“Our animals are walking wallets,” said a herder with pride in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh. “We don’t need ATMs or money in our pockets. When we need money, we barter animals.”
Across the Himalayan foothills, communities of nomadic pastoralists walk up mountains to escape the monsoon. They are also among the first people affected by climate change. In the first week of June 2016, I accompanied Tarachand Negi* on a trek over the Great Himalayan Range to Pin Valley, Spiti, with his flock of goats. With us were Abhishek Ghoshal, an ecology student at the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and our field assistants – Chhering and Padma from Sagnam, Spiti.
Negi and his community may be simple folk – tending their animals, cooking frugal meals, chain-smoking bidis in their remote camps – but to them, the threat of climate change is visible and real even as some powerful businessmen in the world’s capitals deny and express scepticism.
A fortnight before we set out, Negi rented a high-altitude pasture from one of the few men who had grazing rights in Pin Valley – Gopichand. This man had inherited the rights to a pasture in Khamengar area, but had given up tending animals decades ago when he realised he could earn much more from growing and selling apples. Negi, however, continued the tradition of animal husbandry since he could not rely on horticulture. For the use of Gopichand’s pasture for three months, Negi had paid Rs 25,000.
The harsh conditions imposed by difficult terrain forced mountain communities to adapt and diversify. They exploited the resources at home by cultivating crops and used the natural riches of distant lands by tending livestock. If crops failed because of extreme weather conditions, they could earn enough by selling animals. This highlighted the fundamental principle of nomadic pastoralism: exploit resources that would otherwise remain underutilised.
Diversification of livelihoods was also typical in these mountain communities. One of Negi’s brothers ran a grocery store, while another was a Block Development Officer. Negi’s eldest son joined the army, another studied in college in Rampur Bushahr. A third was a high school student. During the three months while Negi was away, his wife, Pushpa, single-handedly managed their household. She looked after their two teenage children, his elderly father and aunt and tended to the cows. She grew potatoes, barley, onions, everything they needed – even the coriander leaves she garnished the dal with. She was Negi’s third wife – the hard life had already claimed the first two.
At the bottom of the boulder-strewn Rupi valley, we met a group of men amid a swirling mass of sheep and goats from nearby villages. For a fee of Rs 100 per animal, Negi agreed to take 990 of their animals, along with his own 110, to Spiti. This would offset some of the grazing fee he had paid Gopichand, while the villagers’ animals enjoyed the rich forage of the higher elevations. A few men would accompany us for part of the way.
In the chilly dawn, the shepherds set off with their animals, whistling and clacking their tongues, every exhalation a visible wisp of vapour. Through the day the men kept an eye out for wandering animals. By evening, they reached a roadside camp 10 km away. Negi inspected the flock, tending to the sick and injured. At night, they took turns staying awake, guarding the animals from thieves.
At Wangtoo, the site of a hydroelectric dam, they turned off the busy highway and set off north into Bhabha valley. This valley was as lush as their home in Rupi. “Why leave these fertile places and go on this tough trek over the mountains?” I asked Negi.
“The plants here are full of water from the recent rains,” he explained. “It’s no good for the animals. When the monsoon comes, flies and mosquitoes spread diseases. Pin Valley plants are more nutritious.”
For the next week, we climbed from the meadows at 2,400 metres elevation over the 4,900-metre icy Bhabha Pass and into the cold desert at 3,800 metres in Spiti, on the western margin of the Tibetan plateau. The day we crossed the pass, we walked over ice and scree slopes. The animals had nothing to eat. They probably remembered the nutritious pickings that awaited them from previous treks, and plodded on patiently, the young ones keeping close.
In the old days, shepherds reared indigenous sheep breeds adapted to the extreme terrain. In recent decades, the Animal Husbandry Department introduced better wool-yielding breeds from Australia and New Zealand. Negi said the imported breeds did not survive the Indian mountains and died within days. Since the imports of cheap wool began in the post-liberalisation era, the market for wool had collapsed anyway.
Instead, Negi had switched to rearing goats, which he could supply to the meat market. When his father had been a herder, he kept no more than a few indigenous goats as draft animals. Chhering, who recalled seeing them as a lad, said shepherds then did not use donkeys because their goats were as tall. This unusually tall breed appears to have died out, or been diluted with other breeds. Negi’s goats were of medium height with shaggy hair and spiral horns. A five-year-old kid fetched between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000 from the butcher.
