Making peace with the shen

The same villagers who had once clubbed the big cat to death now offered it meat

Updated - June 12, 2017 01:44 pm IST

Published - June 10, 2017 06:00 pm IST

A snow leopard camera-trapped at the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary.

A snow leopard camera-trapped at the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary.

Thwack! A blow struck the cowering snow leopard. And then another landed. Six-year-old Kalzang Gurmet watched his neighbours clobber the cat to death. It had entered a mud-walled barn through an open window at night and killed all the sheep cooped up inside. In the morning, the family discovered their animal assets gone and the culprit crouching in a dark corner. It was payback time for all the losses Kibber village had cumulatively suffered over the years.

The villagers are Buddhists, and the religion’s first precept is not to take a life. They also believe snow leopards are divine agents of punishment. So the affected family ought to have been resigned to its fate. But times were changing and people had suffered enough.

The man who lost his entire flock of sheep was repaid many times over by his neighbours. Each family donated an animal so he could rebuild his flock, and he ended up with many more animals than he had lost. Although the snow leopard he had killed made him richer, the general perception of victimisation pervaded the entire village of Kibber in Spiti.

Making peace

During the warm growing season, men, women, hired migrant labour, and sometimes even children toil in the fields all day. They have to grow adequate barley for the following year and enough green peas to earn their annual income. The village employs a couple of shepherds who take the smaller animals like goats and sheep to pasture and bring them back every evening. Snow leopards don’t stand a chance of scoring a lamb with humans around. Strengthening barns is a simple way of protecting sheep for the night, the only time they are vulnerable.

Shepherds, however, don’t tend their large livestock herds. When they graze in the vast outdoors, unattended and exposed, snow leopards attack.

When raising crops takes up every waking hour, nobody has the time to watch over yaks and horses all day. For one thing, yaks graze higher up the mountains, horses nibble elsewhere. If they had to be brought back to the village for the night, the animals would lose hours every day reaching their preferred meadows and returning from it. They cannot be cooped up at home to keep them safe nor can the young ones be separated from their mothers. This is the time when the domestic animals graze on green forage and build up reserves before the long winter arrives. So for weeks, they are left at the mercy of the elements, even though they are worth thousands of rupees and are central to the villagers’ lives. While snow leopards won’t dare mess with the adults, their calves and foals are fair game. Wiping out predators is easy: poison the carcass and everything that feeds on it dies.

But something happened to reverse the situation.

More than 20 years after witnessing the snow leopard get bludgeoned to death, Kalzang and his friends now help fellow villagers make peace with the cats they call ‘shen’. They run an insurance programme for livestock, and any villager can pay a nominal premium to join the scheme. It provides cover for large hoofed animals like yaks, horses, donkeys, and cow-yak hybrids called dzomo .

Making rules

Every two or three days, a few villagers trek to the distant meadows to collect dung and check on everybody’s animals. If they bring news of a wild animal attack on an insured animal, the owner receives the insured sum. Some villagers filed fraudulent claims in the early days, but since they all have a stake in the programme, such cases soon unravelled before they were processed. The insurance scheme now settles the case once the owner swears on the Dalai Lama that there is no foul play.

The collected premiums alone are insufficient to pay out these claims. While dzomo calves are insured for ₹8,000, the premium is only ₹240 a year. The premium for yak calves is ₹600, but if a snow leopard kills it, the owner gets ₹3,000. The loss of even one animal would bankrupt the fund. Nature Conservation Foundation, an NGO based in Karnataka, with research and conservation presence in these parts, raises funds from international donors to fund the scheme. But villagers decide the rules. With the result that when people lose their animals, it’s not a total write-off any more.

A cremation

The foundation laid a few conditions: villagers cannot retrieve the carcasses of their animals nor can they chase snow leopards away from kills. If the predators are prevented from eating their fill, they might kill another domestic animal, putting a strain on the scheme. For most villagers, this part of the deal is a no-brainer, since the insurance offsets the cost of the animal anyway.

Now in its 15th year of operation, the insurance programme has changed attitudes toward snow leopards. With the source of their anxiety removed, the inhabitants of this remote village don’t resent snow leopards any more. Eight other villages in Spiti and Ladakh followed Kibber’s example, tailoring the programme for their own needs. Hemiya, a Ladakhi village, became the tenth to have its own livestock insurance in March.

Although wildlife biologists say the number of snow leopards has increased over the past decade, and every winter, photographers flock to Kibber to film the cats, few inhabitants had seen one until this year.

A recent incident narrated by Kalzang to the Snow Leopard Trust highlights how much the villagers have come around.

In February, unusually, a snow leopard frequented Kibber for a week. Even more astonishingly, it took to sleeping during the day in full view of concerned residents. They weren’t worried about their livestock or their own safety. They realised the cat had become old and incapable of hunting. Anxious for its survival, they offered it the meat of one of their animals in a total reversal of their earlier attitude. But the animal died anyway. The villagers, some of whom had clubbed a snow leopard to death two decades ago, cremated the animal. Many wore white khatak , a traditional scarf, as a mark of respect.

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista, but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover

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