Where Shepherds Save Wolves — Thanks to Buddhism
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Wildlife conservationists have struck upon a unique new tool — spiritualism — to turn communities that fear predators into their saviors.
By Catherine Gilon
- For centuries, the rugged terrain of the Ladakh and Trans-Himalaya region along the India-China border has witnessed pitched battles between yak herders and predatory wolves and snow leopards.
- Now a unique set of tools rooted in Buddhist spiritualism is turning those sworn enemies into neighbors willing to coexist, offering a dramatic new template for wildlife conservation.
On Nov. 20, residents of Gya village in northern India’s Ladakh region woke up to a devastating loss — 16 yaks on one of their high-altitude pasture lands, nearly 16,000 feet above sea level, had been killed. They belonged to Phuntsog Tserinng Choksar, a yakzi (yak herder). “It could have been either a snow leopard or a pack of wolves that attacked the yaks,” says Karma Sonam, a local wildlife conservationist.
For the seminomadic pastoral communities that span Ladakh and the Tibetan Trans-Himalaya region in China, yaks are a source of livelihood and symbols of wealth. Yet these pastoralists share this rugged, mountainous terrain with snow leopards and Himalayan wolves that routinely target their livestock, setting up what for centuries has been a classic man-versus-animal conflict.
Now, a dramatic new approach pioneered by local conservationists and villagers is upending that seemingly irreconcilable tension, using Buddhist principles to turn enmity into peaceful coexistence. If successful, this strategy promises a surprising new route to wildlife protection using religion and spiritualism that other societies and nations could emulate.
For generations, people in the region have built conical stone traps known as shangdong for predators. A live bait, usually a sheep or a goat, is kept inside the structure to lure the wolf in. Once the wolf steps in, the upward-slanting walls prevent the wolf from getting out, thereby trapping it. The villagers then typically come together to stone the wolf to death.
But conservationists are now teaming up with Buddhist leaders and villagers to replace shangdongs with Buddhist stupas — religious pillars — that serve as reminders of the Buddhist principle of compassion toward all living creatures. At the same time, they’re building wildlife reserves for the wolves and snow leopards. Herders aren’t allowed to use these reserves as pasture lands.
Bauddha dharma [Buddhism] tells us that one should not harm any living being, for in their previous birth, it could have been your father, mother or sibling.
Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche, an influential Buddhist leader
The idea is to create boundaries within which the predators can feed on local prey like the bharal, goat-like creatures that are also known as blue sheep, while yak can roam in relative safety outside the reserves. Driving this shift are age-old Buddhist principles, now being used for 21st-century conservation.
“Bauddha dharma [Buddhism] tells us that one should not harm any living being, for in their previous birth, it could have been your father, mother or sibling,” explains Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche, one of the region’s most influential Buddhist leaders, in a phone interview with OZY. (Rinpoche is an honorific title used for highly respected teachers.)
Until now, those principles of Buddhism have clashed with the real-life challenges of local communities in Ladakh. “People in this region had been rearing livestock for centuries and have had negative interactions with the wild animals here, especially the wolves,” says Ajay Bijoor, a conservationist with the high-altitude program of the National Conservation Foundation (NCF). Shangdongs, he says, helped them “protect their livestock from wolves.”
But those “negative interactions” have also led to often brutal reprisals. Sonam, now 54, recalls how as a child, he once heard a commotion near a shangdong. “When I peeped in, I saw a black-coated wolf pacing restlessly inside the trap,” he says. “My father and I joined the villagers as they stoned the predator to death.”
It’s a memory that haunts Sonam, who is now a community leader working with conservationists and villagers to replace shandgdongs with stupas — an approach that’s gathering steam. Near Chushul village in Ladakh, a stupa has been built near four shangdongs. The stupa was later consecrated by Rangdol Nyima. In 2019, two more shangdongs were dismantled and a stupa was built in Rumtse, near the shangdong where Sonam had joined other villagers as a child to stone a wolf. And conservationists are working with Buddhist leaders to transform all shangdongs in Ladakh and parts of northeast India with significant Buddhist influence into stupas, turning traps into emblems of hope.
Spiritual tales play an important role. Rangdol Nyima cites the story of a Buddhist sage named Katyayana, who once met a woman who was eating fish while carrying a child in her arms. While eating, she also fed bits of the fish to a dog hovering nearby and kicked it when it became unruly. Katyayana laughed loudly; unknown to the woman, the dog and fish were her parents in a previous life while the child she held was her enemy in that earlier life.
But conservationists know that it will take more than Buddhist symbolism to change an adversarial relationship that has gone on for centuries. That’s why they’re marrying spiritualism with practical steps.
Organizations like the NCF are helping communities predator-proof the corrals where they keep livestock, using a mesh set atop the enclosures. They’re helping villagers build more economic muscle by assisting in the marketing of pashmina wool produced by wildlife-friendly herders. To get that wildlife-friendly tag, herdsmen need to clear multiple steps — from predator-proofing pens and reporting poaching, to removing shangdongs and freeing up land for wildlife reserves.
And the strategy is working. Five village clusters in Ladakh have already come together to turn 5,000 hectares (more than 12,000 acres) of community-owned rangeland into wildlife reserves where herdsmen are not allowed.
This has led to a threefold increase in the density of the bharal. The greater availability of this wild prey reduces the risks to yaks from wolves and snow leopards, point out conservationists.
Meanwhile, Sonam and his colleagues are setting up a mechanism for livestock insurance to help herders offset losses incurred because of predator attacks. Shangdong by shangdong, and wolf by wolf, a relationship built on animosity is turning toward one of acceptance. For Sonam, it’s also personal. “I hope to atone for the wolf that died on my watch that day,” he says, smiling.
- Catherine Gilon, OZY Author Contact Catherine Gilon