In Conversation with Abhishek Ghoshal

By Rinchen Angmo Chumikchan LEH, Apr 02, 2018
Abhishek Ghoshal has been involved in wildlife research and conservation in the Indian Himalayas for seven years now. He studied Zoology from the University of Calcutta, Kolkata, Environment Management for Masters from Forest Research Institute, Dehradun, and PhD (submitted) in Wildlife Science from Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Mysore and Snow Leopard Trust (SLT), USA. He is currently working as a program coordinator and post-doctoral scholar with NCF-SLT.
Tell us about the organisation (Nature Conservation Foundation).

NCF is a scientific institution working towards understanding and conserving wildlife species and their habitats in partnership with stakeholders. NCF has programmes working in the Himalayas focusing on snow leopards and prey, hornbills in the Eastern Himalaya, in the Western Ghats on tiger, common leopard and elephants, the islands of Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep on coral reef systems and dugongs, and the Gangetic plains on Sarus crane, and citizen science (e-bird India, migrant watch). We work closely in partnership with the local administration, state and national governments on wildlife habitat management and policy.

What is the present scenario of wildlife in Ladakh?

Ladakh supports one of the most diverse assemblages of large-herbivores globally (eight species), despite having low vegetation productivity. Carnivores like snow leopard, wolf, lynx and Pallas’s cat are species of national and international conservation importance that depend on these large-herbivores for food. The rangelands and wetlands of Ladakh serve as grazing grounds for the wild-herbivores and as breeding grounds for numerous species of migratory birds during summer, including the charismatic black-necked crane, and small mammals such as pika, hare and marmot. 

The rich wildlife wealth of Ladakh needs to be better documented in a systematic manner (robust species distribution maps, population estimates, monitoring species distribution and population, periodic threat assessment) and protected for the future (prioritizing conservation landscapes for threatened species in partnership with local communities, addressing wildlife-related livelihood risks of local communities to prevent persecution of wildlife). The vast geographic area of Ladakh, ongoing intense land-use practices (livestock grazing, agricultural expansion and intensification) and increasing infrastructure development (road network expansion, hydro-power generation, tourism expansion) call for better inter-departmental information sharing and cooperation and multi-pronged participatory approach to prioritize wildlife conservation in multiple-use areas.   

Due to the increasing tourism, wildlife is being disturbed in its natural surroundings. There is more human interference, what do you have to say about it?

Tourism is an important source of revenue and livelihood for local communities, individual tour operators and government departments in Ladakh. However, unregulated tourism can potentially affect this region adversely.
According to a paper assessing impacts of tourism by Geneletti and Dawa (2009) published in Environmental Impact Assessment Review, an international peer-reviewed journal, “The most affected watersheds are located in the central and south-eastern part of Ladakh, along some of the most visited trails and within the Hemis and the Tsokar Tsomoriri National parks.” 

Tourism has led to the increase in vehicular activity (including off-roading) and construction of tourism facilities in wildlife-rich areas and garbage mismanagement (and hence increase in feral dog population) in key wildlife habitats. 

Snow leopard centric tourism has picked-up great momentum. During winter (January-March), snow leopard sighting-based tourism has drawn substantial numbers of tourists in recent times to prime snow leopard habitats in Ladakh. This time period coincides with the mating season of snow leopards (January - mid-March) when they mark their territories intensively with signs (scat, scrape and scent-spray) to attract mates. Intense tourism activities can potentially cause disturbance to their mating behaviour and success. However, tourism, if managed well, can be of great support to wildlife conservation as a tool for awareness and revenue generation for conservation activities.

What kinds of endangered wildlife are found in Ladakh? Any data.

Among large carnivores, snow leopard, wolf, lynx, Pallas’ cat and brown bear are locally and globally threatened. Ladakh urial, argali, Tibetan antelope, Tibetan gazelle and wild yak are amongst globally threatened large wild-herbivores. Marmots, though not threatened officially, are potentially facing extensive road construction activities in their habitat. Ground-breeding birds (e.g. black-necked crane) depending on wetlands are facing threats from feral dog depredation on eggs and offspring, and conversion of wetlands into grazing or agricultural areas.

To the best of my knowledge, robust information on distribution and population estimates of carnivores at the scale of Ladakh region is unavailable. Very broadly, existing published information on large herbivores of Ladakh is about a decade to three decades old. Additionally, currently available distribution maps are at best approximate representation and methods are hardly replicable. 

