Ju-le – the all-purpose word: a salutation, hello, goodbye, good morning, good night, please, thank you, and anything that is good under the bright Ladakhi sun. This was the first word I learned in what is now my seventh language of study, in an incredibly different India than any India I’ve experienced before. My first month serving at the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT) in Leh, Ladakh, has been taken one day at a time, with open mind and ears, and the ever-present, welcoming word “juley” colorfully sprinkled around me.
Every moment thus far has been extremely humbling, as I am equally surrounded by brilliant environmental professionals and the most breathtaking Himalayan peaks. After years of significant experience in India, I am grateful that the learning never stops. I have buried myself in research on Ladakhi wildlife and biodiversity, Himalayan glacier and wetland ecology, and conservation efforts of the past few decades. I have already had opportunities to visit rural schools, discuss plans for biodiversity parks for local environmental education, and collaborate with my colleagues on experiential programs.
SLC-IT works for the conservation of the snow leopard and the integrity of Ladakh’s pristine, remarkable, yet fragile ecosystem. Our mission is to promote “innovative grassroots measures that encourage local people to become better stewards of the endangered snow leopards, their prey and habitats.”  Founded in 2003, SLC-IT has become a leading voice in mitigating the human-wildlife conflict in the Himalayas. Urban and rural community members alike now collaborate to protect and revere the very predators they previously disdained as a nuisance.
SLC-IT manages many expansive and cohesive programs, all of which work their way through the surrounding communities and region to help sustain a balanced ecosystem, which ultimately seek to preserve the snow leopard and its habitat. These programs take the form of ecosystem research, livestock protection, livelihood enhancement, camera trapping and wildlife surveys, sustainable and responsible ecotourism through Himalayan homestays, handicraft development, trainings, and a general presence of accountability for the environment.  In my biased opinion, however, their most potential for future environmental security is in their education programs.
Students in Ladakh find themselves in one of the world’s most harsh, high altitude, and intense biomes, and yet it is host to some of the most unique, resilient, and diverse species. However, school curricula and materials reflect the contexts of the urban spheres in which they are written. Students spend all day inside a classroom learning from books written in alien languages about even more alien ecosystems that they may never encounter. After school, they run outside and experience all the glory that is the Himalaya, from the vibrant, medicinal seabuckthorn to the flickering, iridescent black-billed magpie. They see any one of the six distinct ungulate species in the region, point and say “deer!” because that’s what their textbooks tell them a four-legged animal with horns is called. There are no deer in Ladakh.
SLC-IT works in partnerships with environmental action groups, village education committees, and local schools to develop and implement contextually relevant lessons and materials in order to inspire future stewards of the environment. The organization has already provided many surrounding schools with a comprehensive biodiversity resource kit called “Ri Gyancha,” meaning “Jewels of the Mountain,” an affectionate term for the elusive snow leopards. This kit comes with a textbook of introductory flora and fauna of Ladakh, as well as an accompanying book of outdoor, experiential activities and visual teaching aids. I have yet to see these materials in action with student groups, but I can already see they have potential for high impact.
Throughout school sessions, SLC-IT conducts one- or two-day workshops in which they come to a school or village gathering, give informative presentations on wildlife and conservation, and lead the group in interactive exercises to understand the vitality of the interconnected web of life, of which humans are an integral piece. My task for the next few months, while schools are busy having final exams and closing for the three-month winter holiday, will be to assemble and compose all the relevant materials to draft comprehensive, experiential lesson plans focusing on a variety of subjects in Ladakhi ecosystems. Additionally, I will be working closely with my colleagues to design an interactive biodiversity park, hosted at a rural school outside of Leh. SLC-IT seeks to pilot an entire, all-inclusive curriculum that supplements what students learn in class with relevant, exciting, and tangible experiences in the magnificent natural world they call home.
Juley to this wild Earth, and our part in keeping it wild.