What’s the most important rule for any conservationist working with rural communities to protect wildlife? To be present! In our program countries, we have dedicated field staff who spend weeks, and sometimes months, living with the communities we partner with; changing minds and hearts, and laying the groundwork for successful snow leopard conservation.
Our partners at NCF India, who coordinate our India program, have recently interviewed two of these frontline conservationists about their fascinating work. Meet Kalzang Gurmet and Tanzin Thinley, our field coordinators in Spiti, India.
Interview conducted, transcribed, and translated from Hindi by Janhavi Rajan, first posted on blog.ncf-india.org
Kalzang and Thinley, what got you interested in wildlife?
Thinley: I was always interested in wildlife and I always loved animals. My father was known as khaddu, which means sheep in our language, and the nickname was passed on to me, as I would spend a lot of time with sheep and goats when I was a kid. And you’d always find me sleeping with a cat snuggled up beside me!
When Charu [Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science & Conservation Director and current Acting Executive Director] came here, we would follow him secretly and watch him weigh sheep and goats and I would always wonder what he was up to. In 2002, there was a youth meeting in the village and a livestock insurance committee was set up to share and offset the economic losses that local people face due to livestock predation by wild carnivores. During this time, I got a chance to interact with him and learn more about wildlife. I always had had an interest and this gave me a great opportunity to explore it further. I started off as a volunteer for a year. I remember Charu teaching us how to classify blue sheep… how to tell an adult male from a female and other such things. I found it so interesting!
Kalzang: Before I met Charu, I didn’t have much of an idea about wildlife and why there was a need to conserve it. But when he came along for his PhD research and I started going with him on field and watching him observe wildlife, I started finding the work that NCF was doing really exciting. I wanted to know more about it.
What is the best part of working on field?
Thinley: The best part of fieldwork is that we get to see wildlife and learn new things each time. When I first started working with the NCF team, there were hardly any blue sheep around in the area. It was quite rare to spot one. We would carry sweets with us in a small bag, and we used to play a game. Every time someone spotted a blue sheep, they would be awarded five sweets. Today, if we decide to play the same game, we’d have to carry huge bags of sweets! It’s so nice to see so many of them now.
Kalzang: I love spending time with children. Each year we conduct camps for kids and have many games and activities to get them interested in nature and local wildlife. When they come in, many of them are so shy, but within just a few days we see them open up as they learn and play together, and we watch them grow in confidence. To witness this change in just a few days is a very refreshing experience.
They come to us largely unaware about local wildlife, in fact most of them mistake blue sheep and ibex for deer and think the snow leopard is a tiger! Sadly, that’s what they learn in school through their textbooks, and they have little idea about the wonderful wildlife of Spiti, which does not feature in the curriculum. It’s lovely to watch them learn about our local wildlife and ecology.
And by the end of it a lot of them come to us and tell us that they’d really like to grow up and work in the field of wildlife. For me that’s the best part, it’s really really nice to hear that.
Tell us your experiences with working with the local community…
Kalzang: Many local people are unaware about wildlife, and we try to explain the importance of wildlife and try to get their support in conservation programmes. We Spitians are a jolly, positive bunch, and after some convincing, many of them do agree to join in. But to be honest, it can take a long time to win their trust; it’s not always easy.
Thinley: Yes, many people are quite sceptical initially when we go to them and request for their support to work towards solutions. It’s so important to understand what the community wants, and we need their approval and trust. We’re still learning about all of this, and trying to get better at it, trying to make sure that we keep our people happy and reduce the problems they face, all this while ensuring that the wildlife is protected too. The most difficult part is convincing them that what we’re trying to do is not just for the benefit of wildlife, but it’s in the best interest of the local people as well.
In the years that you have been working in this field, have you seen a change in how the community perceives wildlife?
Kalzang: Yes, I do see a tremendous change! NCF’s work over all these years has helped build a strong relationship with the community. Now whenever we go on field for a meeting or to collect data or to just have a chat with the community, people there all announce our arrival with “Charuwale aa gaye! (Charu’s people have come!)” If anyone works for wildlife and conservation in Spiti, they end up being called a “Charuwaala”.
Thinley: When we started the programme in Spiti, we conducted a small survey to understand how locals viewed snow leopards—did they hate them, did they like them or were they indifferent towards these cats. And we noticed that they showed a high level of intolerance towards them. But after 10 years when we conducted the survey again, we saw a tremendous change. Now that the locals are benefitting from the growing tourism in the area, and more and more tourists are coming in to see and experience the wildlife in Spiti, people’s perceptions are changing, and of them have begun viewing snow leopards and other wildlife in a positive light.
