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Livestock killings by wild predators such as Snow Leopards (Panthera uncia) and Tibetan Wolf (Canis lupus filchneri) cause unprecedented losses for local herders. In return, wild predators are met with retaliatory killing by the affected communities. These negative human-wildlife interactions end up being harmful to both people and wildlife.

We, at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), have been trying to mitigate against such negative interactions in the high-altitude Himalayas of Ladakh, particularly in the Changthang region (eastern Ladakh). In early 2020, we heard from the wildlife department that a lot of livestock depredation occurred during the lockdown in Sumdoo TR, a village in eastern Ladakh. Sumdoo had two characteristic traits. Relative to other communities, they owned a lot more livestock and rather than being village-based they spent the majority of their time shifting between rangelands across seasons, grazing their livestock. These traits make them particularly important from a conservation perspective. However, we hadn’t thus far interacted with the community. Sumdoo TR is located in the eastern part of Ladakh, ~177km from Leh city, at an altitude of ~4480m. There are about 65 households here, all of them dependent on livestock for a living. Each household has small-bodied livestock (sheep and goat), ranging from 100-800, which is much higher than the average livestock holding per household in most other villages in Ladakh.

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A wary Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia) seems intrigued by something it sees (left) and a Tibetan Wolf (Canis lupus filchneri) seen scampering away (right). Wolves prefer flatter regions than the Snow Leopards. For this reason, wolves usually run their prey down, whilst Snow Leopards are primarily known to be ambush predators. Sumdo village and its surrounding areas are good habitats for both species of wild predators.

Initial engagement with the community

On July 30, 2020, we visited the Sumdoo TR village to try and build a relationship with the community. We were warmly welcomed by Nambadar Skarma Gyalson who promptly expressed his disappointment at how no one comes to hear their problems. He said that the community would be happy to talk to us, and the entire team was welcomed with Khataks (the holy white scarf), as a sign of respect and appreciation.

The team was extremely transparent about the fact that we were there to have a conversation to figure out what human-wildlife interaction related issues might be prevalent in the community and to subsequently see how we can help. We were cautious not to make any false promises before understanding the ground realities. The Nambadar understood and appreciated this.

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Dorjay during an initial conversation with the members of Sumdoo village. It is important that any engagement with the local community is based on transparency and trust.

We went on to meet Mr Tashi Rinchen, a member of the community and their Sarpanch (village headman), and a group of other community members. A long chat with the Nambadar and Sarpanch confirmed that livestock depredation by wild predators in corrals – night time pens for livestock – was indeed a problem, particularly for sheep and goats. These events were often space and time-specific, given the semi-nomadic grazing (i.e. seasonal rotation of pasture) of Sumdoo TR herders. Corrals in winter and spring pastures seemed particularly vulnerable to depredation by Snow Leopards. These pastures were in and around Sumdoo TR, which is a good Snow Leopard habitat. As we were clear about the fact that doing something to all corrals wouldn’t be feasible, the Nambadar along with the other community members agreed that the corrals most at risk would be prioritised.

We were clear again about the fact that, for any action to occur, it would have to happen as a partnership between the community and NCF. The Nambadar and the community were happy for it to be a collaborative process and suggested they will do the building, whilst we would provide the raw materials.

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Dorjay inspects the original corrals for their make and dimensions. These initial conversations were key for the team to understand the important elements that were needed to make locally appropriate corrals.

Subsequently, the team visited the pastures to get a better understanding of corrals most at risk. It was immediately clear that the corrals in Sumdoo TR’s winter/spring pastures had certain unique aspects:

  • They were nearly 3-4 times bigger than the corrals NCF had previously reinforced.
  •  The area of spread of pasture was much greater than any previous village NCF had worked in.
  • The Sumdoo TR region had very few stones, a resource that is crucial for making the walls of predator-proof corrals.
  • As these herders bred Changra goats, from which Pashmina wool is obtained, it was important that the structures allowed for enough wind to circulate through the corral. This is what facilitated Pashmina wool growth.
  • As this region receives severe snowfall in the winter, it was critical that the corral structure deterred snow from entering and collecting in the corral.

