About four decades ago, one winter morning, a 10-12-year-old boy was accompanying his father on horseback on the rugged terrains of Ladakh. They had set off from their hamlet Rumste, part of the larger Gya village, around 75 km-80 km from Leh town. Their journey to collect manure from dogpas (nomadic herders in Ladakh), which they would later use in their fields, however, was cut short when they heard a commotion.
They discovered many people had gathered near a shandong (traditional wolf traps in Ladakh) where a shanku (Ladakhi name for wolf) had been trapped. As per the local custom, the wolf was being stoned to death by the village residents. The boy, along with his father, also joined others in stoning the predator, which was soon crushed under the barrage of rocks thrown at it.
That boy today is 57-year-old Karma Sonam, who has played a major role in the conservation of Tibetan wolves in Ladakh through his work as a field manager with the Nature Conservation Foundation. Findings from a conservation initiative for wolves in Ladakh, in collaboration with the local communities, carried out by Nature Conservation Foundation and the Snow Leopard Trust, have been documented in the recently published paper “A Community Based Conservation Initiative for Wolves in the Ladakh Trans-Himalaya India”.
Speaking on how the study was conceptualised, Munib Khanyari, a conservation scientist with Nature Conservation Foundation and one of the authors of the paper said, “Across the Indian Trans-Himalayas, human-wildlife interactions are continually playing out as humans live in proximity to wildlife.”
“Often with predators like snow leopards and wolves, there are negative interactions as these predators kill people’s livestock – valuable livestock – and in return, people kill these predators in order to protect their livestock,” Khanyari said. “We knew from previous studies that people’s attitudes and perceptions in regions of Trans-Himalayan India are particularly negative towards wolves compared to other predators like snow leopards. We also knew from our travels in the region, there are several traditional ways of persecuting wolves driven by the urge to protect one’s livestock. Lastly, often in the region, studies overlook the wolves with the limelight often taken by the more charismatic snow leopard. Given this background, we conceptualised this study.”
Shandongs to stupas
In India, the Trans-Himalayan region lies mostly 3,500 metres above sea level. The Union Territory of Ladakh is India’s largest Trans-Himalayan cold desert region. As the altitude, rugged terrain and harsh climate make agriculture difficult, grazing livestock is one of the primary occupations for the nomadic and semi-nomadic communities inhabiting the region. When predators like wolves prey on their livestock, village residents often retaliate through shandongs.
Shandongs are relatively large, widely used traditional trapping pits with inverted funnel-shaped stone walls, usually built near villages or herder camps. Typically, a live domestic animal is placed in the pit to attract the wolves. The local communities generally take turns placing their own sheep and goats inside the pit. Once the wolf jumps into the pit, the funnel-shaped walls prevent it from escaping and trapped wolves are generally stoned to death.
In the study, 94 shandongs were listed in 58 of the 64 surveyed villages in the eastern part of Ladakh, studied between June 2019 and March 2020. Speaking about the fieldwork, Khanyari told Mongabay-India, “We divided Ladakh into six survey blocks – Changthang, Rong, Sham, Nubra, Kargil and Zanskar. Due to Covid-19 limitation, eventually, we chose to only survey three blocks – Rong, Sham and Changthang, which, from our knowledge, were the areas with lots of human-wolves interactions and these were also logistically possible for us to visit.”
In the study, 37 shandongs were reported to have been used within the past decade (2010-2020), of which 15 are currently active. As many as 34 shandongs were not used in the last decade and were in poor condition. For the remaining 23, it could not be ascertained when they were last used.
The study also says that there is little evidence of other methods used to kill the wolves. Some of the last documented cases of wolves being killed in their dens are nearly two decades old.
The success of the initiative lies in convincing the communities to stop killing wolves based on principles of Presence, Aptness, Respect, Transparency, Negotiation, Empathy, Responsiveness and Strategic Support.
Elaborating on this, Sonam, who is also the lead author of the paper said in a press release, “We built long term relationships with the local communities with multiple visits and interactions [following the principles of Presence, Respect, Transparency and Empathy] before the actual conservation interventions were initiated.”
“Amongst other learning, this helped us understand that the intention behind killing wolves was purely to protect their livestock [Respect, Empathy],” Sonam said. “We did not pursue any wish to penalise community members involved in hunting wolves, nor did we seek to destroy the shandong which represents an important part of the cultural heritage in Ladakh (Aptness, Respect, Transparency).”
In 2017, Nature Conservation Foundation initiated discussions with the local community about the possibility of neutralising shandong. Sonam said, “We initiated a discussion about the initiative with influential religious leader His Eminence Bakula Rangdol Nyima Rimpoche and sought his advice on symbolically building a stupa [Buddhist religious symbol] at the shandong site.”
