Man vs wild: In Himachal, a community sets up a reserve to boost wildlife

A quiet cutthroat competition plays out between the tame and the wild in the meadows of Spiti. Lush green expanses stretch endlessly, up towards the snowline and draped around the mountain slopes from one valley to the next. Livestock displace blue sheep and Himalayan ibex from these pastures. The numerical strength of domestic animals is also their weakness: They fall prey to snow leopards. While compensation covers some of the losses, prevention is any day better than the cure. One way to deflect the wild cats' attention from livestock is to increase the number of wild prey. Since they are the underdogs in the competition, they need protection from domestic animals. They need exclusive grazing areas.

Kibber, a settlement at 4,200 metres elevation in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, has a 1,400-square kilometre-large wildlife sanctuary on its doorstep. Since people have customary grazing rights in the sanctuary, protection has little value on the ground for blue sheep, the primary prey of snow leopards, and Himalayan ibex. In the mid-1990s, wildlife biologists counted about a hundred blue sheep and up to 40 Himalayan ibex here.

Besides the resident livestock, thousands of sheep and goats arrive with nomadic shepherds to partake of the summer bounty. So far, they have nibbled on the edges of Spiti, and it was a matter of time before the shepherds leased the pasture lands of Kibber. Wildlife biologists say nomadic stock graze pastures intensively and unpalatable grasses take root, making the area unattractive to all other herbivores.

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A typical protected area in the Indian plains is a forested island surrounded by vast acreage of cultivation. AFP

In 1995, Charudutt Mishra of Nature Conservation Foundation found that every family in Kibber lost an annual average loss of 12 percent of its livestock holdings or Rs 4,000 annually to snow leopards. The state offers monetary compensation for livestock killed by carnivores. Making good residents’ loss can buy goodwill, but it cannot reduce losses. Mishra and his colleagues at the foundation thought of setting aside reserves in collaboration with the villagers.

A typical protected area in the Indian plains is a forested island surrounded by vast acreage of cultivation. In Spiti, enclaves of agriculture and livestock are embedded within wild areas, and wildlife sanctuaries are no different from rangelands.

“You can identify a 1,000 square kilometre national park in this landscape,” says Yash Veer Bhatnagar, a senior scientist with Nature Conservation Foundation, “but it may include some good areas and some not-so-great areas. But beyond the next valley may be an excellent spot. If you bring that into the park, you increase the size of the park by another 1,000 square kilometres. But you’ve also included many more villages and their lands.” Under Indian law, livestock can't be grazed within such areas. So the protected area model isn’t the best one for snow leopard range in India, concluded the scientists.

The community had to agree to setting aside a reserve and promise not to graze there. This is the ecosystem approach to conservation, says Bhatnagar. “We are asking for more wildlife, or status quo at least, with people continuing to live the way they were with some practices being changed.”
Despite the sound logic, it’s hard to imagine villagers agreeing to give up 500 hectares, about 6 percent of their grazing lands. But, agree they did for a lease of Rs 20,000 per year in 2001.

Besides reducing their livestock losses, the Kibber residents had another reason to agree to the proposal. They intuitively understood the dangers of overstocking.
However, not everyone was happy with the deal. Spitians practice primogeniture, the eldest son inherits all his father’s lands. The families of the landless, whose main income came from livestock, felt that setting aside good grazing lands deprived them of forage for their animals.

At around the same time, the market price for green peas grown in these high altitudes went through the roof. In 2002, farmers earned as much as Rs 40 per kilogramme. The off-season tasty peas are sought after in the gourmet markets of Delhi and Chandigarh. In 2009, it was a Rs 1.8 crore economy that has grown enormously since.

More and more families gave up cultivating barley and black peas, their traditional staples, and switched to this new cash crop. Since the growing season is an intense three to four months, every able-bodied person worked the land. Families couldn’t afford to keep high numbers of animals because they didn’t have the manpower to look after them.
Blue sheep and ibex were in clover, enjoying exclusive grazing land as well as the reduced competition outside. Many more blue sheep ewes and nanny ibex had lambs and kids, and many more young survived. By 2003, within two years of setting up the reserve, blue sheep numbers tripled. The community agreed to set aside 1,500 more hectares in the following year.

