Snow leopard Trail

On the tracks of the Snow Leopard

First Fair Trail® in the Himalayas. Combining a unique nature experience with an ambitious species conservation project.

Awarded for

First flagship Fair Trail in the Himalayas, which combine an immersive nature trekking experience led by experts, with an ambitious species protection project.

Accepted in the year

2020

Destination

Nepal

Product

Fair Trails Experiences Wildlife & Nature Conservation Trekking

Partner

Fair Trails Himalayas (TrailAngels ENNOVENT). Austrian Development Agency. Snow Leopard Conservancy. Third Pole Conservancy. Darwin Foundation.

01 — THE MYTH

The phantom of the mountains.

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What a beauty! About 300 snow leopards live in the Nepalese Himalayas. The Snow Leopard Trail project is dedicated to their protection.© Snow Leopard Conservancy

»So, did you get to see the Snow Leopard?«
»No, isn’t that wonderful?«

Peter Matthiessen

September 1973: From Pokhara in Nepal, a small, unconventional expedition sets off for the inhospitable, lonely highlands of Dolpo, on the border to Tibet. It consists of the zoologist George Schaller, the writer Peter Matthiessen and their Nepalese crew. Their goal is not an iceclad peak, but a mysterious creature: The snow leopard (Panthera uncia)! They will be on the move for three whole months, crossing dozens of 5.000m+ high passes and traversing more than 700km in the barren mountain wilderness. Ultimately, they do not get to see the snow leopard. The cat proves to be a master of camouflage, of merging with its surroundings – ghostly and elegant.
Thus, for Peter Matthiessens this expedition to the highlands on the Tibetan border becomes a “pilgrimage by heart”, which allows him to experience the limits of his own self.

Under extreme external conditions he experiences a world in which dramatic forces of nature and the mysticism of the Tibetan monks combine to create a reality in which the everyday life left behind becomes surreal and the surreal surrounds of Dolpo become familiar. He later wrote a book about this, “Auf der Spur des Schneeleoparden”. It becomes a world bestseller and establishes the myth of the snow leopard, the “Phantom of the Mountains”, in the western world.

Five species of big cats (Pantherinae) still populate our planet. All of them are magnificent creatures full of power and elegance. But while four of them (tiger, lion, leopard and jaguar) call the rapidly shrinking habitats of the forests and savannahs their home, the snow leopard habitat spreads over all the high mountains of Central and South Asia, stretching from Mongolia to Bhutan. And in these sheer endless expanses of rugged mountain ranges and plateaus, there are only 4.000 – 6.000 free-living individuals of this very shy big cat. It is no wonder that only a few lucky individuals have chanced upon them in the wild. And that so many legends about her unrestrained power – it is said it can jump up to 16 (!) meters – and her unprecedented courage have been formed. These tales have passed down from generation to generation of mountain dwellers, and been brought to life through many wall paintings and rich tapestries in Buddhist monasteries.

The snow leopard serves as a beacon for the mysticism of the wilderness. Noticeable but mostly not visible. So a hike in the tracks of the snow leopard – “in the presence of the miraculous” – also opens up a spiritual access to the wilderness. And thus serves the search for oneself and one’s own origins.

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This cat is not afraid of the scarecrow! Special foxlights financed from the Snow Leopard Trail project will be used to keep the snow leopard away from the goat herds in the future ©Trail Angels

The first, impressive steps in the realm of the snow leopard: The Snow Leopard Trail leads through an impressive gorge into the Naar Phu region © Trail Angels/Raimund Napetschnig

Ying and Yang: This magnificent chorten unites with the ice-crowned Annapurna mountains to a perfect unity. At the dreamlike section from Ngawal to Manang. © Trail Angels/Raimund Napetschnig

Island in the stream of time: in the fortress village of Phu, people still live in their own rhythm influenced by a ruthless nature and Tibetan culture. © Trail Angels/Raimund Napetschnig

The breathtaking highlight of this wildlife trek: At the Kang La Pass at 5.322m the view of the glacier giants in the Annapurna and Manaslu Himal becomes clear. © Trail Angels/Raimund Napetschnig

02 — THE THREAT

Desired and endangered.

