Khenrab Phuntsog grew up in a small village, Chilling, approximately 60 km from Leh. He would often see snow leopards at some distance while taking out the household goats and sheep for grazing up on mountain pastures. As his village was situated inside the famous Hemis National Park, it wasn’t difficult to spot snow leopards if one climbed up to the higher ground.
When he was of 12, he came within 100 metres of a snow leopard while preparing for his grandmother’s cremation. It was that sighting which motivated Khenrab to first volunteer with the Wildlife Protection Department and then join it as a wildlife guard at the age of 22 in the year 2000. Since then, he has successfully rescued 47 snow leopards.
It was in 2012, the last scientific survey was conducted through camera traps. Through these camera troops, the number of snow leopards in the 3,350 sq km-large Hemis National Park stood was found at 11, compared to 7 in 2006.
He said that they are now in the process of completing another census for snow leopards using extensive camera trapping methods in various parts of Ladakh, including in Hemis National Park, Changthang, Kargil and Nubra Valley. In Hemis National Park, there are about 60 snow leopards in present time. This census is being guided by the Wildlife Institute of India. Findings of this census may come by the end of this year or early next year.
Khenrab’s 20 years of experience comes handy when it is time to install camera traps for the elusive snow leopard. As a tracker, the first things he searches for are indirect signs like claw-rakes pugmarks, faeces, scrapes, scent-sprays, and the remains from kills.
The biggest threat to their survival in Ladakh is habitat destruction because of development activities which are taking place around villages and in areas where their prey feast. His passion for snow leopards hasn’t waned even though there have been threats in his 20 years on the job. His goal is to create a safe habitat for them. He says that there is no one to represent the snow leopards. They are important for the maintenance of the ecological balance.