Conserving snow leopard through story and art
On a chilly November afternoon, some 3,700 meters above the sea level, Prasana Pariyar was sitting in an open field, imagining a snow leopard appearing on a cliff of rugged Himalayan terrain in Mustang district.
As the eighth grader from Dhaulagiri Boarding School focused her mind trying to conjure up the form of a snow leopard in her head, four other girls were recalling the stories that their parents and grandparents had told them about how snow leopards used to enter their villages and attack livestock.
“I have heard many stories about snow leopards. I also studied about snow leopards as part of conservation education at school. Now, I am trying to craft a story from everything I know,” said Pariyar.
Meanwhile, some of the students were being instructed by artist Rajman Maharjan to paint a snow leopard. Kristina Thakali, who goes to Janahit Secondary School, was one of them.
“There were two options, story writing or drawing, and I chose drawing. I am excited to draw the queen of mountains,” said Thakali. Through her art, she was trying to reflect the significance of conserving the snow leopard and its ecosystem.
Under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the snow leopard is listed as ‘Vulnerable.’ It is estimated that there are 300-500 snow leopards in Nepal’s high mountains. Nepal has the fourth largest population of these elusive cats after China, Mongolia and India.
Pariyar and Thakali were joined by 10 students from six government schools of Mustang, who spent two days in the field together as part of the Snow Leopard Scout’s Monitoring Camp under the theme “Love the Snow Leopard, Protect the Balance of Nature”. They were accompanied by their teachers.
The scout camp was organized by Teka Samuha Nepal with the technical and financial assistance from Snow Leopard Conservancy. According to Anil Adhikari, founder and executive director of the organization, the field trip was organized to spread awareness among children about the importance of snow leopard conservation.
“The camp serves as a practical session to the students to observe and understand the prey and habitat of the snow leopard. These students had enrolled in the Snow-Leopard-based Conservation Education Book 1 & 2, implemented in Mustang and Taplejung districts,” said Adhikari.
Since there has been no recent study on population status of snow leopards in Mustang, Adhikari underscored the need of conducting surveys on snow leopards and their prey species.
Teka has been working closely with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, National Trust for Nature Conservation and Annapurna Conservation Area Project to execute these camps. So far, five residential camps comprising students, teachers, scientists, rangers and experts have been carried out in Mustang.
A similar camp was conducted in Taplejung district to enrich students’ understanding of snow leopards, their prey, habitat, conversation, and their correlation with local inhabitants.
In Mustang’s Muktinath area, the students not just presented their stories and drawings, but also learnt about camping and camera-trapping technology for snow leopards. They hiked up to nearly 4,000 meters above the sea level, towards the base of Thorong La Pass, and spent hours learning GPS monitoring and methods of camera-trapping.
“This unique approach of training students about the protected species and the use of technology is really exciting and valuable,” said one of the participating teachers.
The students were provided practical lessons by the citizen scientist Ramesh BK, a local of Mustang, who has been working in the scout camps since 2012.
“The locals are well aware of the habitat, movement and activities of the snow leopard, including scrape and pug marks. The local and indigenous knowledge is important for conservation,” he said.
BK has a personal experience of capturing snow leopards with the use of camera traps. He had captured at least four snow leopards at Namu hill in Mustang, which he regards as a great achievement of his career. He wants to pursue similar monitoring activities in his locality but lacks funding and technical support.
“I would even volunteer for camera trapping, provided the availability of cameras and other gear, but I feel there is lack of seriousness from the government side,” he said.
As per reports, though Nepal has a good number of snow leopards, there is a lack of monitoring programs and genetic tools to estimate the real number and the threat status.
In the second week of November, snow leopards had killed over 80 mountain goats in a single shed in Mustang, causing a loss worth over Rs 3m. Such attacks have become more frequent in recent years.
Rinzin Namgyal Gurung, chairman of the Varagung Muktichhetra Rural Municipality, said there is a need for minimizing human-wildlife conflict and attacks on livestock through awareness campaigns and developing local capacity.
“Snow leopards attacking the local livestock has become common, but there are problems when it comes to compensating the livestock owners. It’s a bitter fact that the mountain region doesn’t get much attention in terms of compensation scheme as compared to the Tarai region. We are trying to raise the issue with the authorities,” said Gurung.
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