When natural prey populations decrease across mountain landscapes, wild carnivores may turn to domestic livestock as a food source, resulting in livestock depredation and livelihood losses for rural families. This is often the case in remote mountain villages of Ladakh, India where humans have settled in the prime habitat of multiple carnivore species including the iconic snow leopard.The Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust (SLC-IT), a local grass-roots NGO and affiliate organization of Panthera, has had remarkable success in changing human attitudes and stemming retribution against snow leopards through a mix of conservation education, improving economic livelihoods, and reducing losses of livestock by building predator-proof corrals.
Across Ladakh it is well-known that depredation by snow leopards can result in mass slaughter of livestock; however, they are not the only culprit! Livestock depredation by Tibetan wolves, Himalayan brown bears, red foxes and wild dogs has also been recorded. In recent years the feral dog population has become an even bigger problem as they lack the inherent fear of people that dissuades all but the hungriest of predators. A secondary consequence to livestock depredation is animosity toward wild carnivores and in some cases retaliatory killing. This makes it important to mitigate against such human-wildlife conflict to conserve both the carnivores and the traditional Ladakhi way of life.
The SLC-IT is investing in several methods to reduce human-wildlife conflict across Ladakh, including the construction of predator-proof corrals to prevent livestock depredation. With the support of donations from other Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) and individual donors, SLC-IT has constructed over 160 corrals in Ladakh since 2000. Panthera’s partnership with SLC-IT is allowing the expansion of these successful programs to additional sites in Ladakh and potentially across the Indian Himalaya. During my time in Ladakh, I have been able to follow the journey of these corrals from conception to construction.
On my first day out in the field, way back in May, I joined SLC-IT members including Director Dr. Tsewang Namgail and Jigmet Dadul, Conservation and Livelihoods Program Manager, on their visit to two remote villages in the Zanskar Valley. This is their first visit to these villages, so everyone engaged in very enthusiastic discussion with Tsewang and Jigmet, while I looked on in bemusement and quietly sipped my butter tea. These initial meetings aim to identify the resources available in the surrounding area along with the issues faced (in this case livestock depredation by snow leopards, foxes and bears) and then discuss how SLC-IT can best help. Here the dream of these villagers (in addition to homestay and handicraft training) was to construct a corral in the pasture where goats can be penned at night. Currently, as is commonplace across Ladakh, every day two villagers are required to walk the goat herd to the pasture where they remain as the goats’ graze, until evening when they return to the village, goats in tow.
Once the aims have been identified, we prioritize the construction projects and allocate funds and materials accordingly. Each year Jigmet is responsible for at least ten new corrals, and this year I joined him to get my hands dirty and make a difference. Along with a group of volunteers who came all the way from Japan, Jigmet and I went to a beautiful village in the Sham Valley to help villagers construct one livestock corral. The corrals are constructed from local materials where possible: natural stone and either mud or cement for the walls, and poplar trunks to support the mesh wire roof.
The roof of the corral is a key element to protect against snow leopards as they can jump in, and out, of corrals. Not only are they agile, but snow leopards have been known to fit through small gaps in the wire mesh if it is not constructed properly - if their head fits through, their body will follow! I therefore took it upon myself to make sure every link in the mesh was well-joined and tightened. Each day we worked as a team with Jigmet and the corral owner (and their expert masonry skills) to build the corral from the ground up.
Once the corral was constructed, Jigmet took measurements and a GPS location to maintain up-to-date records. Then we celebrated with a group photo and a cup of well-deserved milk chai (tea). We had some free time the following day to enjoy the sights of the village and the surrounding valley. Sadly, we didn’t spot a snow leopard, but in the winter, they’ll be more visible around the village. Fortunately, this village now has one more predator-proof corral to protect livestock if predators come looking for an easy meal. Across Ladakh there are many more corrals that require improvement and villagers hoping for new construction, so hopefully SLC-IT/Panthera will be continuing with this great work for years to come.