Pandemic Helps Ladakh’s Snow Leopards


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