Ladakh is spread across the cold desert region of the Indian Himalaya. It is sparsely populated with agro-pastoral and nomadic herding communities inhabiting the valleys and plateaus. The landscape harbours a few unique species of wild flora and fauna like the Bharal, Ibex, Argali, Urial, Kiang, Himalayan Wolf and Snow Leopard, among others. Humans and animals have shared this rugged landscape since time immemorial. The herding community interacts with wild animals almost on a day-to-day basis. Predators like the snow leopard and wolf are often on the prowl to get away with an easy prey like these livestock that graze in the pastures.
A traditional solution to safeguard livelihoods
As livestock herding is the main source of livelihood for the herding community of Ladakh, predation of their livestock by wild predators causes economic loss and emotional stress for the herders and their families. For the wild predators, these livestock are easier to prey upon. The herding community cannot afford to lose their livestock regularly, as it impacts their life and livelihoods. The livestock provides livelihood and sustenance in the form of dairy products, meat, wool, pashmina (cashmere) and trade of animals. Traditionally, to reduce the losses, local communities devised survival strategies including the building of wolf traps, locally called Shangdongs, to reduce the population of carnivores.
Shangdongs are conical stone structures, built a few feet from beneath the ground to a couple of feet above the ground. A live bait usually a sheep or a goat, kept in the Shangdong, lures the wolf inside it. Once inside, the protruding, upward-slant walls prohibit the wolf from getting out and trapping it. Once trapped, it was then disposed off. Interestingly, the villagers opine that it is the greed of the wolf due to which it gets trapped and then killed.
Wildlife conservation with a holistic approach
Field surveys by our team across Ladakh pointed out to the fact that Shangdongs are spread across ladakh; but many of these structures are inactive now, not being used by the communities. We started working with the village of Chushul to find out ways to address the the threat of these traps for the carnivores. Through extensive consultation with the local communities, local religious leaders and youth group, it was decided to convert the local shandong into a stupa. A stupa is a religious structure, which contains sacred relics associated with the Buddhism.
The dismantling of the Shangdong is done by removing a few stones from the structure, which creates a doorway for any trapped animal to escape, thus preserving the traditional architectural structure. The structure is maintained to respect and celebrate the tradition and culture of the communities and is modified into a Stupa to integrate Buddhist principles of compassion towards all living beings. Thus, this is an effort to strengthen the traditional link between culture, livelihoods and conservation.
Communities at the forefront of the cause
We have been working with the villagers in avenues like the livestock insurance scheme, predator proofing of corrals and creating grazing-free reserves, among others. All these efforts are aimed at offsetting losses to the communities due to negative wildlife interactions and thus help develop a positive attitude towards wildlife. The Shangdong to Stupa conversion initiative aims to preserve the livelihoods of the community
The dialogue for conversion of a Shandong to a Stupa starts with consultations with the goba or village headman, village youth groups, women’s alliance, herding community representatives and government officials. Our previous initiatives in Chushul in 2018 and in Gya-Miru in 2019 were spearheaded by enthusiastic village youth associations that reached out to villagers, to religious leaders, to the Government officials and helped implement the idea. The religious leaders felt that this initiative will help undo the wrongdoings of the past and help move towards coexistence by empathizing with all the creatures that share the space with us. The Chushul community dismantled four Shangdongs and the Gya-Miru community dismantled two Shangdongs to construct and consecrate one Stupa each for a future of compassion and coexistence.
The way forward
With two villages showing the way, we want to help spread the message across Ladakh and help communities willing to replicate the idea with resources, time, expertise and collaborations.
In the coming years, we strive to bring more communities under the SLFP program and thus aim for a few more Shangdong to Stupa conversions. Our team has identified nearly eighty shangdongs in Ladakh till now and will be surveying to find out more such structures.
How can you help?
If you like our idea and would love to see the herding communities of Ladakh work towards coexisting with wolves and other predators, kindly help us with your generous donations. Even the smallest of charity can make a difference!
Kindly click here to donate.