Himali's tale: From snow leopard killer to conservationist

Posted on 17 October 2016

Transformation helped bring the big cats back to Kangchenjunga in Nepal
For many years, Himali Chungda Sherpa saw snow leopards solely as a threat – to his family’s herd and livelihood. Back then, he would have rejoiced at the news that the majestic big cats were being killed and driven out of his home district of Kangchenjunga But many decades later, he is justly proud of his part in bringing them back.

Born in a small Nepalese village, Himali herded his parents’ yaks from the age of 12. He would take them to nearby pastures, where he often encountered snow leopards, which regularly attacked the herd and killed some of the calves.

“I was responsible for my family’s herd, and it was happening on my watch,” said Himali. “So one day, I set out to find my enemy – the snow leopard.”

That fateful day, Himali tracked his prey before coming across what looked like a snow leopard den. Yak bones and skulls scattered around the cave was all the proof he needed. It also snapped something inside him. Snow leopards had been killing his yaks for years, but he had never felt anger like that before.

And that’s when he found three tiny snow leopard cubs. Scooping them up in his jacket, Himali carried them to a nearby river and dropped them into the water.

But afterwards, he felt no joy or relief. That night, he could not sleep.

“I knew it was not fair retribution, it was a sinful act,” said Himali.  “While my yaks had lost their calves, now there was also a snow leopard calling out for her cubs. How could I close my eyes to that?”

That night Himali’s life changed forever. He sold his family’s livestock and started growing crops. He also decided that he would do what he could to protect snow leopards.

Increasing conflict between people and snow leopards is one of the major factors behind the alarming decline in snow leopards across Asia’s High Mountains – with around 20 per cent of the global population disappearing in the past 20 years. Just as Himali did, herders and communities kill snow leopards in retaliation for losing their livestock.

And with human settlements and herds encroaching ever further into snow leopard habitat, conflict is becoming the major threat to many of the world’s remaining snow leopards, which could number as few as 4,000.

But Himali’s story shows that there is still hope.

When he first approached WWF-Nepal, there were no snow leopards left in Kangchenjunga. Led by Ghana, whose own story of learning to love his snow leopard ‘enemy’ is equally extraordinary, WWF-Nepal had just begun snow leopard conservation initiatives when Himali approached him and offered to help.

Although he had no formal education, Himali convinced Ghana that he would do anything to work with them on snow leopards. Soon he had learned how to do surveys, tracking and observing snow leopards and their prey, and took up a post in his village as a WWF Wildlife Assistant.

For the next seven years, he studied the ‘Ghost of the Mountain’ and the species it preyed upon in remote mountain areas, gathering valuable information used by WWF-Nepal to develop snow leopard conservation strategies that would help to swell their numbers and see snow leopards return to Kangchenjunga.

Unsurprisingly, the strongest resistance to Himali’s work came when he started trying to convince herders not to harm snow leopards even when they attacked their livestock.

“They did not understand what I was saying and said that while I was being paid to save snow leopards, they received nothing for all the yaks they lost,” said Himali.

Having been in their shoes once, Himali understood their concerns. Critically, he was now in a position to help by urging WWF to help set up a scheme to insure their livestock. The result: the establishment of the Livestock Insurance Scheme in Kangchenjunga with a US$12,000 fund to compensate herders, which would have a major impact and help to mitigate human/leopard conflict.

Later, as chairman of the Snow Leopard Conservation Committee for eight years, Himali played a crucial role in ensuring the success of the compensation scheme, which provided roughly US$25 for each yak attacked by snow leopard. But the fund also helped to finance basic amenities, building trust with villagers and demonstrating that saving snow leopards was benefiting them all.

Gradually people’s negative view of snow leopards began to ebb away. And now snow leopards are seen in Kangchenjunga again.

Locals and tourists have seen up to five of these majestic cats prowling the area – living proof that the hard work of Himali and WWF-Nepal has paid off. One of the snow leopards has even been collared by WWF, providing even more detailed data that will be used to refine conservation efforts.

Himali has now passed his snow leopard conservation duties on to the next generation. He spends his time mentoring the youth, teaching them about snow leopards and encouraging them to carry on his work.

“In Kangchenjunga, snow leopards have gone from zero to heroes, and it is my deepest wish that they never fall back to zero,” said Himali
Snow leopard portrait (Panthera uncia)
© naturepl.com /Francois Savigny / WWF
Himali Chungda Sherpa setting up a snow leopard camera trap in Nepal
© WWF-Nepal
The Endangered Snow Leopard
It has been estimated that about 350 snow leopards reside in Nepal’s Himalayas.
© Steve Winter / National Geographic Society
Mt. Kanchenjunga
© WWF Nepal
WWF - SOS Snow leopard
© David Lawson / WWF-UK
The first picture of a snow leopard taken by a camera trap on 24 October 2011 in Khambachen valley of Kangchenjunga was released today by WWF-Nepal.
© WWF Nepal