How socio-economic development and resource extraction/use in wildlife-rich areas impact the wildlife?

Socio-economic development is key for growth and well-being of people of Ladakh. And in the context of the arid low-productivity landscape, people in rural areas will have to depend on natural resources for grazing, medicines, fuel-wood and dung for fertilizer.

Generally, resources are well managed in local communities (self-regulated use, e.g. rotational grazing in seasonal pastures, community irrigation system for optimizing limited water availability to agricultural lands, community sowing and harvesting). However, sudden changes in a traditional system may disrupt such regulation, e.g. market-driven livestock grazing for pashmina drastically increased the number of goats in herder communities over the past 3-4 decades. This has led to lowering of forage availability to wild-herbivores due to intense grazing by livestock in the low-productivity pastures (See published papers by Namgail, Fox & Bhatnagar, 2007; Namgail et al., 2007 and Namgail, van Wieren & Prins, 2010). The fact that vegetation growth only occurs during spring and summer (April – August), compounds this problem. Alongside socio-economic development, conservation agencies need to consistently work with local communities to make resource use less damaging to biodiversity and their habitats by encouraging biodiversity-friendly practices.
How many NGOs are working for the conservation of wildlife in Ladakh? What are their roles?

Alongside NCF-SLT, to my knowledge, Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) – India are working on wildlife conservation. SLC and WWF are involved in community-based sustainable development, human-wildlife coexistence and conservation. 

Aside from Conservation, what other projects are you working on at the moment?

Together with the Department of Wildlife Protection and Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), we are working on assessing the status of the endemic and threatened Ladakh urial in Leh and Kargil Districts.

How conservation and tourism go hand in hand? Are there any changes that can be made to make this balance easier?

As I mentioned earlier, tourism needs to be managed well to serve the cause of wildlife conservation in addition to income/revenue generation. Well-planned tourism (e.g. timing wildlife-sighting based tours accounting for mating and birth season of wildlife species, strict implementation of wildlife-friendly guidelines such as avoiding unnecessary trampling, off-roading, baiting, garbage management) is a promising tool to increase awareness about and generate support for conservation of endangered wildlife amongst tourists.  
Do you think there are any unique challenges to wildlife of Ladakh?

One of the unique characteristics of wildlife in Ladakh is that wildlife is not restricted to protected areas. Wildlife, including snow leopards, wolves, urial, blue sheep, kiang and ibex, occur across vast expanses of mountains and plateaus, alongside humans. Wildlife in a landscape like that of Ladakh cannot be conserved successfully if local communities sharing space and natural resources with wildlife do not feel an ownership or pride in having these animals in their backyard.

Such coexistence comes with a cost, e.g. livestock losses to snow leopards/wolves, crop losses to Kiang. In such a scenario, consistent sensitization of local communities towards ecosystem services and wildlife values is important. Conservation agencies will have to focus on mitigating wildlife-related livelihood risks and reinstating/reviving local communities’ traditional linkages to nature through adaptive conservation approaches.

What are the main challenges concerning the wildlife of Ladakh?

•    Sparse scientifically-robust information on wildlife 
•    Retaliatory killing and hunting of wildlife
•    Impacts of feral dog predation on wildlife
•    Intense and widespread livestock (especially goats) grazing in low-productivity rangelands
•    Conversion of wetlands to grazing or agricultural land
•    Road construction/trail cutting in prime wildlife areas

What is the biggest threat to the wildlife of Ladakh? How can we prevent that?

The biggest threat to wildlife in Ladakh at this moment seems to be feral dog depredation. We cannot persecute dogs legally in our country. Dogs translocated from one area to another only shift the problem instead of solving it. Additionally, the vacuum created by translocation is usually very rapidly filled by other dogs from the surrounding areas, bringing the situation back to where it started. Systematic, consistent and intense sterilization of feral dogs along with garbage management and dog adoption program (local people adopt dogs following relocation from wilderness and rehabilitation) can address the issue in the long term. In addition to these, options such as euthanasia may be explored to tackle the issue. We have to recognize and accept that there’s no quick overnight solution to this complex problem.

What kind of projects are your organisations working on?

