Pandemic Helps Ladakh’s Snow Leopards

Photo: Smanla

In the last few years, Ladakh has been in the news for all the wrong reasons — increased plastic waste, pollution, water shortages and especially overcrowded tourist sites. The number of tourists, in particular, who come to view the elusive snow leopard has increased from a handful to thousands. The serene Leh is being loved to death.

So while acknowledging the economic hurt that so many people have suffered, Covid-19 came as an environmental ray of hope. The snow leopards seem to be flourishing. Other resources are at least enjoying a respite.

This year, Leh’s underground water reserves have not been further depleted. What attracts visitors to Leh in the first place has been its rich traditional culture, including its surprisingly  eco-friendly compost toilets. But Western toilets are now common in hotels and guesthouses.

“Every year, most hoteliers have to call tankers to fill the water needs of our customers,” says one local hotel owner. “Most of our wells have dried out. There is a huge consumption of water by tourists in the peak season.”

Local adventure guide Rigzin Tsewang points out that domestic rather than international tourists are mainly responsible for plastic waste in Leh. Imagine hundreds of taxis and 400 bikes heading to austere Pangong Lake. Every year, forest officials collect nearly 300 bags of garbage from the area. “Forest officials and guides are tired of trying to spread awareness,” Tsewang says.

Pangong Lake, Credits: @nutaneeer

Elsewhere, sensitive areas have likewise groaned under the pressure of recreation. Off-trail hiking has killed the delicate growth underfoot. Mountain bikers cut over grassland, destroying the dens of underground reptiles. But the hiatus under COVID has led to regrowth of dead grasslands, says a wildlife guard named Smanla of the Wildlife Protection Department in Leh.

Himalayan marmots were being killed by pseudo-kindness, when visitors en route to Pangong fed them chips and biscuits. They too seem to have bounced back in 2020, left to their natural diets.

Himalayan Marmot. Photo: @travelisreligion

Finally, the snow leopard has turned up in far greater numbers in the areas around Leh, Nubra, Changtang and Hemis National Park this spring. In the mating season of February and March, males may injure themselves fighting for females. Stricken leopards then descend to lower altitudes, in search of easier prey near villages.

“We rescued 14 snow leopards [this spring],” recalls Smanla. “I can’t say for sure that lack of tourism led to more of them coming to the lowlands, but this did not happen in previous years. The last time I rescued even 10 snow leopards was in 2006-2007.” Rescued snow leopards are rehabilitated and transported back to the wilderness to avoid conflicts with domestic animals.

Rescued snow leopard. Photo: Smanla


About the Author


Nutan Shinde

Nutan is a climber and hiker, who loves writing about her adventures. She has written articles for UKClimbing, GearJunkie, Moja Gear, Dreamwanderlust etc. She also works in digital marketing.

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7 months ago

Let’s remember that before the era of snow leopard spotting tours many snow leopards lost their lives due to fur demand. Tourism gave local people incentive to protect the animals rather than kill them for pelts. Whereas it’s hard to strike the right balance we can’t demonise tourism as it gave an important lifeline to snow leopard’s survival making more and more people aware of its struggles.

Pierrick Senelaer
7 months ago

This reduction in human activity in wildlife has been great news all round the world and this is well deserved.

Wayne girard
Wayne girard
6 months ago

Nice read! Thank you. I gave this to my college class to read over.