Herding and Health in the High Himalayas

Snow Leopard Trust teams work with herders across the high Himalayas to understand what diseases are present in livestock herds and potentially in the surrounding wildlife. Munib Khanyari explains why it is important to link snow leopard conservation with improving livestock health.

Hundreds of kilometers away from home, thinking about his newly born daughter, all his necessities packed in his rebo (yak wool tent) and in the deafening silence of the mountain blizzard, Tandup hurries his precious herd back to camp. The scurrying sheep and goats are Tandup and his family’s lifeline. In the high Himalayas, the winds are terrifying, the temperature is frigid, the pastures are desolate, and life seems to perpetually hang by a thread. Nevertheless, these seemingly inhospitable mountain ranges are home not only to the enigmatic ghost of the mountains, the snow leopard, but also to the cat’s wild prey species, and also various nomadic and agro-pastoral communities and their livestock.

This photograph provides evidence and an understanding of the remoteness and wildness of Tandup’s home. His herd is seen in the lower center of the image.

Almost all of these people who belong to a unique cultural lineage of agro-pastoralists are also part of nearly 3 million people across the globe that live on less than $2/day and depend on livestock. When you contextualize this with the fact that nearly 1/3rd of the globe’s surface is grazed by livestock, it isn’t surprising that the presence of livestock causes threats to wildlife. Pasture degradation from livestock overgrazing is a major threat to snow leopard wild prey as they try to compete for limited forage with huge livestock herds. Snow leopards are threatened from herder retaliation when valuable livestock are killed by the cats. Conversely, though, the presence of wildlife can also pose threats to livestock through disease transmission. Losing livestock to disease is devastating for herder families. The issue of disease transmission between livestock and wildlife has been little studied yet it is key to both herder livelihoods and wildlife conservation.

In the high Himalayas, livestock, the snow leopard, species of wild sheep and goats such as ibex and blue sheep (the snow leopard’s prey) live in relatively close proximity. As both wild and domestic sheep and goats have similar ancestry and diet, they can easily pass a whole host of diseases between each other. Among these diseases, of particular concern are Gastro-intestinal Nematodes (GINs): basically worms in the stomach that can limit nutrition absorption from food. This in turn reduces milk production in females, and weaker offspring, with less chance of survival.

Unlike many areas in the world’s mountains where herders live, in the high Himalayas herding is done by both men and women.

The glaring reality is that disease transmission from livestock to wild ungulates can reduce the number of wild sheep and goats that snow leopards rely on as their main food source, thus threatening snow leopard survival as well. The drop in wild ungulates and snow leopards would be devastating for the stability of an already fragile mountain landscape which is key in regulating the climate of the region and provides services such as meltwater for irrigation of food crops downstream. Healthy wild ungulate and snow leopard numbers help in maintaining the ecosystem structure and functions of the mountains and without these intricate connections the mountain run the risk of losing their functionality.

In light of this, we work with herders across the high Himalayas to understand what disease- causing GINs are present in domestic herds and in wild ungulates. For both the wild ungulates and livestock we collect their fecal samples and check for GINs using field-based microscopes. In addition, to help herders identify GINs in their herds, we distribute a five-point livestock check list. Herders can check eyes, nose, neck, back and rear end. Tell-tale signs of disease include white lining around the eyes, a runny nose, a bloated neck, a thin and bony back, and diarrhea. These are all signs of an animal carrying and being affected by GINs. Once herders have identified the presence of GINs in livestock, we can help them deworm the animals. We work with local wildlife protection and animal husbandry agencies to get deworming medicine to herders with sick livestock. Keeping livestock herds healthy provides more economic security for families and reduces the risk of disease transmission to wild ungulates. Herders treat only the individual livestock that show worrying signs of disease (from the five-point check list) rather than the whole herd. This is both cost effective and promotes natural immunity in the herds.

Here Tandup, and his partner Rigzin, check their goats using the five-point system.

As the sun is about to set on another frozen winter night, Tandup checks a ewe that hasn’t been healthy for the past few weeks. As he carefully places his hands around her back, he notices she is gaining some fat—finally. Upon closer examination, the ewe’s eye rims are redder now (a sign that she isn’t suffering from anemia) and her neck is visibly more normal. Tandup is happy that the five-point check system helped him recognize his precious animal was unwell and that the treatment has helped her recover.

The nomadic herders that call “the roof of the world” home are just as much symbols of this land as the enigmatic snow leopard and its majestic wild prey. To ensure that herders and wildlife co-exist, we must consider local people as important stakeholders and align their livelihoods with aims of conservation.

Even in the most remote high Himalayas, wildlife are in close proximity to people, as demonstrated in this photograph of blue sheep close to planted pea crops below.

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