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The coat hem of snow leopard fur and the fox fur cap are traditional insignia of power in remote areas of the Himalayas. Hunting of these animals was common in the past and is, of course, strictly forbidden today. In the picture a proud chief from the highlands of Dolpo.© Trail Angels

According to the law, the snow leopard is strictly protected in all 12 countries where they are known to exist, partly due to its listing in Appendix 1 of the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But theory and practice, as is often the case in biodiversity conservation, are far apart. Even if the IUCN Red List currently classifies it “only” as “vulnerable” and no longer as “endangered”, the snow leopard nevertheless remains acutely threatened. Considering that its population of a few thousand animals is spread over an area of almost 2 million square kilometers (!), the population can be described as extremely thinned out. This is a direct result of the vast number of specific threats that strongly question the survival of the snow leopard in the wild.

Poaching is certainly one of them. On the one hand, the snow leopard is chased because of its magnificent, dense and fluffy fur. On the other hand, it is poached because of its bones, which are highly sought after in traditional Chinese medicine.

For this very reason, the snow leopard’s legendary reputation threatens to become its fate. Poaching is also widespread because the snow leopard comes into conflict with the Himalayan population in several locations. While attacks on humans are not known, the sheep, goats and calves of the shepherds and nomads are easy prey. These attacks on grazing animals are directly related to the decline of the snow leopard’s natural prey, such as the blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur). Large declines in wild populations, has left the snow leopard with no choice but to look towards farmed animals. As a result, the economic existence of the mountain farmers is at risk. Moreover, the snow leopard is increasingly being confronted with the externalities of large infrastructural projects, such as the construction of roads and power plants, which have been pushed forward more and more in recent years, and are increasingly fragmenting its habitat.

A popular target for poachers, despised by mountain farmers as a cattle thief and a habitat that is increasingly being divvied up by large-scale projects; these are bad prospects for the snow leopard. And another, irredeemable disgrace for us humans, in case this magnificent creature were to disappear from our earth forever.

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Fair Trails Exploration: A mule of our expedition is given emergency care after being attacked by a snow leopard during the night. Attacks on livestock trigger most conflicts between snow leopards and local people.

The entrance to the Snow Leopard Trail has to be earned first: Furious drive on the Annapurna “Highway” through the Marsyangdi Gorge (looks more dangerous than it is…).
© Trail Angels

03 — THE HEROES

Standing up for the Snow Leopard.

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A fighter and ambassador for the snow leopard: the well-known nature photographer Tashi R. Ghale from Manang has dedicated his life to the protection of the snow leopard. He is also our competent partner for the Fair Trails Experiences
©Trail Angels

Schaller and Matthiessen’s remarkable expedition in the autumn of 1973 not only generated a world bestseller, but was also the starting signal for the protection of the snow leopard in the Himalayas. In 1980, wildlife biologist Dr. Rodney Jackson began telemetrating snow leopards to find out more about their habitat. Dr. Jackson has now been working intensively on the research and protection of the snow leopard for 40 years. To this end, he has founded the non-profit snow leopard Conservancy, which, from research to awareness raising, does valuable work on the ground in the countries where the snow leopard is found. Today, Dr. Rodney Jackson is widely recognized as the world’s leading expert on wild snow leopards, has received many awards and has graced the cover of the world famous National Geographic magazine with his work.

But for nature conservation to be effectively put into practice, congenial local partners are also needed. Dr. Rodney Jackson found them with Tashi R. Ghale and Rinzin Phunjok Lama. Tashi is from the village of Manang, situated in the shadow of the northern walls of the Annapurna Massif and is a photographer by profession.