As mentioned earlier, NCF has projects in the Himalayas focusing on snow leopards and prey, hornbills in the Eastern Himalaya, in the Western Ghats on tiger, common leopard and elephants, the islands of Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep on coral reef systems and dugongs, and the Gangetic plains on Sarus crane. 

What kinds of wildlife are found in Ladakh? How many different species are found in Ladakh?

Very broad question. Large mammals (> 2kg body-mass), small mammals (< 2kg body-mass), birds, reptiles and several unique and important medicinal plants are among the prominent wildlife. Seven species of large carnivores, eight species of large wild-herbivores and at least 310 species of birds are known to be found in Ladakh.
We have seen that most of the poaching takes place in the month of November and December. Do you see any reason for it?

I do not know of any robust assessment/report that can substantiate this perception. Although I am aware of a couple of poaching instances (one near Leh and the other near Upshi) over the past couple of months, I do not have the adequate knowledge to comment on this question.
How important it is to involve the community to conserve the wildlife? How do you plan to build on the initiative’s success in the future?

Again, as mentioned earlier, without local communities’ support for wildlife, conservation initiatives are hardly successful in achieving goals. We will continue to work in the participatory community-based conservation approach in the future. Our main goal will be to enhance biodiversity conservation with a focus on snow leopards and prey species while facilitating livelihood development in local communities by mitigating wildlife-related risks.
In our journey, we will strive to consistently follow a bottom-up approach, taking inspiration from existing traditional self-regulatory institutions/systems in local communities to address long-standing and emerging livelihood and conservation issues, rather than a top-down approach.

What role can the locals play in conserving the wildlife?

Commitment from local people on wildlife conservation can help protect wild-carnivores from retaliatory killing over livestock depredation, setting up and maintaining community-based livestock grazing free pastures, protect wild herbivores from hunting over crop raiding and perceived competition with livestock overgrazing in pastures.
Q. What has been relatively overlooked? What needs to be done in the wildlife sector?
Integrating wildlife conservation goals with socio-economic and infrastructure development has been a major challenge.

Robust information on wildlife needs to be made more easily available to public and government and non-government entities. This can be achieved by regularly publishing works and findings of different institutions and organizations in journals, news dailies and magazines.  

Many army units are deployed in the most fragile areas of the border which is rich in pastures and wildlife. Do their settlements disturb the eco-system?
National security is a priority in bordering areas. In Ladakh, such areas also happen to be good wildlife habitat. Poorly managed garbage dumps attract and facilitate the growth of feral dog populations. Feral dogs often hunt and chase wildlife, including snow leopards and wild-herbivores. Dogs also feed on eggs of endangered bird species in wetlands. Active sterilization of dogs and strict dog-proof garbage management in military and army establishments in Ladakh can be of great help towards reducing the loss of biodiversity to dogs.

Does your organisation provide regular education and outreach programme on the importance of wildlife among people?

NCF together with LAHDC and local youth associations organises nature education activities in about 20 government and private schools of Leh, Gya-Miru and Changthang region. An annual outdoor nature education camp is organised with children of these schools.Workshops conducted in schools sensitize on an average 633 children per year about nature and environmental issues; outdoor nature education camp is attended by an average 186 children per year and we also offer nature guide training to youth.
How can we reduce the human-animal conflict and set up an alternative model for protected areas?

Human-animal negative interactions may be mitigated through community-based conservation programs addressing key livelihood risks (e.g. livestock and crop losses) related to wildlife. 

While protected areas are important for wildlife in areas of high human density (e.g. plains of India where forests are patchy), in sparsely populated areas like Ladakh and the rest of the Trans-Himalaya where wildlife occurs across the landscape, prioritizing the protection of wildlife-rich areas is important amidst multiple-use areas through participatory community-based conservation approach.

Message to the readers:

I find the soul of Ladakh among its rugged mountains and vast high-altitude plateaus; in the shrill whistling of strong winds of the cold-desert; the feeble rhythmic sound of a me-me’s prayer-wheel; the fine pashmina of Chang-ra; the calls of its birds such as rose-finches and black-necked cranes; amidst the rich diversity of peoples, cultures, socio-economic systems and flora-fauna; the ever-changing and emerging developmental, ecological and conservation challenges and opportunities. This soul is ours. Let’s feel this soul together. Let’s celebrate this soul together. Let’s join hands to keep the flame of this soul burning for ourselves and our future.