In the paper, the stupa is described as a mound-like hemispherical structure that contains relics like idols, religious texts or the remains of Buddhist monks/nuns. The shandong is neutralised by removing a few stones from the structure which creates a passage for the wolves to escape.
In 2018, residents of Chushul village neutralised all the four shandongs in their area and built a stupa next to one, as a commitment towards conservation and repentance towards past hunting. The stupa was publicly consecrated by Rangdol Nyima Rimpoche. Sonam informed that since then two more stupas have been constructed at Rumtse in Gya village and Himya village in Rong area respectively.
Pastorals and predators
Even though there are predators like shan (snow leopards as known in Ladakhi) and Eurasian lynx in the Trans-Himalayan region, herders despise the wolves most. The paper attributes this to factors like greater visibility of the wolves, their howling behaviour and pack living.
Many herders keep around 300-350 livestock. “Earlier, the ratio between sheep and goats was 50:50 but now goats outnumber the sheep in the herd. Apart from the meat, goat’s milk is used to make butter and curd,” Sonam said. “There is also a huge demand for pashmina wool which grows on the goat.”
Not just sheep and goats, wolves and snow leopards also prey on bigger animals like horses and yaks. “Almost every household in our area owns horses,” said Sonam. “They serve a number of purposes like ploughing the field and as a mode of transport. There are also more than 500 yaks in my village. They are one of the main targets for wolves.”
Even though there is the provision of compensation for livestock killed by predators, it is not always possible for these nomadic communities to claim the compensation. Rigzen Dorjay, a resident of Rong in eastern Ladakh and one of the lead authors of the paper says, “To claim compensation, herders have to go to Leh town,” Dorjay said. “From some of the remote villages, one needs to trek for three days to reach Leh. The forest department also asks them to provide photographic evidence of the killing. As the process is quite cumbersome, the herders generally avoid it.”
Khenrab Phuntsog, the forest guard of the Upshi beat office said that the forest department gives 60% of the market price of the killed livestock as compensation.
One of the major issues plaguing the forest department in Ladakh is the dearth of boots on the ground. Phuntsog is the lone forest guard manning an area of 2,500 sq km. He said, “Even in Hemis National Park, which is one of the largest in India, there are just two forest guards looking after an area of 2,000 sq km each.”
Phuntsog, who received the Royal Bank of Scotland’s “Save the Species” award for rescuing around 50 snow leopards so far, says that snow leopards can cause more damage to livestock compared to the wolves. “If the snow leopards manage to enter a corral pen, they will kill all the livestock in the course of a single night,” he said.
He said that in the past, wild dogs also roamed the valley but they have disappeared from Ladakh in the past one and a half-decade. “However, today the biggest threat for wolves is the rise in the number of feral or domestic dogs in the valley,” he said. “They compete with wolves for food and there is also the possibility of breeding between wolves and dogs, which genetically is never a good idea.”
Sonam said that since the initiative to neutralise shandongs began, there has been no report of the killing of wolves in the region.
Regarding the upcoming plans of the Nature Conservation Foundation regarding the conservation of biodiversity in the Trans-Himalayan region, Manvi Sharma, a behavioural ecologist with Nature Conservation Foundation and one of the authors of the paper said, “We will continue to engage with the local community for conservation of the Himalayan wolf.”
“This region is not only home to the charismatic snow leopard, but a rich diversity of ungulates – blue sheep, ibex, argali and burial,” Sharma said. “We plan to set up a program to monitor the distribution and status of these ungulates of Ladakh with active participation from the local community.”
Sonam, who comes from an agro-pastoral family, says that the younger generation is now less interested in herding. “I am from Gya-Miru village,” he said. “Out of 150 households in my village, now maybe 12 are into full-time herding business.”
Explaining the reason behind this disinterest in the traditional occupation, Phunchok Dorjey, Gya village head, told Mongabay-India, “The life of a herder is tough.”
“They have to be out for days in very harsh conditions,” Dorjey said. “In winters, the temperature here drops to -30 degrees Celsius. Also, many have received education and have moved to cities. Nowadays, many are into agriculture and they grow crops like barley and green peas.”
“Some are working as daily wagers in the construction projects carried out by Border Road Organisation,” Dorjey said. “With tourism activities increasing in the valley, people are getting more diverse sources of income.”
Forest guard Phuntsog says he feels that as herding activity is decreasing among the community, depredation of livestock by wolves might also go down or stop in the future. “As herding decreases, there will be less competition for mountain grass between domestic livestock and wild ungulates,” he said. “So, this will inversely increase the number of wild ungulates. If more and more people give up herding in the future, wild ungulates will become the main food source for the wolves.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.