From shandong to stupa: the story of conservation of wolves in Ladakh

Shandongs, traditional trapping pits, near herder camps were neutralised by removing a few stones to let the trapped wolves escape, and building a stupa near it. Photo by Karma Sonam.

Shandongs, traditional trapping pits, near herder camps were neutralised by removing a few stones to let the trapped wolves escape, and building a stupa near it. Photo by Karma Sonam.

  • A conservation initiative to protect wolves in Ladakh works with communities that are often compelled to kill wolves to protect their livestock.
  • When predators like wolves prey on their livestock, communities often retaliate through shandongs which are traditional trapping pits with inverted funnel-shaped stone walls, usually built near villages or herder camps.
  • Communities neutralised shandongs by removing a few stones from the structure which created a passage for the wolves to escape.

About four decades ago, one winter morning, a 10-12-year-old boy was accompanying his father on horseback on the rugged terrains of Ladakh. They had set off from their hamlet Rumste, part of the larger Gya village, around 75-80 km from Leh town. Their journey to collect manure from dogpas (nomadic herders in Ladakh), which they would later use in their fields, however, was cut short when they heard a commotion. They discovered many people had gathered near a shandong (traditional wolf traps in Ladakh) where a shanku (Ladakhi name for wolf) had been trapped. As per the local custom, the wolf was being stoned to death by the village residents. The boy, along with his father, also joined others in stoning the predator, which was soon crushed under the barrage of rocks thrown at it.

That boy today is 57-year-old Karma Sonam, who has played a major role in the conservation of Tibetan wolves in Ladakh through his work as a field manager with the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). Findings from a conservation initiative for wolves in Ladakh, in collaboration with the local communities, carried out by NCF and the Snow Leopard Trust, have been documented in the recently published paper  A Community Based Conservation Initiative for Wolves in the Ladakh Trans-Himalaya India.

Speaking on how the study was conceptualised, Munib Khanyari, a conservation scientist with NCF and one of the authors of the paper said, “Across the Indian Trans-Himalayas, human-wildlife interactions are continually playing out as humans live in proximity to wildlife. Often with predators like snow leopards and wolves, there are negative interactions as these predators kill people’s livestock – valuable livestock – and in return, people kill these predators in order to protect their livestock. We knew from previous studies that people’s attitudes and perceptions in regions of Trans-Himalayan India are particularly negative towards wolves compared to other predators like snow leopards. We also knew from our travels in the region, there are several traditional ways of persecuting wolves driven by the urge to protect one’s livestock. Lastly, often in the region, studies overlook the wolves with the limelight often taken by the more charismatic snow leopard. Given this background, we conceptualised this study.”

Conversion of shandongs to stupas

In India, the Trans-Himalayan region lies mostly 3500 m above sea level. The Union Territory of Ladakh is India’s largest Trans-Himalayan cold desert region. As the altitude, rugged terrain and harsh climate make agriculture difficult, grazing livestock is one of the primary occupations for the nomadic and semi-nomadic communities inhabiting the region. When predators like wolves prey on their livestock, village residents often retaliate through shandongs.

Shandongs are relatively large, widely used traditional trapping pits with inverted funnel-shaped stone walls, usually built near villages or herder camps. Typically, a live domestic animal is placed in the pit to attract the wolves. The local communities generally take turns placing their own sheep and goats inside the pit. Once the wolf jumps into the pit, the funnel-shaped walls prevent it from escaping and trapped wolves are generally stoned to death.

In the study, 94 shandongs were listed in 58 of the 64 surveyed villages in the eastern part of Ladakh, studied between June 2019 and March 2020. Speaking about the fieldwork, Khanyari told Mongabay-India, “We divided Ladakh into six survey blocks – Changthang, Rong, Sham, Nubra, Kargil and Zanskar. Due to COVID-19 limitation, eventually, we chose to only survey three blocks – Rong, Sham and Changthang, which, from our knowledge, were the areas with lots of human-wolves interactions and these were also logistically possible for us to visit.”

In the study, 37 shandongs were reported to have been used within the past decade (2010-2020), of which 15 are currently active. As many as 34 shandongs were not used in the last decade and were in poor condition. For the remaining 23, it couldn’t be ascertained when they were last used.

The study also says that there is little evidence of other methods used to kill the wolves. Some of the last documented cases of wolves being killed in their dens are nearly two decades old.

A Tibetan wolf. Photo by Rigzen Dorjay.
A Tibetan wolf. Photo by Rigzen Dorjay.

The success of the initiative lies in convincing the communities to stop killing wolves based on principles of PARTNERS (Presence, Aptness, Respect, Transparency, Negotiation, Empathy, Responsiveness and Strategic Support).

Elaborating on this, Sonam, who is also the lead author of the paper said in a press release, “We built long term relationships with the local communities with multiple visits and interactions (following the principles of Presence, Respect, Transparency and Empathy) before the actual conservation interventions were initiated. Amongst other learning, this helped us understand that the intention behind killing wolves was purely to protect their livestock (Respect, Empathy). We did not pursue any wish to penalise community members involved in hunting wolves, nor did we seek to destroy the shandong which represents an important part of the cultural heritage in Ladakh (Aptness, Respect, Transparency).”

