During May–June 2018 the Buddhist Chang pa pastoral people of Chushul village in the Indian Changthang neutralized four traditional pit traps used for trapping wolves Canis lupus and symbolically built a stupa (a Buddhist ritual structure) adjacent to one of the traps (Plate 1). This is a pioneering community-led initiative for large carnivore conservation.
The Chang pa community has traditionally used traps (locally called shang-dong, derived from shangku, wolf, and dong, trap) to trap and kill wolves in retaliation for livestock predation. These traps, typically built near villages or herder camps, comprise large pits (3–4.5 m diameter, 2.5–3 m deep) with inverted funnel-shaped stone walls. Bait of livestock remains attracts wolves but the funnel shaped walls prevent them from escaping. Typically the trapped wolves would be pelted to death with stones and the carcass then carried around neighbouring areas by the hunters, who would be rewarded by the villagers. Occasionally snow leopards become trapped, and are often killed.
Following 2 years of discussion between Chushul villagers and conservationists from the Nature Conservation Foundation and Snow Leopard Trust, the community agreed to dismantle the four existing wolf-traps in their area. To conserve their historical and cultural value, the traps were neutralized rather than destroyed. A stupa built adjacent to one of the traps was consecrated by His Eminence Bakula Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche, a revered Buddhist monk, on 14 June 2018, with support from the Leh district administration, Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Department of Wildlife Protection, Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation, and Chushul Youth and Gompa (Monastery) associations.
Conservation of large carnivores in multiple-use landscapes continues to be a challenge. The Tibetan Plateau and the Trans-Himalaya comprise 2.6 million km2 of high altitude, cold desert ecosystem, of which the north-west is known as the Changthang (Northern Plains). The mainstay of the nomadic peoples of Changthang, the Chang pa, is livestock grazing, especially cashmere (pashmina) goats. In the Indian Changthang 55% of households depend on cashmere production, producing c. 37,000 kg of cashmere annually.
The Changthang region also supports 13 species of wild carnivores, of which wolves are the most widespread. They are the main predator of livestock, accounting for up to 60% of total livestock depredation. Managing wolf depredation is challenging as they are highly mobile, with large home ranges.
The global demand for cashmere has resulted in overstocking of these rangelands, caused depletion of wild herbivore populations, and resulted in intensified conflicts as a result of livestock depredation by wolves and snow leopards (Berger et al., 2013, Conservation Biology, 27, 679–689). The conservation effort of the Chushul community is part of a larger initiative, working with herding communities to make cashmere production sustainable and conservation friendly. A certification system implemented by the Nature Conservation Foundation and the Snow Leopard Trust in partnership with the All Changthang Pashmina Growers Marketing Cooperative Society encourages and supports several sustainable livestock grazing practices: creation of village wildlife reserves, rotational grazing, management of carnivore-caused livestock damage through predator-proofing of livestock corrals and livestock insurance, and cessation of retaliatory killing of carnivores. Cashmere from partner herder communities implementing these practices is certified snow leopard friendly and attracts a modest premium for the herders. With joint commitment for wildlife conservation from communities and conservation agencies, this novel initiative by the Chushul community indicates that large carnivores, such as wolves and snow leopards, and agro-pastoralist communities can coexist.