Reproaching Snow Leopard Conservation: Reciprocity of Learning to Reconcile Human Needs with Conservation Goals
It is not every day that you get to wake up to the picturesque green hills of the Eastern Himalayas. As a young researcher working in Arunachal Pradesh, there are many aspects to the work that often fascinates my friends and acquaintances. But if you’d ask me about what I cherish the most, I would simply tell you it’s the shared experience and learning I have developed with my colleagues – two extremely enthusiastic youngsters from the remote Zemithang valley of Tawang district. They have been accompanying my travel across Arunachal Pradesh while we interact with different tribes and encounter innumerable challenges and contemplation's about conservation research. However, complex it might sound, we have together deconstructed the contemporary definitions of the term conservation research as we spent extensive time with the local communities and explored the complexities of their adaptive systems. Moving forward, this was a first for us in practicing conservation to effectively reconcile human needs with conservation goals.
The cloud-wrapped mountains of Tawang district, far away from the hustle of the Tawang town, are three villages: Thingbu, Mago and Luguthang that share their landscape with the elusive snow leopard amongst other high-altitude wildlife. These villages are the last human settlements in the westernmost corner of the state and are historically inhabited by the Monpa tribe who has been practicing yak herding as their traditional livelihood. These pastoralist communities have an intricate relationship with their livelihood as it transcends beyond a mere source of income to an integral part of their cultural identity, food security and heritage of their historic practices as a Buddhist community. The harsh weather and terrain hardly support agriculture for sustenance, so a major part of their diet, clothing and lifestyle are obtained from yaks, especially milk, cheese, ghee, yak hair for rugs, mats, bags, caps and traditional clothing.
Before we spoke to them about our plans to have a long-term conservation program in this critical and potential snow leopard habitat, we decided to gain the trust and reciprocate the same with the community members. It is important to develop a clear channel of communication to establish a community-owned and managed conservation program. A 95-km journey through the winding mountain roads from Tawang might have been tiring for most, but the charming little Thingbu village of roughly 55-houses nestled against the towering Himalayas on all sides surely takes the breath away. We spotted around 100 to 150 yaks being tagged for the livestock insurance scheme set up by the state government. Mindfully, we began our conversation with the community members but soon found ourselves chatting about their challenges with natural resource management and their livelihoods. The one that seemed to cause the most distress was livestock depredation by snow leopards and dholes (a breed of wild dogs). While we explained how our role would be to help them mitigate these challenges, the precedence for a reciprocal relationship was set when we attempted to learn their already existing mitigation strategies to combat challenges in natural resource management.
While discussing the long-term conservation of any region, it becomes increasingly important to understand the land ownership and the management strategies practiced by the local communities. In Arunachal Pradesh, the land is customarily owned communally. We learnt about the tax system (Tzarin) in place, where herders that access the grazing land of other villages pay to compensate for the utilization of resources in their land. The tax was historically paid in kind (cheese and ghee). However, over time, some tax payments have shifted to cash rather than yak products. Another practice that we discovered during our interaction at Thingbu was the rotational use of grazing lands amongst the herders in Thingbu. Five grazing lands are divided amongst groups of 5-6 herders and the groups are shuffled every 5 years. It is practiced to avoid any misunderstanding amongst them as well as ensure the health of these grazing lands. Understanding community land ownership and management strategies can help us tailor interventions by taking into account the various stakeholders and the social dynamics that influence their power to invest in our interventions. These interactions will also help us reflect on the traditional knowledge that exists in communities which can greatly influence the design of our interventions.
The only way to access Mago and Luguthang were by foot from Thingbu village. Our team set forward early in the morning to trek almost 27 km to reach Mago village. Since the road construction between Mago and Thingbu is also under process, we crossed several rock blasting areas covered with massive cold, dusty rocks. We also had to be extremely careful while crossing certain sensitive zones as there could be landslides triggered by the sounds and impact of these explosives. As the sunset, we reached Mago and I felt the most exhausted I ever have. I was flabbergasted to know that the people from Mago often use this route to travel to and fro within a day to access basic facilities and resources. We spent about 5 days in Mago and couldn’t access Luguthang by foot as it had begun to snow. All these three villages remain inaccessible for almost 6 months a year. However, we had the opportunity to meet the locals from Luguthang as we had crossed paths while travelling to Mago. While Mago is a relatively larger village with 60 households, Luguthang had only ten households. They often travelled by foot to and fro to access basic resources like rice, salt and some vegetables. The harshness of their lives was very evident as we spent more time with them.
