A short digest of the team’s work over the last month in the western part of Annapurna Conservation Area.
Before it was a muscle-car or a horse breed from the New World, Mustang was a region of mid-western Nepal. It is the true heir to the title. Long before cars were invented or even before horses were introduced to North America by the Spanish, Mustang was the name given to this arid valley that runs south from the Tibetan border. Situated between the towering 8,000metre-plus peaks of Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri, its Kali Gandakhi gorge is the deepest in the world. The vast mountains to the east block the passage of the annual monsoon into the valley so that little rain waters its barren landscape. In fact, moonscape might be a more appropriate description. But in its starkness it is stunning.
The team’s dusty journey along the lower parts of the valley is described in the long road to Jomsom. Jomsom is the largest settlement in the district and the team conducted 108 questionnaires in it and its hinterland, which included Thini. Thini is typical of many such villages in this part of Nepal. With its charming flat-roofed and whitewashed Tibetan-style houses, it is also typical of many villages across the trans-Himalayas. This is the name given to the northern regions of the Himalayas which lie in its rain shadow, including Mustang, much of western Nepal, Ladakh in India and parts of the Tibetan plateau.
Moving on from the Jomsom area was Kagbeni. With a lower population, the team did 69 household surveys here. While snow leopard predation on livestock was certainly occurring, it was becoming apparent that the real villain here in people’s eyes was the jackal, with its particular penchant for lambs, kids and calves. The team also did some livestock predation of their own, hitting Yacdonald’s in Kagbeni for a well-earned McYak burger. Kagbeni is also the gateway to Upper Mustang, a restricted zone that was an autonomous feudal kingdom until well into the 20th century. The exorbitant entry costs prohibited us from working here but the Forbidden Kingdom beckoned nonetheless.
The next of four regions in Lower Mustang that we were surveying in was Jhong. The beautiful ruined fort here was a reminder of the sheer volume of human history that this valley has witnessed. For centuries, millennia even, the entire Mustang region has been an important trade route with Tibet. Mule trains and yak caravans have traversed it endlessly with the kings of Mustang growing rich on controlling and taxing such a lucrative trade. The team surveyed 23 households modern Mustang households and moved on.
Muktinath was the final destination in the eastern part of Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA). While Niki and Rinzin focused on conducting 50 household questionnaires, Maurice got stuck in to surveying tourists. This is part of a parallel study that we’re carrying out with another two Nepali conservationists, looking at how much tourists know about snow leopards and how much they’d be willing to pay towards their conservation as part of the entry fee to ACA (more on this in a future blog). Given the importance of tourism in the region it’s easy to see why locals get so angry when their pack animals are eaten by predators.
Their work done in Lower Mustang, it was time for the team to head to Manang district, the western part of ACA. In their path, however, stood the imposing Thorung La pass at 5,416m/17,872ft. Niki, Rinzin and Maurice set out at just after 3:30 am, aiming to reach the top of the pass before the biting winds blew up later in the day. It was a tough walk. Snow had fallen the night before and it was too deep for them to hire a horse to carry some extra gear. A willing porter was found instead, though he didn’t do himself any favours by drinking his way to the top. Rinzin had to help him along. The others reached the top of the pass after seven hours hard slog, and it took a further three to descend to their accommodation for the night on the other side. A wild way to leave wild Mustang.