When he suddenly faced two snow leopards on one of his photo tours in winter 2006, he was in trouble: Since then, Tashi has dedicated his life to the snow leopard. Practically every day he is out and about with his camera equipment in the breathtaking mountain world around Manang. Examining his photo traps, searching for traces and other signs of the presence of the “Himalayan Ghost”. And there will probably be no one on this earth who has seen the snow leopard in the wild more often than Tashi. Tashi is supported in his work by Rinzin Phunjok Lama. Rinzin comes from the Humla district in the far wild west of Nepal and studied zoology at the renowned University of Göttingen. Together they founded the regional NGO “Third Pole Conservancy” for their work.

If nature conservation and species protection are to be successful, it requires the acceptance of the local population. This acceptance can only be achieved if the people in the mountain villages of the Himalayas also benefit from the efforts to protect nature or individual species. No one knows this better than Dr. Rodney Jackson. That’s why he had the idea to generate added value for the village communities through livelihood benefits, as well as through positive conservation impact from a tourism project. With this initiative he then approached our partner Ennovent, with whom we were working at the time on the design of the Fair Trails programme. It was the right idea at the right time. We were enthusiastic, started working and took up an unusual path, which ultimately led us to the “Snow Leopard Trail”.

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Our partners for the Fair Trail Experiences: on the left Tashi R. Ghale and on the right zoologist Rinzin Phunjok Lama from Humla.

Field Trip Extreme: World-renowned snow leopard expert Rodney Jackson, Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy at our first Fair Trails Exploration in November 2018. ©Trail Angels

04 — THE PROJECT

A Fair Trail for the Snow Leopard.

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Always on the lookout for the host of the mountains: Tashi R. Gale on the Snow Leopard Trail. In the foreground, a well-camouflaged photo trap for monitoring the snow leopard.
©Trail Angels/Joe Essl

»The concept of conservation is a much stronger sign of civilization
than what we once identified as progress: The plunder of a continent.«

Peter Matthiessen

The Snow Leopard Trail was created as part of our “Fair Trails® Himalayas” program, which in turn is our direct contribution to the United Nations “International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development”. The Snow Leopard Trail was the first flagship trail for Fair Trails®. It was literally a matter of breaking new ground in the exploration of the trail, in the project design and ultimately in the development of an implementation-oriented and scalable business model. But first things first.
The Aims
The decision concerning which Himalayan region the Snow Leopard Trail should lead through was taken by our Benefit Sharing partner, Dr. Rodney Jackson and his team at the Snow Leopard Conservancy . The Snow Leopard Conservancy recommended the remote Naar Phu region on the border with Tibet and a neighbouring area around the village of Manang in the northern Annapurna region. There are several reasons for this choice: The snow leopard still finds its habitat largely intact here and intensive field research is being conducted here by our project Benefit Sharing partner. Thus, the conditions are optimal for guests to immerse themselves in this fascinating species conservation narrative. Furthermore, a lot can be achieved through value-adding and responsible tourism, especially in the isolated region of Naar Phu, without repeating the mistakes of unrestrained trekking tourism witnessed in many other regions of the Himalayas. Furthermore, it should also be possible to sensitize trekking tourism around Manang, where the famous Annapurna Circuit passes by, for the protection of the snow leopard and to transform it to a certain extent. And last but not least, especially in the field of herd protection there are many opportunities for project support from the Snow Leopard Trail’s operations.

Scouting
In order to achieve these goals, intensive scouting of the trail area and the planned route was needed. In November 2018, our trail scouts Josef Essl and Raimund Napetschnig, together with a team from Ennovent, as well as Rodney Jackson and Tashi Ghale, explored the remote Naar Phu region on the border to Tibet. With the 5.320m high Kang La Pass, they also crossed the key point of the trail – it forms the connection between Naar Phu and the Manang region. In April 2019, in a second exploration, Trail Angel Günter Mussnig followed the tracks of the snow leopard around Manang with Tashi Ghale, primarily to determine the hot spots for snow leopard observation and possible extensions to the trail.