In 2017, NCF initiated discussions with the local community about the possibility of neutralising shandong. Sonam said, “We initiated a discussion about the initiative with influential religious leader His Eminence Bakula Rangdol Nyima Rimpoche and sought his advice on symbolically building a stupa (Buddhist religious symbol) at the shandong site.”

In the paper, the stupa is described as a mound-like hemispherical structure that contains relics like idols, religious texts or the remains of Buddhist monks/nuns. The shandong is neutralised by removing a few stones from the structure which creates a passage for the wolves to escape.

In 2018, residents of Chushul village neutralised all the four shandongs in their area and built a stupa next to one, as a commitment towards conservation and repentance towards past hunting. The stupa was publicly consecrated by Rangdol Nyima Rimpoche. Sonam informed that since then two more stupas have been constructed at Rumtse in Gya village and Himya village in Rong area respectively.

Relationship between pastorals and predators in Ladakh

Even though there are predators like shan (snow leopards as known in Ladakhi) and Eurasian lynx in the Trans-Himalayan region, herders despise the wolves most. The paper attributes this to factors like greater visibility of the wolves, their howling behaviour and pack living.

Many herders keep around 300-350 livestock. Sonam says, “Earlier, the ratio between sheep and goats was 50:50 but now goats outnumber the sheep in the herd. Apart from the meat, goat’s milk is used to make butter and curd. There is also a huge demand for pashmina wool which grows on the goat.”

Not just sheep and goats, wolves and snow leopards also prey on bigger animals like horses and yaks. “Almost every household in our area owns horses. They serve a number of purposes like ploughing the field and as a mode of transport. There are also more than 500 yaks in my village. They are one of the main targets for wolves,” says Sonam.

Even though there is the provision of compensation for livestock killed by predators, it is not always possible for these nomadic communities to claim the compensation. Rigzen Dorjay, a resident of Rong in eastern Ladakh and one of the lead authors of the paper says, “To claim compensation, herders have to go to Leh town. From some of the remote villages, one needs to trek for three days to reach Leh. The forest department also asks them to provide photographic evidence of the killing. As the process is quite cumbersome, the herders generally avoid it.”

Khenrab Phuntsog, forest guard of the Upshi beat office says that the forest department gives 60% of the market price of the killed livestock as compensation.

One of the major issues plaguing the forest department in Ladakh is the dearth of boots on the ground. Phuntsog is the lone forest guard manning an area of 2500 sq km. He says, “Even in Hemis National Park, which is one of the largest in India, there are just two forest guards looking after an area of 2000 sq km each.”

Phuntsog, who received the Royal Bank of Scotland’s ‘Save the Species’ award for rescuing around 50 snow leopards so far, says that snow leopards can cause more damage to livestock compared to the wolves. “If the snow leopards manage to enter a corral pen, they will kill all the livestock in the course of a single night,” he says.

He says that in the past, wild dogs also roamed the valley but they have disappeared from Ladakh in the past one and a half-decade. “However, today the biggest threat for wolves is the rise in the number of feral or domestic dogs in the valley. They compete with wolves for food and there is also the possibility of breeding between wolves and dogs, which genetically is never a good idea,” he says.

The road ahead

Sonam says that since the initiative to neutralise shandongs began, there has been no report of the killing of wolves in the region.

Regarding the upcoming plans of NCF regarding conservation of biodiversity in the Trans-Himalayan region, Manvi Sharma, a behavioural ecologist with NCF and one of the authors of the paper said, “We will continue to engage with the local community for conservation of the Himalayan wolf. This region is not only home to the charismatic snow leopard, but a rich diversity of ungulates- blue sheep, ibex, argali, urial etc. We plan to set up a program to monitor the distribution and status of these ungulates of Ladakh with active participation from the local community.”

Sonam, who comes from an agro-pastoral family, says that the younger generation is now less interested in herding. “I am from Gya-Miru village. Out of 150 households in my village, now maybe 12 are into full-time herding business,” he said.

 Stupa is described as a mound-like hemispherical structure which contains relics like idols, religious texts or the remains of Buddhist monks/nuns. Photo by Karma Sonam.
Shandongs have traditional trapping pit, usually built near villages or herder camps. The stupa is a mound-like structure that contains relics. Photo by Karma Sonam.

Explaining the reason behind this disinterest in the traditional occupation, Phunchok Dorjey, Gya village head, tells Mongabay-India, “The life of a herder is tough. They have to be out for days in very harsh conditions. In winters, the temperature here drops to -30 degrees Celsius. Also, many have received education and have moved to cities. Nowadays, many are into agriculture and they grow crops like barley and green peas. Some are working as daily wagers in the construction projects carried out by Border Road Organisation (BRO). With tourism activities increasing in the valley, people are getting more diverse sources of income.”

Forest guard Phuntsog says he feels that as herding activity is decreasing among the community, depredation of livestock by wolves might also go down or stop in the future. “As herding decreases, there will be less competition for mountain grass between domestic livestock and wild ungulates. So, this will inversely increase the number of wild ungulates. If more and more people give up herding in the future, wild ungulates will become the main food source for the wolves,” he said.


Banner image: Shandongs, traditional trapping pits, near herder camps were neutralised by removing a few stones to let the trapped wolves escape, and building a stupa near them. Photo by Karma Sonam.

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