“If goats are so lucrative, why do other shepherds tend sheep?” I asked.
“You get more immediate returns from sheep,” he replied. “You can sell them when they reach three years of age for Rs 8,000 to Rs 12,000. You need to wait five years for goats to reach their best market size.”
There was another reason: the men diversified their holdings since sheep and goats can use different types of pastures.
In sickness and health
The Animal Husbandry Department maintains records for the animals it vaccinates, but there is no official census of livestock. Many flocks, like Negi’s, go unvaccinated by state agencies. When he is able to, Negi vaccinates his animals himself. Last winter, he suffered a massive setback when he lost about 25 animals to disease.
“I can’t increase my flock size to more than 115 no matter how hard I try,” said Negi. “As soon as the numbers go up, the animals fall sick and die.”
Before the trek, he had planned to give shots to the animals but gave up on the idea when he discovered the vaccines had turned cloudy. He had no refrigerator to store them and the average room temperature in summer at Kinnaur was much higher than the recommended storage temperature.
This lackadaisical approach to animal health meant that diseases travelled from Kinnaur to Spiti along with the animals. There were also no tabs on animal numbers. Animal Husbandry Department officials in Reckong Peo felt livestock numbers had decreased, so did the district Forest Department officials. But the residents of Spiti, who had leased their pastures, said many more heads of livestock arrived from Kinnaur each year. Villagers in Rupi said the numbers in their valley were decreasing but increasing in neighbouring valleys. As shepherds from one area divested from livestock, others replaced them. After all, the market for meat was increasing worldwide.
Based on extensive interviews with shepherds in Rupi and Bhabha valleys, Abhishek felt that more sheep and goats made their way to Spiti in recent years than at any other time. This had serious implications for the ecology of Pin Valley. Summer offered a short growing season in this cold desert. Intensive grazing by domestic animals did not give plants a chance to flower and set seed. Unpalatable plants flourished. This benefited neither sheep and goats nor Himalayan ibex and blue sheep, the native wild herbivores of the area. Carnivores like snow leopards and brown bears turned their predatory gaze on the many domestic animals. Since shepherds and their dogs guarded the nomadic flocks from Kinnaur, yaks and horses of locals fell prey.
Degrading pastures also hit the economy of Kinnaur shepherds. Some sought fresh pastures in areas like Ensa and Kaza, which were not leased to them before. For his doctoral thesis, Abhishek had spent the past few years comparing grazed areas with ungrazed ones, to assess what effect nomadic pastoralism had on the landscape.
Negi estimated his livestock holding was worth about Rs 7 lakh and he would make close to Rs 3 lakh a year. He could not make as much money off apples because there was no road to his remote village. He would have to press mules and donkeys into service and hire four-wheel drive vehicles, driving costs up. “Besides, profits from apples are going down. It’s getting warmer in the lower elevations. In another few years, apples will be finished in Kinnaur.”
Getting warmed up
The conversation on how to adapt to climate change has just begun. Abhishek discussed how to supplement the herders’ income without increasing the number of animals, for instance, through woollen products sold on the international market. All the herders he spoke to agreed, for they were already seeing the results of an over-used landscape.
In Mud, the first village on the trek into Pin Valley, Negi heard an ice bridge across the River Pin had melted away during the warm winter. He needed this link, in the neighbouring village of Sagnam, to reach his pasture. He lobbied for an alternate access through the settlement, but the disgruntled villagers complained that pastoralists brought more animals than they declared and they did not limit their animals to designated pastures.
Rebuffed, Negi climbed up a mountain and found another ice bridge to reach his grazing lands. Two weeks after they had set off from home, his animals and team of shepherds reached their destination. While the livestock gorged on the rich forage, the men would make do with the rough conditions of their makeshift camp.
“I enjoy being in Pin Valley,” he said. “I pray a lot. Just being here washes off a percentage of my sins. Down below, there’s too much noise. Even God can’t hear prayers.”
On my way home, I heard an avalanche had struck western Tibet, killing nine herders, 350 sheep, and 110 yaks. In September, another avalanche struck the same area. Months later, scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Ohio State University announced meltwater caused by climate change was to blame for the catastrophe. The tragedy lent a sense of urgency to the situation in Spiti. Their adaptable way of life overcame the vagaries of the past. Would it see them through the future?
* Name has been changed on request.