A Crack in the Door

Tenzin Thinley, our Field Coordinator in Spiti, India, shares a beautiful conservation story of loss and hope. It illustrates the struggles faced by communities in snow leopard habitat and a possible solution to the conflicts that threaten these cats.

In the Himalayas, news doesn’t always travel very quickly. Or very directly. To say that most villages here are rather remote would be an understatement. In the thick of winter, many places are all but cut off from the world. Internet access is scarce, and phone connections spotty. So we’re not always up to date on what’s happening in the outside world.

But even by Himalayan standards, the story that reached me via telephone on an early morning last December in my home village of Kibber, in Spiti Valley, had taken a particularly long journey – even though it happened quite close by.

Tenzin Thinley hails from Spiti Valley, where he has been working with our local partner organization, NCF India, since 2002. Photo by NCF India.

That morning, my colleague Ajay Bijoor called me from our office in Mysore, more than 3,000 km (1,850 miles) south of Spiti. Ajay told me that he had just received an email from Munib, a PhD student we work with, who was currently in the UK. Munib, in turn, had received a WhatsApp message the previous day from an officer with the Himachal Pradesh State Forest Department he’d become acquainted with during his fieldwork in Kinnaur, a district neighboring Spiti.

About a week earlier, Ajay told me (via Munib), a snow leopard had entered a livestock corral in a small hamlet in Kinnaur called Liti Dogri. The cat, following its instincts, had wreaked havoc and killed as many as 30 goats and sheep, to the obvious and understandable chagrin of the livestock’s owner. The snow leopard had not been harmed, but the community members were agitated and afraid – because they knew their compensation would be quite low, and because the cat was supposed to still be in the vicinity.

In the Indian Himalayas, snow leopards often roam near human settlements, and livestock losses are part of life for local herders. Photo by Karma Sonam, NCF India.

Now that this distressing news had come full circle, back to Himachal Pradesh via London and Mysore, Ajay asked me to travel to Kinnaur as soon as possible to find out what had happened, and to see if we could help the local community navigate this difficult time.

In my village, Kibbber, and in many other communities in Spiti, the Snow Leopard Trust and Nature Conservation Foundation have long-established partnerships with herders. Together, we’ve found solutions that help them coexist with snow leopards – livestock insurance, predator-proof corral and grazing reserves for wild prey, but also a handicrafts scheme that provides additional income to the community. In Kinnaur, however, we don’t have any conservation programs yet.

Together with my colleague Dhamal, I took the next bus from Spiti to Kinnaur. After an eight hour journey, we arrived in a village called Chango, on the banks of the Spiti river, at 3,125 meters (10,252 feet) above sea level. From there, we walked up a mountain road until we reached the scene of the incident; the herding settlement of Liti Dogri, which consists of just three stone corrals and a small hut.

A fatal crack in the door: the entrance to the corral in Liti Dogri where a snow leopard killed 30 goats. Photo by NCF India.

There was nobody around, so Dhamal and I started inspecting the corrals. They were empty – the herder had to be out in the pastures with the livestock. All three corrals had squeaky old wooden doors that only covered part of the entrance. It was no big secret how the snow leopard could have gotten inside!

While I took pictures, Dhamal hiked up the mountainside to try and find the herder. An hour or so later, he came back, accompanied by a young man. The stranger introduced himself as Raju, and explained that he was a migrant laborer from Nepal who’d been hired as a herder by the livestock’s owner. He had been the first person to discover the snow leopard’s nighttime attack a week before.

“I normally sleep up here”, Raju told us. “But that night, I had gone down to the village for a social function. In the evening, I shoe the sheep and goats inside the corrals and close the door. But you can see for yourself, this door is as old as my grandmother! It doesn’t close tightly. So I usually put a loose metal sheet and a few rags there as well, to try and seal the entrance. Looks like that’s not good enough.”

But you can see for yourself, this door is as old as my grandmother!

