The Hemis National Park in Ladakh is home not just to some magnificent creatures such as snow leopards but also to a few hundred people in villages on its periphery.

The hardship of life in the rugged terrain of the cold desert is extreme in these remote villages that have no electricity, running water, and often no schools or medical facilities.

Locals are dependent on limited farming activities, and on their sheep and yak for sustenance.

A project was launched in the early 2000s to bring some economic security to the villages facing changing climatic conditions and it has become an important tool for conservation today.

Small beginning

“A few years ago, some of us got together to stop the influx of plastic bottles, packaged junk food etc in our village that would often litter the area. We held awareness drives to educate our friends and families on the importance of protecting the environment, and it provided us an opportunity earn some extra income,” Dorjee, a local guide from the village of Skiu, said.

Dorjee’s house, like every one of the other 25 houses in Skiu, and its neighbouring Kaya, is now a homestay as a result of the project that tried to bring some of the advantages of tourism to the locals. The going wasn’t easy for people like Dorjee and his friend Jigmet Namgyal, who helped tie up conservation to tourism as a source of income. Resistance, especially from village elders, towards entertaining guests was a big hurdle.

“As children, we used to run away when we saw a foreigner. We were scared of them. They looked so different,” 67-year-old Tundup Tashi said.

Far removed from the more mainstream Leh, some residents of villages in and around Hemis know no language other than their local tongue, using rudimentary sign language as a tool for communication with tourists who flock to these valleys looking for adventure. “Income from tourism is much higher than other sources,” he said.

Tourism potential

Tourism as a source of conservation has worked wonders in this part of Ladakh.

Tsewang Namgail, of the Snow Leopard Conservancy - India Trust, said investment in the project had resulted in it being a successful programme now. The Trust was the first organisation to start the drive to develop homestays in Hemis in the early 2000s, in an effort to bolster conservation efforts by driving some benefits towards the locals.

According to the locals, all 103 household in and around Hemis National Park function as homestays now — serving guests locally grown vegetables and seeking that they, too, live close to nature. So much so, even the toilets are eco-friendly and not fitted with any system that could result in run-offs, polluting the streams.

Maintaining a pristine environment is simply good for business here. “Tourism has given us an understanding of why conservation is so important,” said Tchetan Wangyal, a 66-year-old farmer, who has been operating a homestay since 2006. Keeping the environs clean and protecting the animals, which attracts thousands of visitors each year, is crucial for the community now.

Govt help

The government, through its Wildlife Protection Department, did its bit by financing simple resources, such as mattresses and bedsheets, besides helping villagers adapt to and eventually welcome visitors into their homes.

This initial corpus invested have not only brought a higher level of economic security to the villagers, but also to some iconic species, such as the snow leopard and others like blue sheep, which would occasionally fall prey to retaliatory killing earlier.