The ‘White Tiger’

Deepshikha Sharma from Snow Leopard Trust’s India Program based at the Nature Conservation Foundation shared her recent experience educating young minds to increase awareness and appreciation for wildlife in India’s Kinnaur district.

Sitting at an altitude of 3000 to 3500 meters, upper Kinnaur, in the western Himalayan range in India, is rugged and remote landscape. An abundance of prey and ideal geo-climatic conditions make it a snow leopard haven. Our recent population assessment of snow leopards in a small area of 500 sq. km revealed approximately eight snow leopard individuals. While many local people are aware of the presence of this elusive species, a visit to the schools paints a very different picture. 

We visited a few schools in Hangrang valley of upper Kinnaur in 2019 and then again in 2021 and found that the children knew very little about wildlife in their own backyard. When we showed a picture of a snow leopard, the 4th and 5th graders unanimously shouted, “yeh toh safed sher hai” [this is a white tiger]. Even after being told they were a little confused as it was the first time they were hearing of shanku (snow leopard in Kinnauri vernacular) or him tendua (Hindi). A quick look at their environmental science textbook revealed the culprit. The school textbooks try to capture broader regional concepts and information, but most of the localized knowledge is left out. This leaves little room to learn about local cultures, history and nature at school. To address this gap, we have been engaging children since 2007 in the Spiti valley, one of India’s key snow leopard landscapes. Our team has developed modules to include knowledge of the local flora and fauna and help young minds build an interest in nature.

In 2022, with the support of Pangje Foundation (through the Snow Leopard Network Grant Program), we began our first engagement in Hangrang valley of upper Kinnaur with three government schools. In our first classroom interaction with children, we talked to them and quizzed them about snow leopards and showed documentaries on snow leopards and the landscape. We also interacted with the school teachers and provided them with toolkits with comprehensive learning and activity essentials. 

On our next visit, we conducted a full-day nature camp with one of the government schools. It was the first time the children were going outdoors to explore nature. The first activity on the agenda was bird watching. We divided the children into teams to see which could discover the most birds. We also prompted them to take notes and draw interesting features of the birds for easy identification. Their two school teachers accompanied us and had a great time spotting birds.

On our way back, we saw blue sheep foraging, or “deer,” as the kids initially put it. We pointed out the differences between deer and animals like blue sheep. We spent an hour discussing the various birds observed during our walk, their colors, characteristics, habits, behaviors, and more. The students quickly got competitive and shared about all the birds they had seen. All the students got to take home our specially created bird booklet. 

After a scrumptious afternoon meal, we set out to a fallow crop-field, kindly lent out by a local conservation champion, and engaged ourselves in the microscopic world. Using a paper microscope, (Foldscope) we looked at pollen, leaf stomata and algae. The children also wanted to see how dirt, flower petals and hair looked under the scope. 

For our last activity, we read a children’s book, “Our Encounter with a Snow Leopard,” written by our colleague from Ladakh, Sherab Lobzang, recalling her childhood memory of encountering a snow leopard in the pastures close to her village. We were fortunate that Lobzang was with us for this camp and the children got a chance to interact with her directly. Before calling it a day, the children wrote about their reflections of the camp and a few lines about their favorite place. 

This was our first interaction, of many that will follow, with the children of Hangrang valley. We hope to learn from each of these engagements. Through this camp, we realized that teachers need to be actively engaged as much as students so that they can incorporate nature into their classrooms. Having teacher coordinators also proves to be very helpful in planning for the day and obtaining permissions on time from schools, and making arrangements. To ensure the safety of children, we have designed a code of conduct protocol, which has to be signed by anyone engaging with the children. As per the protocol, the team working with the children should include at least one female member so that the children feel safe and comfortable throughout the camp. 

Even after all the preparations and execution are done right, there is always one curious child who will ask – “why are there no elephants in our mountains?” leaving us all stumped and grappling for answers. As long as we can stimulate a child’s curiosity to ask us tough questions and get them to generate an interest in their landscape, wildlife and way of life, our job is done.

Reflection shared by a child

Translation: What did you learn today? What did you like the most?

Bird-watching was my favorite activity of the day. I learned a lot about birds, like their beaks are different from each other, their colors are different, some with longer tails and some with shorter ones. I really enjoyed the whole day. 

Write 5 things about your favorite place.

  1. My favorite place is Nako village.
  2. There is a beautiful lake in the village
  3. We can go boating on the lake
  4. The temple there is also very beautiful
  5. I like to go there. 

photos by Deepshikha Sharma

Special thanks to:

Mr. Prithvi Singh (for allowing us to conduct camps on his fields)
Mr. Panma for helping with logistics
Government senior secondary school, Liyo
Local women’s group for ensuring children had a hearty meal
Pangje Foundation for their support
Snow Leopard Network Training Grant Program

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