Ladakh has changed
The present picture of Ladakh is a very different one from what the scenario was during my childhood. People used to follow a sustainable way of life, which had components of local culture and practices ingrained in it. We had a traditional mud house in the lower slopes of our village in Rumtse, near a small stream, which is a tributary of the Indus. Rumtse lies on the Leh-Manali highway, at a distance of 79 kilometers from Leh.
In the past, herders in Ladakh relied on livestock rearing and agriculture to make a living. Cash crops like green peas were yet to replace barley. Most of us had a minimalist lifestyle, like sleeping inside our mud houses with gunny sacks spread on the floor to protect ourselves from the cold ground. Livestock was a means of livelihood and sustenance in the form of dairy products, meat, wool, pashmina (cashmere), and trade of animals.
However, predators like the wolf and snow leopard share this landscape with the people who live here. These predators find the people’s livestock an easy catch to prey upon. This causes economic loss to the herders and poses a threat to their livelihoods. People claim that wolves are responsible for more than half of the livestock predation. The other carnivores responsible for livestock depredation in this landscape are snow leopards and eurasian lynx. As a survival strategy, the community built shangdongs, or wolf traps, to capture wolves and eventually dispose of them.
A shangdong is a conical stone structure where live bait (such as a sheep or goat) is kept to lure a wolf inside. As the wolf jumps inside the shangdong to capture the bait, the protruding, upward-slanted walls of the trap prohibit the wolf from escaping. Villagers view this as a symbol of the wolf’s greed causing its capture. I remember when I was a child I witnessed one such act in our village. I saw a big wolf with a blackish coat trapped inside a shangdong, and was in the crowd that witnessed the wolf being stoned to an eternal rest.
Since then, life has changed a lot. Ladakh has grown into an economically stable part of India. Apart from the traditional livestock rearing and agricultural-dependent livelihood option, people have diversified into tourism, government service, army, private jobs in schools, non-governmental organizations, and entrepreneurship.
The lifestyles have shifted from a traditional one to a resource-dependent one, and so have the people and their perspectives. Our family moved from a mud house to a concrete one near the main road in the village, which is the Leh-Manali highway. I’ve been working in issues related to community-based wildlife conservation for quite a while now and have come to realize the significance of wildlife, such as the snow leopard, wolf, lynx, ibex, bharal, urial, argali, and Tibetan gazelle. I’ve learned that most of these species are unique to Ladakh and aren’t found anywhere else in India.
The importance of conservation
I started working in the field of wildlife conservation twenty years ago and have since realized the importance of conservation. After working with a couple of organizations, I received an opportunity to work with the Nature Conservation Foundation, based in Mysore. I now have a full-time field duty where I interact with the communities here in Ladakh. My aim is to understand the communities’ challenges with wildlife, and to raise awareness about nature conservation.
Over the years, I’ve been working on initiatives to reduce negative interactions between humans and wildlife. I’ve helped initiate community-driven programs like the livestock insurance scheme for compensating losses due to depredation; predator-proofing of livestock corrals; creating grazing-free reserves on community-owned land to help revive the native flora; and providing nature education for school children. Many of these programs were running successfully in Spiti, which has a trans-Himalayan landscape similar to Ladakh. Therefore, the scientists working on these initiatives thought of introducing them here in Ladakh.
An innovative solution to tackle conflict
Despite all of the conservation programs already in place, I always felt the need to address shangdongs that were present in the landscape. A few years back, some researchers and scientists that I worked with came up with the idea to integrate traditional religious practices into wildlife conservation. They suggested building stupas near shangdongs. Stupas are religious structures that contain sacred relics associated with Buddhism.
This ideation was done in consultation with religious leaders and local government administration, along with village youth groups, women’s alliances, and herders. Since Ladakh has moved toward modernization, most shangdongs in this landscape have become inactive, but unfortunately, some remain functional. As the discussions progressed, a few communities showed interest in the idea of building stupas and were ready to take on this innovative solution to tackle human-wildlife conflict.
The first construction of a stupa near a shangdong was initiated in the Chushul village of Ladakh in 2018. Here, we dismantled four shangdongs and constructed one stupa. A shangdong is dismantled by removing just a few stones from the structure, which creates an escape route for any trapped animals. In doing this, the original architectural structure is preserved, honoring the tradition of the communities. Building a stupa near the dismantled shangdong integrates Buddhist principles of compassion toward all living beings. The message is to strengthen the traditional link between culture, livelihood, and conservation.
A religious ceremony follows this construction, wherein the stupa is consecrated by the Rinpoche (an honorific title used for highly respected lamas or teachers). We carried out the second initiative near my village in Rumtse during 2019. Here, the community helped dismantle two shangdongs and construct a stupa.
The stupa in Rumtse was built on the same shangdong where I witnessed the loss of a wolf during my childhood. The guilt that I carried throughout the years is slowly healing as I realize it’s important to make people aware of wildlife and to use innovation when dealing with human-wildlife conflict. Working in conservation gives me a chance to interact with a wide variety of people and has led me take a holistic approach in whatever I do. I feel blessed to be part of such an initiative, and I want to take the message to other parts of the landscape. Our team has surveyed shangdongs and found over eighty of them in Ladakh so far. The initiative certainly provides us with a ray of hope that wolves and herders—thus wildlife and people—can coexist harmoniously in a shared landscape.
Thank you to the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council in Leh and the communities from Gya-Miru and Chushul for making this Shangdong to Stupa initiative possible. And thank you to Karma Sonam and the team at NCF India for being advocates of this program throughout Ladakh.