The team get stuck into data collection in our first village. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
Namche Bazaar has now been the team’s home for most of a week. It’s a funny wee place: around 200 households sculpted into a horseshoe-shaped valley with fantastic views of the surrounding mountains. It’s also a tourist hotspot and the numerous hotels stacked on top of each other, with their blue and green roofs and window-sashes, give it a gaudy Alpine-ski-resort feel.
That said, it’s the off-season here so we’ve managed to commandeer an entire hotel to ourselves with good food for a good price. The few shops that are open offer everything from massages to ice axes, and from apple pie to yak steak. Of the 15 or so WiFi networks that our laptops pick up, none of them are open-access, meaning 10 cents a minute in the internet cafe. It’s also very cold here at the moment, which might explain why most trekkers wait until it warms up a bit before visiting!
But despite the temperatures, the team’s been beavering away with household questionnaires. These are the study’s main way of collecting information and include sections on social and economic characteristics, conflict with snow leopards over livestock, and attitudes to both the species and conservation measures to protect it. The idea is that with 500 – 600 of these surveys completed we’ll be able to get a really good idea of how conflicts and attitudes vary according to age, gender, income and the like.
Snow leopard conservation programs often try to make local communities’ livelihoods more secure by diversifying their sources of incomes and reducing their dependence on livestock, which can sometimes end up as a snow leopard snack. But the assumption that this will make people more predisposed towards the big cats has never been rigorously tested, until now. So we’re interested in what livestock owners think as well as those, like in Namche Bazaar, who are now more dependent on tourism.
Since I’ve arrived here, Maurice, Rinzin and Niki have been focusing on these questionnaires. In contrast, Tsering and I have concentrated on the semi-structured interviews. Instead of specifying a list of answers which people choose from, like the questionnaires, the interviews ask open-ended questions which interviewees can respond to in depth. By conducting these with community leaders we’re able to get good background information on the area and the issues we’re interested in, as well as cross-checking the information from the surveys, a process called triangulation.
The other thing that Maurice and I do to reduce the potential for error in the data is to randomly back-check a proportion of all the questionnaires completed by the research assistants. This minimises the chance that the results will be made up, and while our team wouldn’t do that anyway, the procedure makes for good quality research, and, in time, for good quality conservation policies, which our results will inform.
Work like this is the bread-and-butter of wildlife conservation research. It isn’t always glamorous, it isn’t always easy and it isn’t always like a David Attenborough documentary or an episode of Deadly 60, with animals flinging themselves at you from every direction! But it is always worthwhile. Already we’ve heard of a yak killed by a snow leopard just above the village only a week ago. Today, we’re heading into a remote valley where even more of these incidents have occurred. A freezing cold research trip is about to heat up.