Earlier just a handful of people in the area had even seen a snow leopard, but today, to hear them excitedly narrate stories and call us every time they see a snow leopard makes me feel really happy.
You often have to work in sub-zero temperatures! It surely can’t be easy, tell us about what it really is like…
Thinley: Haha! We’re used to it, it’s no trouble for us at all! We have a lot of fun, even in peak winter.
Kalzang: Once we were conducting a survey in Lingti valley, which is 5000 m above sea level, and it was around -20 degrees on that freezing mid-November night. We were all sleeping in a tiny enclosure surrounded by snow-dusted mountains, and were so scared that it would snow on us! But somehow we managed to get some sleep. The minute we woke up and tried to get out of our sleeping bags, we saw that a mountain of ice that had settled on it. “Krrkrrr krrkrr” all the ice tumbled down to our sides as we tried to crawl out of the warmth of our sleeping bags!
What advice would you give to someone from Spiti who is interested in pursuing a career in wildlife?
Kalzang: I’d tell him or her that it’s full of adventure and fun and that there are so many new and exciting things to learn about local wildlife that he could never get bored!
Thinley: I’d tell them to come with us on field and try it out for a while, work together, share experiences and learn from each other. As much as we love to share all we’ve learnt over the years, we also have so much learn from younger generations.
Tell us an amusing story from field! We know you’re brimming with them!
Kalzang: Now that’s the toughest question to answer! There are so many, it’s hard to pick just one, but I’ll try…
We were once in Demul village to set up camera traps. And the people of Demul were not very happy with it initially. They wanted to know why we setting up these cameras, they felt that we were trying to spy on them. They didn’t understand what we were trying to do.
Each time we go to set up camera traps in a village, we speak to the numberdaar—the village head—and ask for his permission. The numberdaar in Demul was not at all happy, he thought we were trying to peep into their lives and only bring trouble. So I tried explaining to him that we were only setting up camera traps to survey snow leopards in the area. I showed him photos of snow leopards on the laptop. But he wasn’t convinced. “How can you tell one snow leopard from another? They all look the same. It’s impossible, you guys are lying to me!” he was rather annoyed with us.
I had to think of a better way to explain our work.
“Don’t you send your sheep and goats to graze with all the other sheep and goats in the village? Don’t they all get mixed up in the field?” I asked.
“Why, yes they do. But what’s your point?” he retorted.
“Well, then how do you know which one is your goat and your sheep when they all come back? How can you tell your sheep from the sheep of your friends?”
“What do you mean? I look at them everyday, I know exactly who they are!” he answered, still not quite sure where I was going with this.
“Well, that’s exactly how we can tell one snow leopard from another!” And I went on to show him how each snow leopard has a different pattern of spots that we can identify them with.
All the villagers who had gathered around us cracked up in laughter! They found this conservation really amusing. And the best part was that the same numberdaar later on started looking after our camera traps to make sure nobody damaged them!
Thinley: Once when I was surveying blue sheep in Tashigang, I came upon a dead horse. And would you believe it, just 10 metres away, was a snow leopard resting lazily near his fresh kill. I was terrified! Certain that it would chase me, I started running backwards and making silly loud sounds. But the snow leopard didn’t run after me, thankfully. I found Kalzang, told him all about my encounter, and we both gulped down some thukpa (a popular local soup) and asked around if anyone would like to come with us and see the snow leopard. I had a feeling that after all that effort, the cat wouldn’t have moved away from the kill.
We met an old man on the way back, and asked if he’d like to come along see the snow leopard and the horse it had killed. He was so furious; he immediately pulled out a huge knife and started yelling on the top of his voice.
“That snow leopard has killed eleven of my horses, I will not let him get away this time!” he shouted, and started sprinting towards the cat.
We followed close behind, and tried to calm him down but he just wouldn’t listen. The snow leopard, still near its kill, saw him approach and scurried away. The old man refused to move away from the horse until the vultures had eaten it all up.
“There’s no way I am going to let that snow leopard eat this horse,” he said.
But now, that very same man, who was so furious with snow leopards, participates in our programmes with a lot of enthusiasm! It’s so wonderful to see this huge change!
From all of us at the Snow Leopard Trust, a huge Thank You to Kalzang, Thinley, and all of their colleagues in the field for their passion, their dedication, and their outstanding work.