The high-altitude rangelands of the eastern Himalayas with the backdrop of towering snow-capped mountains might be a dream vacation destination for some. But for many traditional pastoralists who once reared livestock in the region, these rangelands have been crucial to their livelihood.

A recent interview-based study in India’s eastern Himalayan state of Sikkim examines the impact of the grazing ban and the subsequent promotion of tourism in the state on the lives of traditional pastoralists. The findings show that the grazing ban resulted in the loss of herding and culture along with increased inequality and elite capture. The authors recommend that the views of ex-herders and the local community should be included when planning conservation policies.

“Given more than 40 percent of the terrestrial area of the earth is under rangelands, I believe we should focus on bringing the pastoralists and their knowledge in rangeland management and successful rangeland restoration,” says Rashmi Singh, lead author of the study and a doctoral student at Ambedkar University, Delhi.

From pastoralism to tourism

With respect to conservation, the most common narrative on the use of rangelands by pastoralists and the practice of agriculture has been that it leads to degradation and a decline in biodiversity. On the other hand, scholars have argued that pastures have long co-existed with pastoralists and evolved in response to changing conditions.

Conservation policies have been based on the former narrative and excluded pastoralists from their traditional pastures. In 1998, Sikkim banned livestock grazing followed by the removal of pastoralists from protected areas and implementation of restrictive conservation policies.

Ecotourism has been promoted by Himalayan states and the World Bank to meet both conservation and community development goals. Consequently, Khangchendzonga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, transformed from a pastoral cultural landscape into a tourist destination. A hybrid species of cow and yak, known locally as dzo and udaag, is employed to ferry tourists in the region. As the number of tourists increased, so did the demand for dzo.

“This is a very important study as it challenges the unquestioned replacement of pastoralism with tourism in important biodiversity areas of the Himalaya,” says Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi, a scientist at the National Conservation Foundation, Mysuru. “There are clear arguments on the need to conserve human-nature relationships of the pastoral society,” adds Suryawanshi, who was not involved in the study.

Loss of income and a way of life

In 2017 and 2019, Singh conducted 48 semi-structured interviews, ten in-depth key informant interviews and two focused group discussions. The semi-structured interviews comprised forty ex-herders, three forest officials, four members of local and regional conservation organisations who played an essential role in implementing the ban and one with a senior journalist who has covered conservation issues in the region for over two decades.

The herders were from four village clusters of West Sikkim located at the periphery of the Khangchendzonga National Park. Before the ban, local communities which consisted of Bhutia, Lepcha and Limboo along with more who had immigrated from Nepal in the 1950s reared yak, sheep, goat, cow and buffalos. They grazed their livestock in the temperate, subtemperate and alpine pastures in and around KNP.

Lead author Rashmi Singh conducting interviews with an ex-cattle herder who now rear sheep in and around KNP. Photo courtesy Rashmi Singh.

Bhutia, who migrated from Eastern Tibet to Sikkim in the 14th century are mainly yak herders. Limboo, who originated from Tibet are traditional cattle herders and butchers. Both Limboos and Lepchas are among the earliest settlers in Sikkim and have been agriculturalists. The immigrants from Nepal include the Gurungs, Mangers and Chhetri community who used to rear sheep and cattle.

The interviews revealed that the top three effects of the grazing ban were economic and livelihood loss (22%), loss of culture (18%) and increased inequality and elite capture (11%).

The grazing ban has led to a reduction in household incomes, says ethnobiologist Tenzing Ingty, who is a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts. “Some studies estimate the loss in income from livestock to be more than half compared to pre-ban periods,” he notes, adding that most of the “ex-pastoralists are largely dependent on government subsidies or the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.” Ingty was not connected to the study.

“Pastoralism is not only an economic activity but a way of life that has a wide variety of local customs and festivities tied around animal rearing,” explains Singh. “For example, yak rearing in West Sikkim was first started by the King – The Chogyal of Sikkim, for the cultural purpose of celebrating Pang Lhabsol, the annual festival which is celebrated to offer respect and homage to Mount Khangchendzonga. Yaks were primarily kept in the name of the local peaks and lakes as an offering to these local deities and had a special role in celebrating this festival.”

During the interviews, Singh recalls the ex-herders expressing nostalgia for pastoral life. “Majority of them also wanted to return to animal rearing if the ban was uplifted.”

Suryawanshi of the NCF notes that “the negative effects of the eviction of pastoralists on their culture and economy are well-documented here and elsewhere.”

Rise in inequalities

After the grazing ban, small and middle-class pastoralists lost their livelihood but the most influential and biggest yak herders continued to rear their yaks inside KNP using their social networks. While most of the herders were adversely impacted, nothing changed for a few and this increased inequality among herders.

Yak herds grazing inside Khangchendzonga National Park. The big and powerful herds were never removed. The policy affected the small subsistence-based pastoralists resulting in increased inequalities. Photo by Kinzong Bhutia.

Ecotourism provided an alternative livelihood for ex-herders, but it also gave rise to inequalities. Local elites who could afford to build hotels reaped most of the benefits with the exception of homestays and pack animal operators. The lack of local consultations paved the way for external tourist operators to establish themselves in and around KNP. “In short, people with money got more money with the conservation-eviction-tourism coupling and the cost of conservation has been paid by the small and middle-class ex-herders,” explains Singh.

Ingty points out that “pack animals for tourism are still allowed in the park leading to resentment among the farmers towards pack animal operators.”

Moreover, the ban allowed the transition of a self-sufficient herding practice to a market-driven economy, making it highly vulnerable to external fluctuations. Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, tourism in Sikkim has been hit hard.

Local participation and transboundary conservation

Singh calls for more inclusive policies to be initiated in the Himalayas that support pastoralists and their movement across borders, which can help them prosper. She suggests uplifting the livestock grazing ban in Sikkim. However, since the rangelands of Sikkim are not vast when compared to other parts of Indian Himalayan rangelands, “this should be done in a participatory manner bringing ex-herders on board, giving closer attention to the questions of equality and sustainability.” The number of animals per herder could be capped, Singh adds.

The Khangchendzonga landscape is a continuous area that transcends boundaries to the neighboring country of Nepal. “When the ban was implemented, a large number of herders had sold their animals to the herders of Nepal for less than half of the value,” explains Singh. Livestock essentially shifted from India to Nepal. For high-altitude rangelands, Singh stresses that policies should be drawn in collaboration with neighbouring countries and with pastoral engagement.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.