Home Magazines Features When Shepherds Must Kill Their Lambs – The Story Of Once Self-Reliant Pastoralists

When Shepherds Must Kill Their Lambs – The Story Of Once Self-Reliant Pastoralists

When Shepherds Must Kill Their Lambs – The Story Of Once Self-Reliant Pastoralists

Travelling with migratory herders across the Himalaya from their wintering grounds to summer grazing areas, Abhishek Ghoshal talks about the ecological impacts of such pastoralism on livestock health, pastures and wildlife.

A migratory herder camp near the Larang camp-site in Pin Valley serves as a trans-Himalayan summer-home for shepherds from neighbouring Kinnaur. Photo: Abhishek Ghoshal/NCF

For Negi, a Kinnaura migratory shepherd from Kinnaur district, Himachal Pradesh, it was a trying time. “When a baby is dying in front of your eyes,” he lamented, “the burden on the soul of a parent is agonising.”

We were at 4,400 m. above mean sea level in Pin Valley, Himachal Pradesh. An intimidating ridgeline of the rugged Pir Panjal Range, an off-shoot of the Greater Himalaya Range, stretched across our view-scape. Its shiny precipitous cliffs were crowned by unbelievably-pointed rocks, too steep for snow. The snow lay below, along more accommodating gullies, saddles and crags. A glacial torrent, its rumbling perceivable from our height, danced through the valley. Downstream, the rivulet turned sharply forming a bottleneck with two side-valleys. And fuming through that bottleneck dashed a silver, dark-grey mass of cloud.

This is the Trans-Himalayan summer-home for Negi and his fellow shepherds from neighbouring Kinnaur between mid-June and mid-August... a summer-pasture that has nourished his sheep-goat herd for a decade.

“One of my lambs was weak for days, unable to walk to nearby pastures and had to be put to rest,” Negi said sorrowfully as he watched over his maal (local term for their domestic animals), comprising 14 or 15 kids not old enough to stay safe from Bearded Vultures, Golden Eagles or a wandering snow leopard.

As we spoke, a bone-chilling gale struck and we scurried back to camp, where we found shelter under a thick tarpaulin sheet strung across a rope between two pillars of piled-up rocks. The sides were weighed down by more rocks to prevent our precarious home from being blown away by the untamed winds of the wilderness.

As the air turned freezing, Negi lit us a welcome fire.


“Diseases in our kids are routine,” Negi commented morosely. Deep valleys and ridgelines formed on his sun-burnt chestnut forehead skin. “We don’t have enough grass these days, everything is changing... the weather, the rain, the snow. Rainfall is too little and the snow is full of parlusan (pollution),” he said.

“Our pastures are not as nourishing as they used to be,” he muttered in a grief-laden voice. “What will become of the large herds that have sustained generations of our people?” How will we survive?”

Grazing has been a primary livelihood throughout civilisations. From Sumer, Mesopotamia, Egypt to Indus Valley and Yellow river, humans have depended on livestock supplemented by hunting, agriculture and pottery.

Although a traditional form of livelihood, in low-productivity ecosystems the intensity of livestock grazing poses a serious problem. For decades, ecologists have struggled to answer Negi’s questions. Scientific evidence confirms a decline in forage, particularly in intensely grazed areas in ecosystems characterised by short-span and low vegetative growth such as the Trans-Himalayan cold-desert. Migratory shepherds have little option but to bring their animals up here to graze in summer. But this brings them into conflict with native wild-herbivores, whose demography is adversely affected. And the impacts of climatic change hardly help. Higher summer temperatures and declining winter snowfall, coupled with poorly-planned developmental projects including road construction and dams conspire to threaten the ecological future of both wild and human communities.

The migration of shepherds with their livestock in search of the seasonal pastures increases conflict with native wild-herbivores such as the ibex, whose populations are adversely affected. This, in turn, alters the natural behaviour and survival of predators such as the snow leopard and the wolf.
Photo: Sanjeet Mangat


Negi was silent. As I scanned the cold, wind-swept precipices, I spotted an adult female Asiatic ibex, a grand mountain-goat, the main prey of the snow leopard. With her stocky muscular gait, a tuft of dense goatee and short pointed parallel horns, she stood beside her dead little kid, probably a casualty of scarce forage that prevented the mother from producing enough life-nourishing milk.