Raju, the livestock herder who discovered the snow leopard in the corral. Photo by NCF India.

We sat down, and Raju recounted the events of the past week for us.

———

Raju had spent the night of the incident down in the village. He returned to the corrals the next morning. “I was getting ready to take the animals out into the pasture. Normally, I have to coax them out of the corral. But that morning, when I opened the door, the goats and sheep came rushing out in a panic! I didn’t know what was going on! There are about 130 livestock in the corral, and at least 80 of them ran out of there as soon as they could! I stepped inside and tried to figure out what was wrong… it’s quite dark in there, but when my eyes had adjusted, I saw dead goats… blood… and then, in a corner of the corral, a pair of shiny feline eyes reflected in the light from the door!”

I stepped inside and tried to figure out what was wrong… it’s quite dark in there, but when my eyes had adjusted, I saw dead goats… blood…

Raju darted out of the corral, closed the door and secured it with a rock, trapping the snow leopard inside. He ran down to Chango village, where he managed to reach the livestock’s owner, a local trader named Thuktan Tander, on the phone. He was away on business, but agreed to return to Chango immediately. While Mr Tander arranged for the journey home, Raju and a neighbor called the police and the local Forest Department officer – the man would later alert our team of the incident.

The officers soon arrived to inspect the scene, while more and more people gathered at the corral. When the livestock’s owner, Thuktan Tander, arrived a couple of hours later, a sizable crowd had gathered and tensions were running quite high. The snow leopard, at this time, was still trapped inside the corral.

The Forest Department official promised to take the case forward and help Mr. Tander get access to a small amount of compensation from the government. He also insisted that the snow leopard be released. After tense negotiations, an agreement was reached to free the cat and chase it away – a little over 24 hours after the animal had first entered the corral.

A couple of brave community members volunteered to open the door; tensely, ready for a confused, angry predator to emerge! But there was no movement or sound. One man peeked inside… and after a while, saw the snow leopard, fast asleep, its belly full. The men then made noise, clapping, hooting, hitting rocks with whatever they could find. Finally, the cat woke up and, startled by the noise, darted out the door and off into the mountains!

One of the local herders managed to snap a picture of the snow leopard as it escaped from the corral. Photo by NCF India.

Accompanied by the Forest Guard, livestock owner Thuktan Tander and herder Raju then took stock of the night’s carnage. They found a total of 30 livestock inside the corral. 19 were dead. 11 were severely injured and had to be put down.

Thuktan Tander and his neighbors take stock of the night’s carnage. Photo by NCF India.

In one night, the livestock owner had lost almost a quarter of his herd! Think about that for a moment. Imagine losing a quarter of your livelihood in just one night. And not to a once-in-a-lifetime incident – but to a predator that will continue to lurk in the shadows. Is it a surprise that the man was distraught?

In one night, the livestock owner had lost almost a quarter of his herd!

———

Dhamal and I thanked Raju for sharing the story with us, then made our way back down to the village. There, we met a woman working in a small shop and asked her where we would find the owner of the corral up the mountain. She looked at us with a curious expression that I couldn’t immediately read. Then she said it was hers and her husband’s corral. By sheer coincidence, we had run into Thukthan Tander’s wife. She called her husband on the phone and asked him to come meet us. A few minutes later, over steaming glasses of tea, we sat down.

The couple were curious about us and about our reasons for visiting them. I don’t want to say that they eyed us suspiciously, but I could sense they were not at ease. So Dhamal and I explained to them what we do, what the Snow Leopard Trust and NCF are, and how we work with people like them in Spiti Valley to help them coexist with snow leopards.

Lively discussions between local herders and the SLT team at a community meeting outside a village in Spiti. Photo by NCF India.

They listened intently and nodded in agreement when we talked about how important it was to find ways for people and wildlife to live alongside each other and share resources. “But what are we supposed to do?”, the owner’s wife asked. “The Forest Guard has said that we’ll receive only 600 rupees (less than $10) for each animal that we’ve lost. So in total, the government might pay us 18,000 rupees. The most valuable goat killed that night is worth more than that alone! How can we make a living this way?”