There were seven corrals in total in particularly risk-prone areas. We realised that we needed to be innovative to build predator-proof corrals here. Herders thus far had kept livestock in open pens at night. It was important that local knowledge informed not only which corrals were most at risk, but also how to design them. The team engaged in several discussions with the herders, particularly Mr Gyatso, a herder who was also a mason by trade, who had relevant structural and design inputs.

Ideating corral designs

We went back to Sumdoo TR at the end of August to further discuss potential designs for predator-proof corrals. While NCF has engaged in the predator proofing of corrals with support of various government departments including Wildlife Protection, Sheep Husbandry, and several community-based organisations, it was evident that local factors needed to be considered to make effective structures in Sumdoo TR. To give direction to the discussions, we designed three potential layouts.

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Community members building the perimeters of the new corral. Stones and dung are key components of the periphery of these structures.

One was based on the previous corrals that we had made in Ladakh, another was a slightly larger design that our colleagues had built in Mongolia (which we thought might be applicable here given the larger livestock numbers), and the last was a design suggested by the locals of Sumdoo; albeit one that hasn’t been made before. After much discussion, we collectively came to a decision that the new design would be best suited for the purpose. The new design, rather than being circular as most traditional corrals are, was more tent/greenhouse-like in its shape. It would also be airy enough to facilitate the wool growth of Changra goats and required minimum stone supply.

At the back of the discussion, an agreement was signed and we agreed to return on September 20 to check on the foundation of the corral and conduct updated measurement for the fabricated enclosing materials.

Corral building: initial phase

On September 20, 2020, we went back to Sumdoo TR for the fourth time, and we brought along with us 22 cement bags and seven doors, as promised. Unfortunately, only two of the seven herders had started building corrals by then. This was because the agricultural harvest season was going on and their livestock were shifting from their summer pastures (away from Sumdoo) to their autumn/winter pastures. We handed the material over to the Nambadar and reiterated to the herders that the foundation needed to be erected as priority. The herders assured us that this would be done by October 10.

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Community members along with Dorjay help erect a corral frame. These were made by skilled workers in Leh.

The team returned to Sumdoo on October 6, on receiving a call from the Nambadar saying the herders had completed most of the work. Of the seven corrals, all were new designs. The team spent four days at the village and the villagers even requested the team to stay back for their autumn festival (horse racing); a three-day event that was reduced to one due to the pandemic. This was a great opportunity for us to integrate further with the people of Sumdoo TR, beyond just the herders and Nambadar. Before returning to Leh, we took the measurements of all the corrals to inform the size of the mesh and pipes required to complete the design.

Corral building: final phase

On November 13, 2020, we returned to provide the covering mesh and pipes to enclose the tops of the corrals. However, we realised some of the mesh weren’t of the appropriate size, requiring the team to return to Leh to alter them. The team visited the workshop to find out that there had been some miscalculation on the blacksmith’s end. Even though we were tight on budget and time, the team requested the workshop to alter the material within a week’s time. We tried to convey this to the Nambadar in Sumdoo TR, but the phone network was down at the time and we had to drive all the way down to convey the message.

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A livestock herd leaves for the daily grazing, through the door of a newly built corral (left). A livestock herd returns to the corral for the night (right). Pictured here are mostly the Changra goats that yield Pashmina wool.

We returned on November 23, 2020 to distribute the remaining material, and spent a day with the herders ensuring the placement of the material. When we came back after a month, it was heartening to see that all the corrals were functioning and being used by the herders.

We visited Sumdoo TR again in March 2021 to check on the corrals. The herders said they had faced no livestock losses during the winter. The entire team at NCF felt so proud, more so when the villagers expressed their delight in our efforts. Conservation isn’t really about winning or losing, it is about working together. The community of Sumdoo TR is a shining example of this!