One of the major themes that were discussed by these herders was the threat to their livelihood. Even though yak herding is practiced across the district, there has been livelihood diversification amongst the villages in and around the town. This has led to an increased demand for yak cheese and butter in Mago, Thingbu and Luguthang, where yak herding still remains as their mainstay. Some of them even discussed their increasingly evident livelihood insecurity as the demand for these yak products continues to increase yet there are very few people willing to practice yak herding, which is an essential part of the Monpa cultural identity. With development-induced environmental change and other challenges like loss due to livestock depredation and diseases, yak herding is a dwindling art of living amongst the Monpa tribe.
One of the most common responses we got when we addressed the conservation of their forests was if we were here to protect the snow leopards. This was a hard question to approach especially because the loss of depredation was very high in these settlements. These villages lost approximately 200-300 yaks every year to snow leopards and dholes. One yak cost approximately between 50,000-70,000 rupees. And for a settlement like Luguthang, which has only 10 households, the loss of 200-300 yaks becomes an irreplaceable loss. However, after repeated discussions with groups across different gender, age and power, we were able to convey that their livelihood security was essential to avoid an ecosystem collapse and promote long term conservation of their land, which was our goal.
During these discussions, yet again we focused on understanding the existing strategies practiced by these communities to combat such a massive loss. Traditionally the Monpa tribe does not hunt as it is considered a sin to harm any being. However, due to the huge livestock loss incurred by wild predators, they retaliate by placing baits that are rigged with snares and sometimes even poison. In Thingbu, anyone who kills a dhole or a snow leopard and brings its carcass back to the village can collect a small reward from every household in the village. This practice of rewarding is called Inaam. During the winters, the herders in Thingbu set out to look for and kill dhole cubs to curb the loss incurred by them. And when discussed in detail, the community at Thingbu perceived that since their expeditions to kill dholes, they have faced a loss much lesser than the loss incurred by Mago and Luguthang village. We were also extremely fortunate to encounter a Rinpoche (Buddhist spiritual leader) during our stay at Mago. We had the opportunity to interact with him and discuss some of the traditional knowledge systems around medicine, philosophy and its relationship with their environment. We also learnt that he happened to visit the local community at Mago as the locals had approached him with the problem of livestock depredation. And as a result, the Rinpoche visited Mago to conduct a ritual that places a talisman on their yaks so that the predators are unable to see them. While retaliatory killing is often the conflict resolution mechanism adopted by communities, it was revelling to know that communities approach the issue of conflict resolution beyond retaliation and look into other mechanisms to cope with their loss. In our case, the locals at Mago have attempted to resolve the issue of conflict through their spiritual beliefs and practices. This insight largely shifts our perspectives of “us versus them” as inclusivity in conflict resolution perceives the security of their livelihood and traditional practices as an integral part of the conservation of a species as well as an ecosystem as a whole.
There were also reports of livestock death due to an epidemic of foot and mouth diseases. This could have also aggravated their response to the huge loss caused by livestock depredation. While the department of animal husbandry and dairy has several provisions to avail veterinary services, the community at Mago and Thingbu are unaware as to how to avail these services. For the seemingly new livestock insurance program initiated by the government, the locals weren’t fully aware of the processes and function of this initiative. This is where we believe as practitioners, we can work to bridge the information gaps between government and local communities to make such schemes and services more accessible and effective. While the go-to approach to conflict is often a livestock insurance program, the losses incurred by the communities in these villages are almost impossible to compensate. With the advent of multi-faceted approaches in conservation, we have to design our intervention to not only compensate the loss incurred but effectively reduce the depredation rates so that the compensation scheme is feasible. And while predator-proof corrals have been implemented across the Himalayas, it remains a challenge in Arunachal, as the yaks are semi-domesticated and are left to graze on their own. This calls for looking at other strategies to combat the depredation rates. All of these are very challenging yet exciting opportunities to work with local communities as this extends beyond the conservation of just a species. It also helps generate innovative and collaborative solutions which reinforce the importance of contextually designing our conservation interventions.
While community stewardship continues to be a challenge for many community-based conservation initiatives, I think as practitioners we have to refocus our efforts into co-produced research and implementation. Co-production of knowledge between communities and practitioners becomes problem-driven and thus help us generate more actionable knowledge. This can in turn also help us bridge the existing gap between knowledge producers and decision-makers like the state to design more culturally sensitive and contextually relevant policies that truly reconcile human needs with conservation goals.
Acknowledgement: I would like to acknowledge and extend my heartfelt gratitude to the Monpa community, especially inhabitants across the Mago-chu valley for entrusting me with their knowledge and experience and for their known generosity and hospitality. I’d also like to take this as an opportunity to express my gratitude to Pemba and Dechin for the amazing four years of learning and growth together as a team and as individuals.
She is a biologist turned community-based conservationist who aspires to work at the intersection of research and practice by ascribing to interdisciplinary and collaborative methods that address ecological and social well-being as an integral part of complex conservation challenges.