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck (who turns 60 on November 11, 2015), there are ample reasons to celebrate his visionary leadership and statesmanship. He was a champion of environmental conservation, and the following story emanates from his stewardship.

Snow leopard caught in Jigme Dorji National Park camera trap (photo: JDNP)

Well above timberline (around 4200 m for much of Bhutan), breathing becomes laborious for many people due to less oxygen in the rarified air. A short climb up a mountain switchback could leave you panting for breath. But not so for Kencho Dorji. He tends his yaks near the 4820 m high Bongteyla Pass in Jigme Dorji National Park in northwest Bhutan. He told us about a recent incident with his neighbors: snow leopards.

Kencho milking his yaks in the morning.
Kencho Dorji milking his yaks in the morning (photo: Bhutan Foundation)

He began, “Late one evening in July, a ruckus behind a small ridge not far from my tent woke me up, so I went outside to investigate. As I inched closer, I shone my flashlight through the light drizzle on a group of yak mothers and calves. I couldn’t believe what I saw next – there were four snow leopards, playfully fighting and eyeing my calves. With some difficulty I chased them off over the ridge.” Altogether, Dorji had seen eight snow leopards in the past three months. But he was not so lucky last month as we headed to his village in Yaksa. Skirting the mountainside on a tricky, dangerous shortcut, he dashed ahead of our group and disappeared down the slope. Clumps of grass were stamped upon as if something large was dragged down the steep slope. Fifty feet or so below, a group of crows was bouncing on a pile of bones. I could make out the exposed ribcage of an animal carcass. Just as quickly as Dorji had disappeared, he reappeared from below and came back on the trail once again. His face had turned serious, and he muttered an equivalent of, “Oh crap, that was my pregnant bji [female yak]!” I felt his loss but did not know what to say. Surprisingly, a few minutes later, further along the trail, Dorji was back to his humorous self, joking about how this “shortcut” would be perfect for very difficult, demanding, hard-to-please visitors. Here was someone who just lost a pregnant yak that would set him back $200 (or $250 next spring after a calf is born), but he showed no more anger or remorse than a quick curse. Instead, we talked about how his high camp could be a perfect place for tourists who would be interested to pay to see the high country, and look for snow leopard signs, or visit his camera-trap station where he could bring them closer to ‘seeing’ a snow leopard.

Kencho Dorji on his steed at Bongteyla pass (photo: Bhutan Foundation)

Yak herders already were losing great numbers of livestock to gid disease, so their patience towards snow leopards was wearing thin as livestock predation compounded their losses further. Endangered or not, snow leopards were perceived as a threat to yak herders’ livelihood, and retaliatory killing may not be out of the question in the future if things did not improve. But perceptions are changing among the yak herding community at Mt. Jomolhari, thanks to an effort by government authorities to reduce livestock loss due to disease and to show that snow leopards can be an economic benefit to the community.

Park Manager Lhendup Tharchen (left) and Park Ranger Kesang Dorji (right) in the field (photo: JDNP)

Lhendup Tharchen scanned the scree near Bongteyla pass through his binoculars. “65, 66, 67…..68,” he said, counting blue sheep foraging on the grassy slopes in the warmth of the golden morning sun. Park Ranger Kesang Dorji took a quick sip of tea that was getting cold fast. Nearby, mist was rising from the grassy meadows as the earth slowly warmed up on that crisp morning. There was plenty of prey, and Tharchen was hopeful that a snow leopard would be nearby. Suddenly he trained his binoculars on a rocky crag above and stood still. “I thought I saw something move among the rocks.” The majestic cats are so well camouflaged with the rocks that it is often difficult to see one. It takes a lot of patience to see the beautiful cat with its long bushy tail. Tharchen, park manager of the 4316 sq km Jigme Dorji National Park, is responsible for managing some of the remotest locations and the best snow leopard habitat in Bhutan. His team of 60 staff patrols the high mountains bordering Tibet, making sure that the snow leopard, its prey, and other wildlife species are safe under their watch. They have trekked to every remote corner of the park, and have now started this innovative mechanism to conserve snow leopards. “Participation of our yak-herding communities is key for long term snow leopard survival in Bhutan. Looking at how interested our communities are, I foresee a good future for snow leopards in Bhutan,” Tharchen said, beaming with excitement. The park has started working with yak-herders by addressing causes of livestock mortality other than predation and has found that herders lose more yaks to gid disease than to snow leopards. So last year, veterinarians from the Department of Livestock Services carried out a vaccination and deworming drive to treat yaks and dogs, the definitive hosts for the parasite responsible for gid disease. By minimizing yak loss to disease, Tharchen and others hope to lessen the impact of inevitable, but less frequent, loss to snow leopards.

Presently, Tharchen’s team is busy experimenting ways to protect village houses from ransacking Himalayan black bears. Soon, they want to track the elusive snow leopard to obtain more insight into their movements so that they could implement better-informed conservation decisions. Conservation authorities in Bhutan are excited that there have been numerous camera trap photos of three, or even four snow leopards together from JDNP and the adjacent Wangchuck Centennial Park. Those were most likely mothers with grown cubs – clearly a sign that the cats were reproducing and surviving into maturity.

Children enjoying a moment at the Jomolhari Mountain Festival (photo: Bhutan Foundation)
Children enjoying a moment at the Jomolhari Mountain Festival (photo: Bhutan Foundation)

The mountains of northwest Bhutan came alive for two days on October 8 and 9 this year. Three communities from Soe Yutoed (28 households), Soe Yaksa (18 households) and Nubri (18 households) gathered at the base of Mt. Jomolhari (7314 m) to celebrate the Jomolhari Mountain Festival. Initiated by the communities and Jigme Dorji National Park as an occasion to celebrate mountain culture and conservation of the indomitable snow leopard, and to promote tourism in the area, the annual festival has now become a fixture in the local calendar. “This is the only occasion for us to leave aside our work, and come together as a community, as a family, and enjoy each other’s company. We have the snow leopard to thank for that,” says Gup Dorji, the local headman from Yutoed.

Riders line up for a horse race at the Jomolhari Mountain Festival (photo: Bhutan Foundation)

Our herder from Bongteyla, Kencho Dorji, and the park manager of JDNP, Lhendup Tharchen, were both active at the festival. The mountain village of Dangochong, at the base of Mt. Jomolhari was decked with colorful traditional flags and tents. As villagers and guests enjoyed the festivities, it was evident that the future of the snow leopard in Bhutan depended on how well the foresight of conservationists like Tharchen matched the tolerance of herders like Dorji to create an environment where some predation is tolerated as community members begin to see benefits from conservation.

Park Manager Lhendup Tharchen addresses the crowd in the evening of the festival (photo: Bhutan Foundation)
Park Manager Lhendup Tharchen addresses the crowd in the evening of the festival (photo: Bhutan Foundation)

Generating income from tourism, reducing livestock mortality, and community participation in snow leopard monitoring are ways the park is engaging Dorji and fellow yak herders in saving Bhutan’s snow leopards. As visitors and community members enjoyed the festivities below, I am sure a snow leopard or two were watching from the high rocky crags above, all looking ahead to a promising future of co-existence.

Herder Kencho Dorji, content in his village in Yaksa (photo: Bhutan Foundation)
Herder Kencho Dorji, content in his village in Yaksa (photo: Bhutan Foundation)

The Jomolhari Project is implemented by Jigme Dorji National Park and local communities in partnership with the Bhutan Foundation, the Snow Leopard Conservancy and other partners.