The Product Design
To offer guests an unforgettable nature trekking experience, to give them the opportunity to dive headfirst into biodiversity conservation, combined with the goals of supporting species protection and generating the highest possible added value for this region, sounds akin to a perpetual motion machine for responsible tourism in the Himalayas. However, support from the renowned Darwin Foundation and Austrian Development Agency, has enabled up to jointly address this challenge with Ennovent through the development of “Fair Trails Experiences”. Fair Trails Experiences go far beyond previous experiential concepts of trekking tourism and are based on the accompaniment of our selected experts such as Tashi Ghale. This is because it enables our guests to make a tangible contribution to the conservation of the snow leopard, by supporting its coexistence with humans in this Himalayan region.

In terms of bookable results for the Snow Leopard Trail, the following Fair Trails Experiences have been developed and made available for booking: The original itinerary with the Naar Phu Route; the shorter version around Manang in the Annapurna Himal and as an additional highlight – the Himalayan Catwalk. Here we combine the Snow Leopard Program in Manang with the Tiger Monitoring Program in Chitwan National Park. With the involvement of the Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge, we have been able to engage the pioneer for responsible tourism in Asia.

Scalability
The Fair Trails® business model is an adaptation of our model for responsible tourism – “The Way Beyond” – to scale the sustainable impact of our trekking trails in developing and emerging countries. With the Snow Leopard Trail and its related bookable experience products, we have realized a scalable tourism solution for nature conservation. For example, we are already working on a concept for a “Red Panda Trail” in eastern Nepal and Sikkim, which aims to protect the endangered red panda (Ailurus fulgens). The concept can also be adapted to address critical challenges associated with cultural heritage conservation and social development. In this respect, we have created another “Hall of Famer”, the Local Life Trail.

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05 — THE IMPACT

A future for man and Snow Leopard

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Life in the 4.200m high fortified village of Phu is hard and full of privation. With the Snow Leopard Trail we want to develop sustainable and fair tourism in this region and thus open up perspectives for the future. ©Trail Angels/Joe Essl

The guiding vision for Fair Trails is to bring the benefits of responsible tourism to rural communities in developing countries. As the first flagship Fair Trail® in the Himalayas, the development and implementation of the Snow Leopard Trail has influenced the general design of Fair Trails Experiences and our overarching management model . For this reason alone, the Snow Leopard Trail has earned its place in the Hall of Fame. Fair Trails is also the trigger for development that will drive sustainable trekking tourism in the Himalayas in the medium term. As part of its core values, Fair Trails stives to balance environmental, social and economic impact, while ensuring no harm is caused as a cost of doing business. At the same time, Fair Trails are broadly diversified, complement each other and go far beyond those of a “mere” tourism project:

• Regional service providers: Local travel services are exclusively provided by trekking agencies that are certified Fair Trails. These agencies implement clearly defined sustainability criteria and actively participate in ongoing qualification measures, which range from fair payment and the best possible insurance for trekking staff, to special training for trekking guides.
• Optimization of local value addition: The product design and management model are designed to optimize regional value addition. For this reason, the Snow Leopard Trail was consciously developed as a lodge and home stay trail.
• Fair Trails Expert Network: The expertise of local professionals is put into practice through this network. From product development to accompanying the Fair Trails Experiences, the network generates additional income streams for its expert members. Members also benefit from being involved in an international project, which provides them with a platform to showcase their knowledge and skills. In the case of the Snow Leopard Trail, experts include photographers and wildlife biologists from the region.


