Shangdong to Stupa: A prayer for the wolves in Ladakh

On World Wildlife Day today, read about a successful communities-based conservation initiative launched in Ladakh. Local communities that once trapped and killed wolves, are now pledging to conserve them. The traditional wolf traps or Shangdongs have been deactivated and stupas have come up near them.

Pankaja SrinivasanPankaja Srinivasan   3 March 2022 6:11 AM GMT

Shangdong to Stupa: A prayer for the wolves in Ladakh

Ladakh is as stunning as it can be harsh to its semi nomadic pastoral communities, the Dogpas or herders. They live close to the land and their lifestyle has not much changed for thousands of years.

Idyllic as it may seem to the outsider who is seduced by the spectacular landscape, and the simple and slow pace of life, for the local inhabitants, it is a tough existence where they are exposed to the brutal vagaries of weather, with howling winds and freezing temperatures sometimes dropping to minus 30 degrees celsius. Added to this is the ever present threat of predators, especially the wolves.

For the Dogpa, nothing is more paramount than the well being of their sheep and yak. They spend all day with them, criss-crossing the stony cold desert looking for pasture, and return to their rebo or tent as night falls.

Killing wolves to protect the livestock

Ladakh is home to wolves, which are one of the few top and wide-ranging predators across the trans-Himalayan region. They prey on the herds of these nomadic herders and are therefore feared and killed by them in order to protect their livestock.

But, recently, a wolf-conservation study and initiative was launched in Ladakh that involved the participation of these nomadic communities that were encouraged to conserve the wolf instead of killing it. And, where once the predators were captured and killed in deep pits called Shandongs, there are now stupas that are set up near them.

The conservation programme was started by the Nature Conservation Foundation and the Snow Leopard Trust, in partnership with local communities. A recently published paper titled A Community-Based Conservation Initiative for Wolves in the Ladakh Trans-Himalaya, India in Frontiers, an international ecology journal, describes the success of a India-based community-based conservation initiative for wolves in the Ladakh region based on the principles of PARTNERS (Presence, Aptness, Respect, Transparency, Negotiation, Empathy, Responsiveness, and Strategic Support).

Ladakh is home to wolves, which are one of the few top and wide-ranging predators across the trans-Himalayan region.

Conservation Initiative

In 2017, conversations about the initiative began with the local community members and their political representatives from the Chushul about the possibility of not using their Shandong while preserving and maintaining them as part of the cultural heritage.

Influential religious leader and scholar His Eminence Bakula Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche also gave his views and advice on the possibility of symbolically building a Stupa at the Shandong site. The Stupa would symbolically represent the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and wisdom. It would also integrate the Buddhist principles of compassion toward all living beings.

The same year, along with discussions on deactivating the Shandongs, there were also discussions with livestock herders about them adopting wildlife-friendly herding management and other practices. Video recordings were made of the building of the Stupas and their consecration, and these were converted into an awareness film.

Karma Sonam, the lead author of the study and field manager at Nature Conservation Foundation explained how the interventions were initiated. "We built long-term relationships with multiple visits and interactions," he said. In the process the team learnt that the intention behind the killing of the wolves was purely defensive and in order to protect livestock. The initiative did not want to penalise or judge the community members who hunted down wolves.

Respecting cultural heritage

In the film made on the initiative, called Shondang to Stupa, Sonam said how they did not obliterate the traditional Shangdong, a relatively large, widely used trapping pit with inverted funnel-shaped stone walls, usually built near villages or herder camps. Shandong are an intrinsic part of the cultural heritage of these herding communities.

According to Sonam, who received the NatWest Earth Hero Award for his conservation efforts last year, Shangdongs have been the preferred wolf trap for hundreds of years. The herders lowered a live prey into the Shangdongs to bait the wolf and when the predator fell into the pit, it was stoned to death.

Herders Tashi Phustog and Tudup Chosgail, from Gya village in Leh district, also shared in the short film how till not too long ago, whoever trapped and killed a wolf was rewarded.

According to them it is in the month of March that the wolf attacks increase. After the long, unforgiving winters, the livestock is also weak and the wolves come looking for prey to feed their young. It is a constant struggle to keep the sheep close, the stragglers are usually picked up and carried away by the wolves. "On one night alone, a couple of years ago, we lost nine sheep," Phustog recalled.

But now, the community-based conservation drive involves deactivating the Shandongs, involving the local communities in collaborating in the conservation movement and, finally, with the blessings of local monks and religious heads, constructing and consecrating stupas/chortens near the Shandongs, as a symbol of conservation and repentance for past hunting.

As part of the study, a survey was conducted in 64 villages in the union territory of Ladakh between June 2019 and March 2020. The survey covered over 25,000 sq kms and found 94 Shandong in 58 of the villages.

Shangdongs have been the preferred wolf trap for hundreds of years.

Changing lifestyles, changing practices

Chushul in Leh district was the first to adopt the conservation initiative and the village inhabitants have vowed not to kill wild animals. A chorten/stupa stands near the Shandong in the village. Gya village, also in Leh district followed suit. Now, the area around the death trap is consecrated and colourful prayer flags flutter cheerfully around the stupa, and across the gaping hole of the Shandong pit.

According to head monks in the region, the lifestyle of people in both towns and villages of Ladakh has undergone a sea change, and with it, it has become necessary to let go of some of the age-old practices.

Conservationists on their part, hope that this initiative will promote wolf conservation in not just Ladakh but in other parts of the Trans-Himalayan and Tibetan regions that share similar cultural settings.

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