A sharp whistle from nearby jolted me from my reverie. It was another fellow maaldar (shepherd) with roughly 1,000 animals who was passing by along the steep scree slope above our camp. By now the storm had exhausted itself and the late-afternoon sun illuminated the surreal landscape with crystal clarity. In the distance we saw still more shepherds, with their large herds.

“We shepherds can still somehow save our kids, and vaccinate them against disease and stall-feed them in winter. But just imagine the state of the wild-goats, the tangrol (Kinnauri for ibex). We hardly even see them anymore.”

Negi made an important point. Research suggests that the forage left in areas intensely grazed by migratory livestock during summer, even after the animals have left, is largely unpalatable. Most of the palatable forage is consumed leaving the region’s pastures near-empty post-summer.

Estimates suggest that migratory grazing over two months by just under 4,000 livestock in this part of Pin Valley removes forage that could support 400 ibex for a whole year. And, beautiful though it is to look at, the Trans-Himalaya is one of the lowest-productivity ecosystems in the world. That directly accounts for the fall in native wild-herbivore numbers. And this in turn adversely impacts wolves and snow leopards.

The migration of shepherds with their livestock in search of the seasonal pastures increases conflict with native wild-herbivores such as the ibex, whose populations are adversely affected. This, in turn, alters the natural behaviour and survival of predators such as the snow leopard and the wolf. Photo: Ranjan Ramchandani


“What can be done to improve the situation? Should shepherds leave certain areas for wild-herbivores?”

“Why for wild animals? Even for ourselves,” he replied passionately. “We have to keep the pastures alive for us, our future, for our next generation. But how much pastures can we set aside?” After a moment’s silence he muttered more to himself than to me: “We are forced to search for new pastures every three to five years even for our own animals because the pasture quality is degrading so fast.”

So what is to be done? I asked. And he replied without hesitation, nodding his head in self-assertion, “We have to reduce our livestock numbers.”

“But how will you get by yourselves?” I responded.

“I do not know, but this I know...  we have to.” Negi affirmed. He went on to explain that many are forced to sell their adult animals or take them down to the foothills of the Siwaliks in winter and shear and sell their wool to buyers in Rampur, Shimla or Palampur. He added, “My wife helps us to sustain ourselves by knitting socks, gloves, sweaters, shawls and blankets. She even makes coats for me and my father and gowns (topru-se-dori or doru) for our daughter and for herself. Life is tough, but we get by even though the milk yield is dropping. Fortunately, our cows enable us to stock up on paneer (cheese), makkhan (butter), ghee (clarified butter) and dahi (yoghurt)... all pure and nutritious.”

Keen to understand more about their pastoral economy I asked why the shepherds did not opt for more animals? Without answering he picked up a goat-kid, stroked and handed it over to me.

No words needed to be spoken. I saw in his eyes the unwillingness to bring into their lives more animals they would have to slaughter because the hills and valleys that were once so productive could no longer look after them.

The author and shepherds examine migratory livestock that have contracted foot-and-mouth disease, an infectious and sometimes fatal viral disease that affects cloven-hoofed animals, including domestic and wild bovids. Photo courtesy: Abhishek Ghoshal

Wildlife and anthropology of the region

The Greater and Trans-Himalaya mountains in Himachal Pradesh support the elusive and globally endangered snow leopard, the wide-ranging and mysterious wolves, and their main wild-prey, bharal and ibex. The landscape has low productivity, dominated by grasses and herbs, such as Stipa, Leymus, Kobresia, Caragana, Lindelofia, Cicer and Astragalus.

The human communities dwelling in the middle Himalaya in Himachal Pradesh, e.g. Gaddi and Kinnaura, follow migratory livestock grazing as their main livelihood. Large herds of sheep-goat in groups of two to four herders are taken to the Greater and Trans-Himalayan pastures of Pangi, Lahaul and Spiti during summer, while brought down to the Himalayan foothills during winter. Livestock grazing at high densities is reducing pasture quality, compromising livestock health and native wild-ungulate populations.

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 8, August 2018.


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