By Kalzang Gurmet, Field Coordinator NCF India, Spiti
One February morning, after a heavy snowfall , I was busy clearing up my terrace when I suddenly heard a boy scream. Assuming the boy might have spotted something at the cliff, I decided to ignore him and focus on finishing my task of clearing the snow. But just a short while later, to my surprise, I saw a gentleman running towards the cliff with a huge lens on his shoulder, followed by a local carrying another set of lenses to assist him.
Soon, I heard my neighbour scream “Shen Shen”, which meant a snow leopard had been spotted at the cliff. I could not miss this opportunity and rushed to my room to pick up my camera and headed to the cliff. By then, several villagers had gathered at the cliff to get a glimpse of the cat.
The following morning, I heard the villagers claim to have spotted the snow leopard again. This increased my curiosity, and I decided to visit the cliff once more. More villagers had gathered there to take pictures, along with an elderly gentleman from Ladakh who knew a lot about wild carnivores. He told us that the snow leopard visiting the village was very old. He said that when wild carnivores turn old, their teeth turn yellow in colour, which was the case with this snow leopard as well. None of us believed his theory, and we concluded that he was exaggerating.
However, the snow leopard slept the entire day and occasionally looked at us trying to tell us “Leave me alone”. It barely moved.
We concluded the snow leopard was indeed old and hence was unable to hunt any longer. Some of the villagers were considerate enough to offer the carcasses of their livestock to the old animal, so that it could survive for few more days.
We continued to visit the resting animal every day, for about a week. By now, the entire village knew about the animal, and everyone gathered at our observation spot to take pictures. After a few days of struggle, the snow leopard indeed drew its last breath and passed away. The news spread like wildfire around the valley, and a lot of us visited the spot.
The dead animal was eventually recovered and brought to the village in the presence of the forest department personnel.
All the villagers gathered to see the snow leopard, and one of the women questioned the forest official “R.O sahab yeh snow leopard mera dus sheep kha liya lekin phir bhi itna kamjor kyon hai” (this snow leopard has eaten ten of my sheep, why is it so weak?) We explained to her that the cat had died of old age, as it had become too old to hunt. I was touched to see that some of the villagers carried Khataks, a white scarf traditionally worn to pay respect at the demise of particularly honorable people.
The animal was then cremated and laid to rest.
Livestock predation by snow leopards in our village has been very high for a long time. Snow leopards enter the corrals and kill livestock.
In the past people resorted to retaliatory killing to protect their livestock. But things have changed now. Conservation work has taken root, and tolerance is much higher.
After witnessing what happened here last month, I am convinced that the people of Kibber genuinely love the snow leopard and want to work for a bright future for this cat. I am proud to say that times have changed and people in Kibber respect wildlife and wish to live in harmony with them.
What a wonderful observance of an endangered, and loved ‘member’ of the community.