The Jomolhari Trek, an important leg of the famous Snowman Trek, is one of the most popular trekking routes in Bhutan and passes through prime snow leopard and blue sheep habitat. Numerous camera-trap photos, signs, and DNA sampling from the region have established it as one of the best snow leopard habitats in Bhutan. Like the tiger, the snow leopard is an apex predator, and it is a flagship species of the high mountains of Asia. However, the global snow leopard population stands at an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 spread over 2 million square kilometers of habitat across the mountains of the Himalayas and Central Asia, spanning 12 countries. Bhutan is one of them, and the snow leopard is a sentinel of much of Bhutan’s northern alpine regions along the Tibetan border.
Jomolhari Mountain Area
The Jomolhari Mountain region has some of the highest snow leopard activity in Bhutan and is a hotbed for snow leopard and its prey, the blue sheep. The residents of this region are primarily yak herders, as the area is mostly above the treeline. While yak predation is prevalent in the area, the herders have generally been tolerant of some level of predation all along. However, public attitudes and perception toward snow leopards are fast changing.
Jomolhari Snow Leopard Conservation Project
The Jomolhari Snow Leopard Conservation Project is an integrated approach to conserve an important snow leopard region in Bhutan. We believe that bringing benefits from conservation to local communities will encourage resident communities to actively participate in snow leopard conservation, which in turn can only succeed with their support. Yak-herding communities will benefit from improved health care, livestock husbandry, education services, and income generation from tourism and related initiatives; snow leopards will benefit from protection by the local communities. It is a win-win situation.
Jomolhari School Among Snow Leopards
Despite Bhutan’s tremendous progress toward achieving universal access to primary education, in some regions, geography and climate can impede school attendance and access to supplies. The Bhutan Foundation is taking action by supporting the multifaceted “School Among Snow Leopards” initiative, an important component of the Jomolhari Snow Leopard Conservation Program. Due to cold climatic conditions, the highland schools are often closed early. They also face a lack of educational materials, teaching aids, and supplies for the students. The lessons are taught in a dark and cold room. The program seeks to tap into the full potential of these students and provide them with a supportive setting that complements learning alongside values of conservation, community development, and livelihood sustainability. In this way, we hope to improve educational opportunities for the children of Soe by providing an educational setting that enables them to succeed and to create awareness about conservation of the community’s surrounding environment.
Supporting Mountain Communities
The traditional yak-hair tent, or “bJa,” used to dot the pastures of northwest Bhutan, forming an integral part of the mountain landscape. Every household will have a part of the family living in their village, and another moving about the pastures with the animals. However, starting in the late 1990s, the traditional tents gave way to bright-colored plastic tarps. Soon, the mountain pastures were strewn with bright blue, yellow, or orange tarps. Not only were they unsightly, but they were also easily tattered and littered the mountainsides. Further, the flimsy tarps, while lightweight and therefore easy to carry around, did not provide much protection from the cold and wind. Accumulation of heavy smoke inside the plastic tarps was commonplace, and living conditions inside these tents were not comfortable.
In collaboration with the Livestock Extension Officer in Soe, we expanded on a prototype tent developed by an earlier GEF project and scaled it up. Through this initiative, all herding families were supplied with a larger, more durable tent supported on foldable metal poles. These tents are well insulated and have outlets for smoke from the wood-burning stoves. This ameliorates the litter problem while providing a more comfortable living condition in the herders’ camps. Our next goal is to revive local yak-hair weaving to produce the outer tent flies so that they will retain a more natural look.
Fewer than 6,000 snow leopards exist in the wild today
Snow Leopards are found in 12 countries in Asia
They have been forced from 15% of their historic range
The Jomolhari Snow Leopard Conservation Program is implemented by the Jigme Dorji National Park and the communities of Yutoed, Yaksa, and Nubri, in partnership with the Snow Leopard Conservancy, the Faculty of Nursing and Public Health of the Khesar Gyalpo University of Medical Sciences, and the Department of Livestock Services. Local agencies involved in the project include the Basic Health Unit, Livestock Extension Office, and the Jomolhari Community Primary School in Dangochong.
Snow leopard conservation for Bhutan is all about bringing on board local yak herders who share their habitat to see benefits from having snow leopards literally living in their backyards. For the people to value snow leopards, benefits from improved social service delivery and income from tourism and livelihood activities must come to them. An integrated approach to snow leopard conservation that encompasses health care, education, tourism, and livestock husbandry would ensure that the Jomolhari Mountain Landscape remains as an important stronghold in Bhutan.