Ladakhi By Nature

First published in Sanctuary Cub, Vol. 44 No. 7, July 2024

The breathtaking landscape of Ladakh was an integral part of my upbringing, which instilled in me a deep appreciation for nature. Ensuring its protection requires passion, action, collaboration, and community engagement. Text by Phuntsog Dolma.

Born Of The Earth

Just like the sheep that milled about the meadow looking for the choicest tufts of grass to chew on, I too couldn’t peel my eyes off the ground. All of 10 years, I was busy looking for the rare herb, stinging nettle. I was born a phytophile (plant lover)! Maylay (grandfather), my constant companion while herding and otherwise, nurtured my curiosity and served as my first mentor in botany. Like all good teachers, Maylay had answers for almost all my botanical musings, and enthusiastically shared his knowledge about usable plants, harvesting techniques, gastronomy, and medicinal recipes of plants found at the freezing altitude of 3,500 m. in our stunning home, Ladakh.

Biodiversity and people have adapted to the intricacies of the high-altitude Ladakh landscape. Photo: Saurabh Sawant/Sanctuary Photolibrary.

As a child growing up in the northern-most part of India, the Himalayan landscape was an extension of me. My relationship with Ladakh’s biodiversity began as I hiked its trails, explored its valleys, and marvelled at its wildlife. Ladakh is home to 31 mammal species and 318 bird species. Many endangered animals can be spotted in the Hemis National Park and Changthang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary.

High-altitude Humans

The people of Ladakh have a unique relationship with nature, deeply rooted in their culture and traditions. For generations, they have coexisted with the environment, relying on its resources for sustenance and livelihoods. This harmonious relationship, which persists despite the harsh climate and cross-border Indo-China conflict, is reflected in their reverence for the land and its inhabitants, as seen in the ceremonies that honour nature’s bounty. For instance, Losar, the local new year, celebrates traditional farming and monastic rituals.

Stinging nettle Urtica hyperborea. Photo: Phuntsog Dolma.

However, as I grew older, I witnessed first-hand the impact of human activities on Ladakh’s fragile ecosystem. Rapid urbanisation, unsustainable development, and climate change began to take their toll on biodiversity. Glacial retreat, water scarcity, and habitat loss became pressing issues, signalling an urgent need for conservation and sustainable practices.

Green house with 20 high-altitude fodder plant species. Photo Courtesy: Phuntsog Dolma.

Action For Ecology

Driven by my love for Ladakh and its biodiversity, I embarked on a journey for its protection and preservation. I realised safeguarding the environment required passion as well as action, collaboration and community engagement.

In 2012, after graduating in Botany, I landed in the conservation scene as a Field Programme Associate with the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF-India), where I became a part of a community of dedicated conservationists. My interactions with the local youth revealed that they lacked knowledge and interest in the flora around them. Having grown up witnessing the interconnections between wild flora, fauna and livelihoods, this still concerns me.

Since 2016, I have been with the Sheep Husbandry Department, Leh as a Flock Supervisor in Rong valley, where I was tasked with reviving the fading tradition of rearing the indigenous goat changra. I utilised my position to access government schemes for breeders, ensuring vaccinations, supplements, and winter fodder. My persistence led to all impacted breeders receiving compensation. Witnessing the locals’ growing tolerance towards wildlife attacks, I focused on sustainable pasture land management.

Phuntsog with a Changra herd. Photo Courtesy: Munib Khanyari.

Where There Is A Will

My efforts bore fruit with the successful cultivation of 20 high-altitude fodder species, laying the foundation for large-scale cultivation. I engaged the locals, turning them into active conservation participants. My indomitable spirit and initiatives have revitalised changra rearing and fostered human-wildlife coexistence in Rong valley, showcasing the impact of individual dedication on the community and the environment. One of the most rewarding aspects of my work has been witnessing the resilience of the Ladakhi people in adapting to environmental challenges. From innovative water management techniques to traditional farming that promote agroecology, there is a growing move towards sustainability that is deeply rooted in Ladakhi culture.

Phuntsog with participants at the Wildlife Conservation Awareness Event by Sanctuary in Leh in November 2022. Photo Courtesy: Phuntsog Dolma.

Today we face the existential threat of climate change and environmental degradation in Ladakh on account of anthropogenic activities. Through collective action and a renewed commitment to sustainability, we can ensure that future generations of Ladakh inherit its rich biodiversity and cultural diversity.

Famous Protectors
~ Kunzang Deachen is a community organiser promoting mindful tourism and local young farmers in Ladakh.
~ Niazul Khan is a wildlife biologist researching the Himalayan brown bear and other high-altitude mammals.
~ Stanzin Dothon is working with Ladakhi youth to tackle the problem of waste and promote ecotourism.

Phuntsog has been studying the diverse flora of Ladakh since 2014, and has co-authored the book Plants of Ladakh – A Photographic Guide. She was a Mud on Boots Project Leader in 2021-22.


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