• Raising awareness on site: Change always starts in the head! Only if the local population identifies with the project goals, in addition to the economic advantages of high-quality responsible tourism, can we speak of true success. In the case of the Snow Leopard Trail, natural history lessons at the Annapurna Secondary School in Manang and a joint project day with their students is integrated as part of the Experience Programme to raise local awareness.
• Contribution to species protection: The integration of a “Fair Trails Fee” in the end customer price is an unalterable milestone of all Fair Trails Himalayas programmes. It was clear from the start that the Snow Leopard Trail would contribute to species protection. The trickiest part was determining “how” this contribution should be made. As a first step, a decision was made, in close coordination with our Benefit Sharing partner, to distribute Fox Lights in villages where the snow leopard attacks herd animals more frequently. These Fox Lights are motion-sensing warning lights, which are designed to alarm the snow leopard and prevent it from attacking herd animals. The distribution of the Fox Lights will be handed out in selected villages by our guests during the Fair Trail Experiences.
• Transformational Travel: However you prefer to call such a travel experience, one thing is certain that it goes far beyond what is commonly understood as trekking. Hiking on the Snow Leopard Trail itself is in itself a spectacular experience. But being on this trail with the leading snow leopard experts in the Himalayas and actively participating in a conservation project makes the Snow Leopard Trail something very special indeed. We believe it will change its travellers and their behaviour. For the benefit of the destination as well as the environment of the travellers in the reverberation of the hike.
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At the end of the world and as if from another time: Phu on the border with Tibet. Developing tourism here calls for sensitivity and responsible product design.

Even sub-zero temperatures in the classrooms cannot slow down the eagerness to learn of the schoolchildren at Annapurna Secondary School. Within the framework of the Fair Trail Experiences, there is a special project day with the students included. ©Trail Angels/Joe Essl

Impact Stories

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06 — THE VISION

Responsible tourism in harmony with nature.

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A dreamland for trekkers and nature lovers: through the remote region of Nar Phu north of the Annapurna Himal leads the Snow Leopard Trail, the first Fair Trail in the Himalayas.

What is our vision for the Snow Leopard Trail?
Let’s take a look into the year 2030!

The most important thing first: The people in Naar Phu and Manang are proud of their snow leopard. The Snow Leopard Trail is a new, responsible and value-adding development in this region. For the villages in the remote Naar Phu area, the Snow Leopard Trail has become the most important source of income from tourism, by generating careful investment in the maintenance of the trails as well as in the qualitative improvement of the lodges, in addition to the livelihood benefits of sustainable tourism. The use of solar energy, and the avoidance and management of waste are also prioritised. In Manang, the Snow Leopard Trail has led to a gradual transformation of tourism. Although the place still serves as a stage stop for the world renowned Annapurna Circuit, more and more hikers stay here at least one day longer to participate in one of the experience programs offered about the mythical snow leopard. These programs are led by young experts from Manang who have received their basic training from the Annapurna Secondary School.

This is one of the reasons why Manang has developed into a center for nature and species conservation in the Himalayas. It was also important that the herd protection as well as the management of the protected areas in the Annapurna Conservation Area proved to be successful. The populations of the blue sheep, the preferred prey of the snow leopard, have recovered and in combination with active herd protection, such as the Fox Lights, the attacks on goats, sheep and calves have almost completely stopped.
The Snow Leopard Trail has attracted a great deal of media attention, which is one of the reasons why numerous renowned specialist tour operators have included it in their portfolio via the Fair Trails Himalayas booking center. This is one of the reasons for the trail’s financial viability. Its quantitative planning capability using our Online Trail Booking and Management System Bookyourtrail® and Fair Trails Himalayas’ active project management prevents the mistakes of unbridled development before they happen.
In addition, the Snow Leopard Trail has enabled our customers to become ambassadors for this fascinating big cat after their trip, drawing attention worldwide to the need for integrated species protection. And in doing so, they were largely responsible for the creation of an additional donation program for the snow leopard.
And last but not least, the Snow Leopard Trail was the “Role Model” for several other Fair Trails dedicated to nature and species conservation. Whether the Red Panda Trail in Sikkim, another Snow Leopard Trail in Kirgistan, or other Trails we don’t know about yet.
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Nature conservation in harmony with the way of life of the local population, the preservation of cultural heritage, and careful social and economic development – these are the goals of Fair Trails Himalayas.

»The Snow Leopard Trail opens up new perspectives for a new partnership of species conservation, responsible tourism and regional development in a remote region of the Himalayas«

Trail Angels

This article was written by: Günter Mussnig & Karan Chandran

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