Hemis National Park : An Icon of Snow Leopard Conservation
Hemis National Park encompasses 1,700 square miles of pristine snow leopard habitat in the eastern part of the Union Territory of Ladakh, in India. This is where Voygr bases its snow leopard expeditions in India. Officially called the Hemis High-Altitude National Park, it is India’s largest protected area and also one of Asia’s largest.
Recently completed camera trapping surveys put the snow leopard population between around 40-50 individuals. When broken down into snow leopards per sq mile, it means that Hemis National Park has one of the highest population densities of snow leopards for any protected area in the world.
This article aims to cover the following major points
- The physical aspects of Hemis National Park
- Conservation of snow leopards in Hemis National Park
- Human-wildlife conflict in Hemis National Park
- Snow leopard tours in Hemis National Park
The Physical Aspects of Hemis National Park
Geographical Location & Ecosystem Type
Hemis National Park was established in 1981 under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. With 4,400 square kilometers of area it is India’s largest national park. With altitudes ranging between 12,000 and 20,000 feet, the park falls within a Palearctic ecozone classification, one of the eight biogeographic realms of the Earth. This zone is the largest of the eight and stretches across North Africa and all of Eurasia north of the Himalayan foothills. The rest of India falls within the Indomalaya zone and so this area is of significant importance when considering it’s uniqueness on the Indian subcontinent.
The Indus river serves as the park’s eastern and northern boundary and several of the rivers major catchment areas such as Rumbak and Markha fall within the national park. In the west, the Zanskar river acts as a boundary.
Hemis National Park falls within the Karakoram-West Tibetan Plateau alpine steppe ecoregion. It primarily consists of alpine shurblands, alpine meadows, and alpine tundra. The mean annual precipitation in the region varies from 200mm to 900mm and 90% of it is in the form of snow. Similar protected areas that fall within this type of ecosystem are the Deosai National Park and Khunjerab National Park in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Temperature & Snow Cover in Hemis National Park
Average temperatures in Hemis National Park in the winter range around -10ºC/ 14ºF to a high of around 14ºC/57ºF in the summer. Lowest recorded temperatures are -28ºC/-19ºF in the winter and -7ºc/20ºF in the summer. The highest elevations of the park above 5,700m/19,000ft are usually snow-bound throughout the year. Snow fall occurs periodically between November and early May and visitors that come during this time, especially for snow leopard expeditions will usually encounter some snow.
In the summer, the majority of the park, save the very tallest glaciated peaks, are free of all snow.
Geology of Hemis National Park
The towering mountains of Hemis National Park are part of the Ladakh range, a sub-sect of the Trans-Himalayan Range. The Himalayas are, geologically speaking, very young, coming into existence only 50 million years ago with the convergence of the Indian plate with the Eurasian plate. The most common rock types in Hemis National Park are slate, phyllite, schist, quartzite, crystalline limestone, and dolomite.
There are a number of geological processes at play in and around the region of Hemis National Park. As a center of continental collision between the Indian and Eurasian plates, it contains shear and suture zones, several metamorphic structures and the Ladakh batholith: coarse-grained granite and granodiorite.
The Buddhist monastery of Hemis, which gives its name to Hemis National Park is visible in this aerial shot.
This really gives perspective and scale to the enormous terrain that is home to the snow leopard and the montane ungulates of this region like the blue sheep, urial, argali, and ibex.
Conservation of Snow Leopards in Hemis National Park
Hemis National Park is home to several endangered and rare species:
- Snow leopard (Panthera uncia)
- Blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur),
- Argali (Ovis ammon),
- Ladakhi urial (Ovis orientalis vignei),
- Asiatic Ibex (Capra siberica sakeen) – found in the far west of the park.
- Tibetan wolf (Canis lupus chanco),
- Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx),
- Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus) – found in the western part of the park,
- Red fox (Vulpes vulpes),
- Himalayan marmot (Marmota himalayana),
- Mountain weasel (Mustela altaica).
Ladakhi urial in Hemis National Park
Undoubtedly, the best place to see a snow leopard in Ladakh is in Hemis National Park. But it is also most likely the best place to see the snow leopard in the world. This is partly due to the communities that live within the park boundaries and partly due to the amazing work done by the Department of Wildlife of the Union Territory of Ladakh. Hemis National Park is an icon of community based conservation and a beacon of hope for snow leopard landscapes across Asia.
Hemis National Park operates on a community focused model that incentivizes the protection of the entire ecosystem through eco-tourism. Home-stays in small hamlets through the National Park cater to adventurers and trekkers that visit in the summer. In the winter, home-stays in the Rumbak area host budget snow leopard tourists. Voygr operates high-end tours in Hemis National Park utilizing our luxury remote camp set-up. Regardless of the style and budget of tourism, all tourists entering Hemis National Park add to conservation. The park charges a daily fee for conservation – INR1,500 (USD 20) per tourist per day and INR600 (USD 8) per non-tourist expedition employee per day.
The majority of these funds are put into a community fund that pays for conservation focused needs such as fencing off farm-land so blue sheep don’t eat crops, or reinforcing corrals to make them predator-proof. The fund paid for a 10 KW solar power project for the village of Rumbak, allowing the diesel generator previously used to be replaced with clean energy. Tourists entering the park also contribute significantly to generating employment for inhabitants of the various villages in Hemis National Park. This generation of jobs is critical to conservation. Every time a village earns money from snow leopard tourism, it incentivizes the villages to preserve and protect their source of income- the animals and pasture lands in the park. The vast majority of Voygr’s snow leopard teams comprise of residents of Hemis National Park.
Villages with consistent tourist traffic through the year have slowly reduced the number of domestic livestock they own, freeing up critical meadows and pastures for wild species like the blue sheep.
Blue sheep in Hemis National Park
Red fox in Hemis National Park
Snow Leopard Tours in Hemis National Park
While there are many national parks and wildlife reserves around Asia that offer the chance of snow leopard sightings, Hemis National Park is head and shoulders above the rest. While Voygr’s trackers have also tracked snow leopards in Central Asia our team has always had an easier time in Ladakh.
We’re working with National Park systems through our non profit partners at the High Asia Habitat Fund, through the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) and directly with reserves in Central Asia to implement the Hemis National Park model there.
Snow leopard tours in Mongolia and snow leopard tours in Tibet are considerations for those looking to see a snow leopard. However, the infrastructure and experience available in Ladakh make snow leopard tours here a much safer bet.
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Read more about Voygr Expeditions to learn about our ethics, how giving back to the communities we travel to is part of our DNA, and what steps we take to actively preserve our planet.
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