Hill tribes that once hunted elusive snow leopards now turn protectors

By Shivani AzadonMar. 01, 2023in Environment and Ecology

DEHRADUN: Jayendra Singh Firmal, a member of the Rung tribe, who recorded a snow leopard in camera for the first time in Darma valley in Pithoragarh district, which is around 11,000 ft above ground level, on February 4, recalls how his forefathers hunted the big snow cats, perceiving them as a threat to their livestock. “My grandfather told me how snow leopards were killed by my great grandfather as they were not trained or formally taught about the immense ecological value of the animal. They perceived goats and sheep to be more valuable as these animals give milk and wool, their only source of income,” said Firmal.

Training focuses on sensitising tribes

Firmal was joined by two other Rung members — Dinesh Bangyal and Somit Hyanki — during the strenuous trek to Darma valley. The 30-year-old wildlife enthusiast said that scanty snow this year turned out to be a blessing in disguise for them. “We prepared for this trip early because it did not snow this year. Therefore, we had the scope to move further ahead and thus we managed to spot the elusive snow leopard, click pictures and make videos,” said Firmal. According to divisional forest officer of Pithoragarh, Jeevan Dagade, while the authorities were aware of the presence of snow leopards in the region, photos taken by Firmal and others are the “first ever evidence of their existence in forest department records concerning Darma valley”.

Firmal was among the few selected youth who were provided training at Uttarakhand Forest Training Academy by the forest department under the ‘Secure Himalaya’ project (a joint project of the ministry of environment, forest and climate change and United Nations Development Programme, India) for four months from February to May 2020. The trainees were selected from as far as Pujieli, Gangar, Doni, Philm, Sukhi, Uttron and Kuti villages which are close to the trans-Himalayas. As part of their training, they participated in natural history workshops and learned skills in photography, videography and editing. Just like the Rung, Uttarkashi district’s pastoralist community, Budera, has youths who are spearheading conservation of snow leopards in Gangotri landscape, which has over 30 snow leopards.

Those who were trained were primarily taught how to conserve the Govind, Gangotri and Darma Byas landscape which houses these animals. “These are shy, elusive cats that survived at sub-zero temperatures of the snow-clad mountains for centuries. Now, their conservation is our duty. I have many women members and other groups who are at the forefront of Himalayan wildlife conservation,” said Savita Bagori, a tribal member of Bagori village in Uttarkashi. The training also includes sensitising the Himalayan tribes about the value of co-existence and leading a mindful lifestyle for a sustainable livelihood. Citing an example, Savita said, “To save them, the community here has now shifted the grazing spot for their livestock.” Another tribe called Kala Nagaliyal from Pithoragarh district had released an online video during wildlife week in October last year to spread the message.

First published by Times of India on 15 February 2023.

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