This story was first published on EcoLogic, a blog by Nature Conservation Foundation India
How has Spiti influenced me? This is a very hard question to answer. It is akin to trying to describe my mother’s influence on me. Or that of my son. When something is a part of you, it is hard to disentangle the skeins of influence that separate it from you. And, in truth, the details become unimportant. Let’s just say that Spiti has been a part of me for a very long time. Let me, instead, tell you a small story.
This is the story of Tenzin, who lived in the village of Kibber. He was a fascinating person. Of stocky build, his slightly wrinkled and sun-burnt face radiated native wisdom, life’s hardships in the high mountains, and its rich experiences, all at the same time. Amongst Tenzin’s many skills, he was a seasoned trader in horses. With the advent of spring each year, he would go around Spiti’s villages looking for specimens of the prized local Chhumurti breed of horses. After gathering his herd, Tenzin would wait patiently for the snow to melt and for the Parang La (la is the word for mountain pass in Spitian) to become crossable.
North of Kibber, it would take at least two days to cross over this pass located at 5600 m, and after a somewhat difficult descent over a glacier and its crevasses, Tenzin and his horses would be trotting along the headwaters of the Pare Chhu. Traveling through the day, and guarding the horses from snow leopards and wolves at night in makeshift camps.
Continuing downstream, they would head towards settlements such as Korzok and Chumur on the western edge of the Changtang Plateau—the high altitude northern plains of Tibet— where Tenzin would barter the horses for a variety goods, such as carpets, saddles, Chinese made jackets, and some cash before returning home. This annual journey of about 250 km would typically be extended over several weeks of travel, sleepless nights, reunions, merry making, negotiation, and clinching deals with residents of the Changtang.
During his journeys, Tenzin and his herd would cross paths with several herds of kiang, an impressive wild equine that is extinct in Spiti Valley, but thrives in parts of the Changtang. The kiang, it was earlier incorrectly believed, was the stock from which the Chhumurti horse arose. Chhumurti is a hardy breed, largely used as a pack animal, and was much in demand in the Changtang. With his skills with horses, a rare flare for adventure and yet a remarkably calm demeanor, Tenzin was in the perfect business. He wasn’t a bad negotiator either. I should know, considering the ease with which he once made me pay handsomely for a Chinese-made jacket after first convincing me why I needed it so badly!
However, times change. Like the kiang in Spiti Valley, the trade with Changtang is nearly extinct today, and motorcycles and off-roaders have largely replaced the horses. Tenzin too, mellowed by age and life’s realities, shifted trade to become a contractor of local civil works.
I first met Tenzin 20 years ago. I was then a young, somewhat idealistic, and impressionable researcher who had found his way to Spiti Valley in search of a place to conduct field research. It was my first summer of field work in Spiti, and I had just been through a confusing experience.
I had spent some time with friends at the forest department in Kaza, helping care for a litter of young wolf pups that had been ‘rescued’. These were traumatized little creatures when we first saw them, tied tightly together with a thick nylon cord and nearly suffocating in the small cardboard box they had been stuffed into. They would have been killed. As I was learning, for a livestock-based people, any chance to eliminate the wolf would not be taken lightly. No mercy was to be shown, even to pups.
There was a sense of triumph at having been the part of an effort that had rescued these helpless creatures from certain death. They were eventually sent to a provincial zoo. There was sadness at the thought that they would lead the rest of their lives in cages. Also because one of them died under our care – the shock of witnessing human brutality had perhaps been too much for her to cope with. And there was this strong, unexplained sense of frustration.
I had started living in Kibber a few weeks earlier. I came back to the village from Kaza, and coincidentally, so did Tenzin, from the Changtang. I was fascinated the moment I met him. On our first meeting itself, I had decided to follow in his footsteps and trek to Korzok and back. It was a memorable journey, but it would happen only later in the year.
For the moment, however, my confusion had grown. I had also learnt of an adult snow leopard that had been killed in Kibber, just a couple of years earlier. My long-held idea of a benign people, coexisting in harmony with nature, was crumbling before my eyes.
I remember trying to gently discuss such persecution of wildlife with the villagers, and with Tenzin. He was wise, but at one point in our discussion, I thought I finally had him cornered. I asked him how could they kill these animals, especially since they were practicing Buddhism that teaches reverence for all forms of life?
Tenzin’s answer to my question was both simple and honest. He agreed that Buddhism taught compassion towards all living beings, and he agreed that these animals had a right to live. But what he said next was very humbling, and in retrospect, it was perhaps one of my first lasting lessons in the real world of conservation.
He said that he and his people, in trying to make a living and caring for their children, did not have the ability to conserve snow leopards and wolves.
Those were powerful words. Today, I am convinced that the problem is not so much with the willingness, but rather the ability of local communities to help conserve wildlife, as my friend Tenzin had put across so simply and eloquently 20 years ago. Over the years, I had countless other conversations with Tenzin that left me similarly enriched, often humbled. Sadly, Tenzin suddenly passed away a few years back, much before his time.
As I look back, if there’s one important way in which I have made efforts to contribute to conservation, it is by trying to strengthen the ability of households and communities like Tenzin’s to conserve. Did Tenzin set me off on this path? Or was it Spiti? Or my other wonderful Spitian friends from whom I learnt much? It is hard to decide. But then, when something is a part of you, these distinctions become unimportant.