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On the trail of snow leopards in India

A tourism initiative is helping Indian farmers learn to love the endangered predator that targets their flocks. Adrian Phillips reports

I'm sitting on the floor wrapping dough round my fingers. Alongside me, my hostess pulls and pinches her paste into delicate bows, all the while watching my fat-fisted efforts with a gap-toothed grin you could post a parcel through.

As dinner is served, we're joined by the head of the house, wearing a mauve sweatshirt that remains unchanged during the three days I spend in the village. His has the furrowed face of an elderly man, but his body is as lithe as a meerkat's and his broad hands could crack walnuts. Both he and his daughter (my amused pasta partner) have the gentle, feline features typical of those from this part of India. As we eat cross-legged on cushions, they nod and smile at me, and I nod and smile back, and in between nods and smiles and chews and swallows I struggle to imagine these people crushing the skull of a snow leopard.

They may not have done, of course, but other farmers in the region have. I'm in the village of Rumbak, high in the Ladakh range of the Himalayas, near the border with Tibet, and this is the terrain of the snow leopard. Nobody knows precisely how many of the creatures live here – not for nothing is the cat called the "ghost of the mountains" – but possibly 50 in Hemis National Park and 500 in the Indian Himalayan range as a whole.

This is a globally important population of a precariously endangered species, but its presence hasn't been welcomed by all. Picture the scene. You wake one winter morning, head out to check on your livestock, and find your enclosure a gory smear of slaughtered animals. During the night, a snow leopard has broken through the roof and jumped down among the sheep and goats. Unable to get out again, it now cowers tight to the wall in a corner, wide-eyed and spitting up at you. It has wiped out your entire livelihood in a few minutes of frenzied bloodlust. Graceful animal or destructive pest? Is it impossible to sympathise with those distraught villagers who raise sticks and stones to the cause of such devastation?

A survey in 1999 revealed that 12 per cent of farmers' livestock here was killed each year, the snow leopard the primary predator. Shortly afterwards, the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust was established to resolve this conflict between the interests of man and beast. What was required was an economic incentive to shift local attitudes towards the leopard. Rinchen Wanchuk, co-founder of the trust, gathered the villagers together and put an idea to them: why not set up a network of traditional homestays that would provide trekkers with an alternative to canvas, and an authentic local experience to boot? The scheme has proved a roaring success.

A co-operative spirit infuses the whole enterprise; each of the village houses takes its turn to receive guests, and a portion of the income is put into a central pot that is used for programmes of land management, conservation and even insurance against livestock losses. A family might host 30 visitors a year, and earn three times more than it did in the past.

Villagers guide visitors to the leopard hot spots, and sightings are now greeted with excitement rather than worry – the animal embraced as an asset more valuable alive than dead. And the leopard appears to be prospering as a consequence. In the late 1990s, a BBC camera team took more than six weeks to capture one on film; now the trust estimates that half of the week-long winter trips it organises in search of leopards are successful.

It's 7am and I'm sure I'm crouching over a pile of snow-leopard droppings. My patient guide, Chosgan (Chos for short), is equally sure I'm crouching over a pile of donkey droppings. I put his muffled sigh down to the breeze through the willows.

Life starts early in Rumbak. When I rose from my bed at 6am, the day was already in full swing. Our hosts had herded the animals from their pens beneath the house, and the village was filled with a bleating flow of sheep heading to pasture.

Chos and I are on a trek along the Jingchan Valley, aiming for the peak of Ganda La, a few kilometres away. I'm told there's no realistic chance of seeing a snow leopard in autumn – the leopards don't venture this low until winter – but I'm undeterred, and Chos has assured me earnestly that he'll keep his eyes peeled for clues.

A stream babbles alongside us and mountain partridges skit away as we approach, sending trickles of pebbles in their wake. The bare rock of the valley flashes in the sunlight, its colour changing with every step – now white as a seagull's feather, now the polished grey of a gun barrel, now the rich hue of lavender. On the slopes above, a nervous herd of sheep stands rigid as we pass; golden eagles hang in the air as if on strings. It's hot work and sweat runs into the crooks of my elbows. This is the most beautiful place I've ever seen.

And then a rustle and a snap and a shadow in a clump of bushes to our left. Please – surely – it must be? Is that the shape of a snow leo ...? "Cow!" Chos says, without a backward glance. Our quest continues ...


How to get there

Adrian Phillips travelled to Ladakh courtesy of Mahindra Homestays (020-3140 8422; mahindrahome stays.com), which offers rooms for £35 per night, inclusive of all meals. Adrian also stayed at the Trendy B&B in Delhi, which charges £56 per room per night, including breakfast, and at the Hotel Kang-Lha-Chen in Leh, which offers rooms for £50 per night, including all meals. Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; jetairways.com) offers return flights from Heathrow to Delhi for about £450, and return internal flights between Delhi and Leh from £145.