It’s 2.30 am when six herders and I emerge from our dhera, a circular arrangement of stones covered with a sheet of tarpaulin. The moon is almost full, yet the clouds interrupt its silvery gaze. The temperature is below freezing (even in July), and we have a 5,000 m mountain pass to climb, three glaciers and many icy slopes to traverse. We aren’t alone; we have with us nearly 1,300 sheep and goats, 6 donkeys and over 200 kg in food and equipment to carry.
Together, we are walking from the foothills of the Himalayas to the mountains of the Trans-Himalayas, a long-distance migration undertaken by livestock herders in the region each summer. By doing this, they evade the monsoon in the lower areas, and capitalise on the short-lived nutrient burst of the higher elevations during this time of year. It is an arduous trek on any terrain, but more so in these mountains, the last remaining home of ‘monarchs’ like the ibex (Capra sibirica) and blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), species that are food for rare predators like snow leopards (Panthera uncia).
It is day 12 of our migration. We have already walked over 200 km, sleeping under boulders, and herding through hail, rain, and snow. The pressure is always on. We must not lose any livestock; a predator may be lurking around any the corner.
It is not uncommon to read about the negative ways in which livestock herding impacts this landscape and its wild species: Sheep and goats eat the grass that can sustain wild herbivores, transmit diseases to their wild counterparts, and encroach on their habitat. These are just some of the issues that get wildlife conservationists up in arms, often calling for a ban on herding.
But what about the herders? Across the world, some 2.6 billion people live on less than $2/day rear and depend on livestock herding. Surely it is criminal to marginalise an already largely marginalized community that makes an immense effort to survive and sustains so much risk to rear livestock.
For them, livestock is both an investment and financial insurance, to be sold for their daily needs, or in times of emergency. For some, it is the only way to save money to buy agricultural land in the future. Life as a herder is anything but easy — your investment might fall off the cliff, or your own body might be unwilling to carry on — but livelihoods are hard to come by in the mountains, and many have no alternative.
For instance, consider the transmission of disease between livestock and wild herbivores. Parasites such as gastro-intestinal nematodes (GINs) impact milk production, fertility rates, and immunity levels, causing a loss of the herder’s income as well as numbers of the wild population. The health of these species becomes doubly important within the context of climate change, which brings unprecedented environmental changes. Warmer climates mean the transmission of more parasites, and wetter conditions favour their reproduction.
It is important to first acknowledge the importance of livestock rearing to local communities, and then think hard about how we can foster human-wildlife coexistence in such landscapes. We need to engage with local stakeholders and find common ground between their interests and wildlife conservation to forge a partnership.
Transmission of disease between livestock and wild herbivores is one such area as it can impact both the herder’s income and wildlife conservation. Parasites such as gastrointestinal nematodes (GINs) impact milk production, growth, fertility rates, and immunity levels, and yet, it is a seldom studied topic. This becomes especially important within the context of climate change, which brings with it unprecedented environmental changes that could promote parasite transmission, as warmer and wetter condition favour their presence and reproduction.
To this end, the Nature Conservation Foundation’s High Altitude team has been engaging with resource-poor livestock herders in various sites in the Indian trans-Himalayas. By living and herding with these individuals, understanding the health issues faced by their livestock, and the potential of transmission of disease between domestic and wild herbivores, we can generate interventions that align livestock health with wildlife conservation. For example, an intervention could be the timely application of anti-parasitic drugs to affected livestock (rather than the entire herd). This reduces the cost of treatment and may build resilience rather than resistance.
One may argue that aligning livestock health with that of wild herbivores harmonizes their coexistence in the context of disease transmission. However, it may exacerbate other conservation issues such as resource competition for instance. It would be naïve to disagree with that, but conservation was never a linear equation with a singular solution. We should strive to engage with multi-pronged complementary interventions.
As we finally crossed the pass, gingerly placing one foot in front of the other, my mind was far away from any conservation intervention. All we hoped for was to reach the camp safely before nightfall and get some rest.
Surely we cannot ignore that there are forces strong enough to drive a human being to wake up in the wee hours of the morning, trudge through knee-deep snow and hack footholds in the ice, with thousands of livestock in tow. Simply put, the world is a better place when approached with an attitude of inclusion. And, what we can do to enable this?
The author would like to extend his thanks to the Ruffords Small Grant Foundation for generously supporting his work.