At this, I nodded. She was right. 600 rupees per animal does not nearly cover the real losses suffered by herders.

Sheep and goats are the only source of income for many herders in snow leopard habitat. Compensation rarely covers an animal’s full value. Photo by NCF India.

But fortunately, we had one positive piece of news for them. The government of Himachal Pradesh had decided only a month earlier, in November 2018, to increase compensation for herders who lose livestock significantly, from 600 to 3,000 rupees (ca. $42) per animal. They’d also simplified the process in order to speed it up and give people access to their money much more quickly. The policy change was so recent that it had not even reached the local Forest Guard yet!

When I told the Tander family about this, their faces lit up. 3,000 rupees may still not cover the real value of a goat or sheep – but it makes a huge difference to affected herders!

We explained that just a year ago, we had faced a situation very similar to what they’d just been through in one of our partner villages. There, too, a snow leopard had entered a corral through a half-open window and caused severe livestock losses. In that community, a place called Salung, we’d worked with the local people to install metal grilles over the windows to keep snow leopards and other predators out in the future.

Local community members are reinforcing their livestock corral with steel grates in Salung village. Photo by NCF India.

In Salung and other places where we’d already had a strong relationship with the local community, we had worked out a co-payment model to cover the material costs. But in this case, I decided that we would cover the full cost. The Tander family’s loss was too raw – and too significant – to talk about sharing costs.

The next day, Thuktan Tander, Dhamal and I took a bus to the district headquarter, Rekong Peo. We ordered new corral doors from a local welder, and then met with the Divisional Forest Officer – a high-ranking official in the Indian administration I knew from previous interactions. The officer, who would eventually be signing off on the Tander’s compensation request, assured us that he’d give the case his full attention and would process everything smoothly.

When we returned to Chango, an eager welcoming committee was waiting for us! Thuktan’s wife and Raju the herder had recruited several neighbors and local craftsmen who were ready to get to work on the corrals!

We slept a few hours, then hiked up the valley to the corrals early the next morning.

The community came together to install the new corral doors as soon as Thinley returned to the village. Photo by NCF India.

If you’ve spent time in the Himalayas, you may have experienced the effects the thin air has on your body. Your step becomes heavier, your breathing more labored. So you can imagine how exhausted all of us were by 4pm, when we finished installing the new corral doors.

Thuktan and Raju smiled with relief. Their goats would no longer be vulnerable to attacks by snow leopards and wolves!

No more cracks in the door: after a day’s work, the corrals in Liti Dogri are now secure. Photo by NCF India.

Back in the village, we were treated to a delicious home-made meal. Thuktan and his wife invited us to come back in the summer and work with the community on making sure both livestock and snow leopards could live side by side without future incidents. So once our spring field work in Spiti is done, we’ll return to Chango and work on a conservation agreement that will help keep livestock and snow leopards in the area safe!

For snow leopards to have a future, they need to be able to coexist with local communities. Empowering such communities to tolerate the predator in their midst is the focus of our ground-based conservation work. Photo by NCF India / HPFD / Snow Leopard Trust.

The next morning, Thuktan and his wife saw us to the bus and waved goodbye as left Chango to return home.

——

Postscript: In March 2019, I received word that Thuktan and his wife had been paid the full compensation amount promised by the Forest Department to help absorb their livestock losses. The reinforced corral, meanwhile, has made a big difference! There were no further predation incidents in Liti Dogri through the winter.

 

2 Comments

  1. There are not enough thank you’s for this description of the issues you all face. How very talented everybody is…to achieve monetary parity, to bring all parties together is such a remarkable achievement. i am in awe! and writing this means so darn much to all of us out here.

  2. Thank you 😻😻😻l agree with you. We are to live with our wildlife. It’s their home, too😻😻😻

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