The Shen Story

How a women-led handicraft enterprise in Spiti is helping in the conservation of the elusive Snow Leopard.

Story by Radhika Timbadia, NCF India. Originally published in NATURE IN FOCUS.

Sonam wakes up early in the morning. It is still dark outside as she emerges from the warm, heavy blankets and rekindles the fire in the bukhari (a traditional fire place in the house). She feeds the dzomo (female yak-cow hybrid) and her calf — both sharing her home due to the freezing January cold — stalks left over from the harvest. Outside, she watches the sun rise over the stark landscape, casting a golden hue on the peaks, sunlight slowly making its way down to the village rooftops.

A traditional family home in Kibber, Spiti. Photo by Munmun Dhalaria.

There are no trees to break the white monotony: the entire village of 70 houses is sparkling white and frozen solid. At 4,200m, Kibber in the Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh, is one of the highest villages in the world, and has been home to the Sino-Tibetan-speaking agro-pastoral communities and their livestock for several millennia.

Animal husbandry is key to local livelihoods in this part of India. Photo by Munmun Dhalaria.

After the dzomo has been fed, Sonam leaves to fill two cans with water for her home. There is no running water in Kibber through the year, and in winter, she has to walk even further to the only spring that isn’t frozen over. By the time she gets back, her youngest child, barely a year old, is awake and crying for his mother. She gently lifts him up and ties him to her back with her shawl, and as the comforting contact quietens him, she prepares the first cups of barley soup and tea. She would normally head to the gompa (monastery) after that; the people in Spiti are predominantly Buddhist, and Sonam would spend the day learning how to read the religious texts or take part in the prayers that take place throughout winter.

Today, however, she will do neither. She is on her way to her neighbour’s house to learn how to crochet. She is excited to sit around the bukhari, spend the day drinking endless cups of tea and learning something new.

Gossiping and laughter are very much part of the SHEN experience! Photo: Radhika Timbadia.

Sonam is one of the founders of the Ama Chokspa self-help group that makes and sells handicrafts to supplement income. The group operates under the umbrella of ‘SHEN’, a conservation enterprise that was initiated by Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) in 2013. SHEN — which means Snow Leopard in Spitian (a dialect of Tibetan) — is a pilot project that aims at empowering the women of Kibber and Chicham villages.

The mountain ridges above Kibber and Chicham are home to the elusive snow leopard. Photo by NCF India / Snow Leopard Trust.

To read more about Sonam and the other extraordinary women of Spiti and their quest to protect snow leopards, please head over to Nature in Focus.

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