Nature Conservation Foundation hired two reserve guards from the community to patrol the reserve. When donkeys, cows, and smaller stock like sheep and goats spread out while grazing, it's tough for the herders to keep an eye on every animal. While the guards ensure no domestic animal ventures into the reserve, they can't prevent wild herbivores from entering fields.

Farmers began to complain of crop damage by blue sheep. “The blue sheep eat green peas mostly; they don’t eat barley much,” complains the elderly Tashi Tendup. “But if I plant barley, I don’t make enough money.” In early spring, there’s hardly any forage in the pastures. “When the blue sheep see a concentration of pea sprouts, they raid,” says Bhatnagar. “The conflict is not just because of the slight increase in herbivore numbers, but because there’s a resource now where there was none before.”

“Everyone gets upset when blue sheep eat green peas, because they are a cash crop,” observes Tanzin Thinley, a villager. “So some people built rock walls around their fields. But then pikas [small, rabbit-like mammals] began sheltering in the walls, emerging to browse at their leisure. At least blue sheep leave something – pikas leave nothing.”
Nonetheless, the foundation hired crop guards to chase blue sheep away from agricultural fields. These men were chosen from among farmers who have lands on the periphery, where damage was the highest. Since they had their own crops at stake, they were effective in reducing the degree of crop damage.

In the meantime, livestock loss also reduced dramatically, just as the foundation promised. Snow leopard scats contained the fur of more wild prey than domestic.
In 2008, landless people in Kibber received 200 hectares of land under a government scheme called nautod. Since they could also grow green peas, their opposition to the community reserve evaporated. By this time, the number of resident livestock plummeted by two-thirds, while blue sheep numbers soared to 500.

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The organisation has thus far kept its finger on the pulse of this dynamic system, anticipating changes and swinging them in the best interests of people and wildlife. AFP

In 2011, the organization began paying Rs 75,000 a year for the reserve. Today, across western Himalayas, Nature Conservation Foundation leases 45,000 hectares (1,11,000 acres) of reserves in eight villages at a cost of Rs 5,75,000 every year.

The researchers relaxed the grazing rules in these reserves. Since local livestock were low in number, the foundation allowed them to graze in the reserve. However, it was closed to the large flocks of nomadic shepherds. But a new challenge rose: as more and more fields were turned over to green pea cultivation, farmers needed more organic fertilizer. Farmers coveted the rich black droppings of the very same animals, the nomadic livestock, which were seen as the scourge of high altitude meadows. Vermi-composting in the cold desert was written off as an insurmountable challenge.

With migrant labour coming from Bihar and Jharkhand, residents could own many more animals. In addition, two years ago, enterprising traders brought dry fodder from Rajasthan and Haryana. There was now no reason for residents to limit their animal holdings. This would be disastrous for the fragile rangelands.
Two developments this past autumn may change the course of how people farm in the high desert. A trader has set up shop selling organic vermi-composted manure in 40 kilogram bags. At the same time, Nono Sonam Angdui, the titular king of Spiti, an enthusiastic and innovative gardener, succeeded in vermi-composting. If farmers composted and bought commercially available manure, there was no need to keep livestock.

Even as researchers struggled to reduce the burden of livestock on the landscape, snow leopards took more and more domestic animals. With more prey, the predators had also increased in number. More predators ate more animals, and it was inevitable that some would be livestock. The foundation anticipated this and had set up an insurance scheme to compensate villagers' losses.

“Sure, the snow leopards trouble us,” Dorje 'Changaiz' Chhering, one of the village elders and a member of Kibber's reserve committee, says, “but protecting animal life is also important. When there are many kinds of wildlife, it brings pride to the village.”

The organisation has thus far kept its finger on the pulse of this dynamic system, anticipating changes and swinging them in the best interests of people and wildlife.
Although the reserve failed to turn snow leopards off livestock, it triumphed in negotiating space for wild animals. There are many more blue sheep and snow leopards in the same area, with minimum inconvenience to people. That is the ultimate goal of any conservation program.


Published Date: May 07, 2016 08:15 am | Updated Date: May 06, 2016 10:49 pm


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