Cover from the predator

janaki lenin | Updated on January 20, 2018

Bare essentials: At the end of winter, villagers let the animals find what little they can scrounge in the surrounding hillsides. Pic: Janaki Lenin

Talking point: The 13-year-old insurance programme in Kibber is the working model for other villages in Spiti, Ladakh, and even Mongolia. Pic - Janaki Lenin

An enterprising NGO provides villagers in the Spiti Valley with insurance for their livestock against snow leopard attacks

When the April sun melts the snow in Kibber, in the high altitude fastness of Spiti Valley in the Himalayas, snow leopards hunt livestock and hurt villagers’ livelihoods. But what could be a volatile people-versus-wildlife conflict is one of peaceful coexistence.

Cooped up in mud-walled barns for the long harsh winter, the animals were waited on mouth and foot by villagers. The painstakingly gathered fodder stacked on their roofs is now gone. There is no option but to let the animals find what little they can scrounge in the surrounding hillsides. With yells and whistles, the village herder leads hundreds of hungry animals — cows, donkeys, sheep, and goats — to pasture.

The sleek horses and shaggy yaks with their young are out on their own. Since they graze in the high reaches, it’s impractical to herd them back every evening. With no shepherd to protect them, foals and calves are easy pickings for snow leopards. Each adult yak is worth about ₹30,000, while a horse fetches ₹8,000. Even with a herder guarding them, sheep and goats fall prey. But it’s the loss of large animals that hits Kibber’s villagers hard.

Through the long cold winter, inhabitants chant Tibetan Buddhist mantras of compassion to all life forms. Come spring, their beliefs can be shaken when their losses to snow leopards mount.

“When was the last time a snow leopard was killed?” I asked Kalzang.

“Many years ago, when I was a child. It must have been 1990 or 1991. A snow leopard entered a barn and killed all the sheep and goats, and it couldn’t get out. In the morning, people killed it.”

Like other states in India, the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department recompenses livestock owners for the loss of their animals to wild predators. Until recently, it paid no more than ₹1,500 for a predator-killed yak, a sum so meagre that villagers scoffed. To get even this amount, villagers had to make numerous trips to Kaza, the sub-district capital, about 20km away. If they met all the criteria, the department disbursed money months later.

When Charudutt Mishra from Nature Conservation Foundation, an NGO based in Mysuru, visited Kibber in 1995, the spectre of leopards being killed in retaliation for livestock losses was real.

Mishra estimated that each family’s loss added up to 12 per cent of its livestock holdings or ₹4,000 annually, and the Forest Department recompensed only three per cent of this loss.

While the state’s largesse is ostensibly to help support local livelihoods and buy villagers’ goodwill towards carnivores, its many pernickety rules cause frustration towards the department and antipathy with snow leopards.

If people had to have space in their hearts for snow leopards, they shouldn’t be asked to pay for the wild cats’ meals. From this belief sprang a village-operated insurance programme for livestock, aided by Nature Conservation Foundation.

“In the traditional insurance model, the owner puts in something for his own assurance and the company makes profit out of the capital they generate,” said Yash Veer Bhatnagar, a senior scientist with the foundation. “Here the question of profits is not there. To make any programme sustainable, the premium has to be substantial. But it can’t be so high that it makes no sense for the owner. So the conservation programme has to undercut the cost.”

To buffer himself against the vagaries of nature, a livestock owner pays a nominal amount based on rates decided by the villagers themselves. Each insured animal has to be identifiable. This precludes the numerous, almost identical, sheep and goats from the scheme, a decision made by the inhabitants. They want insurance only for cattle, horses, and yaks.

“People decide how they want to run the insurance programme,” said Bhatnagar. “We facilitate discussions. We do go with some ideas, but we are not stuck with our model. There are differences between the insurance programmes in Kibber and the neighbouring village of Chichim.”

Once the four-member village insurance committee collects premiums, the foundation invests one and half times that amount to form a corpus. At the end of the year, the committee pays out claims that are capped at 60 per cent of the corpus. If losses are more, then 60 per cent of the corpus is divided equally among the affected families. However, yak deaths are compensated immediately, since they are essential for ploughing fields. The affected farmer can buy an animal and not miss a beat in the farming cycle.

The foundation underwrites the insurance costs for three years. For the following three years, it runs on annual premiums and the accumulated corpus. Since the premiums are low and bank interest is only 10 per cent, the corpus drains. From the seventh year, for a period of three years, the foundation steps in again to build the capital.

How difficult was it to convince villagers to sign up to this complicated deal?

More than a decade after the scheme began, Chhering Tandup Makhan, one of the village elders who threw his weight behind the scheme, confessed at a village meeting, “I have to admit I did not understand much at all about what the insurance programme would do. But Charu [Mishra] was a friend. I knew he meant well. So because of our friendship, I decided to support the idea. It did turn out well.”

A few years after the insurance programme began, people realised that cows were not at risk because they returned home every evening with the herder. So they stopped covering them.

Then in 2008, every land-owning family bought a horse, on the orders of their devata, speaking through a human medium. It was a disaster. Chudim, one of the members of the insurance committee, said of 33 horses, only 10 survived. The losses nearly bankrupted the insurance programme. The NGO had to step in with fresh funds to keep it afloat.

The devata owns a stud male of every species, while villagers stock females. When the devata’s stallion reached his prime, he began protecting the surviving mares.

“The stallion recognises his mares,” explained Chudim. “When we take our horses [up to pasture in April], he comes running from a kilometre away. We let our animals go and he herds them away. When we try to take them back, he chases and kicks us. He’s doing a better job than any human. Not all stallions are like him.”

Cow yaks, called demo, and their calves enjoy no such protection. Bull yaks are solitary much of the time and do not possessively herd cows. Snow leopards don’t mess with adult yaks, but target calves. Since young animals are most at risk, some villagers wanted to exclusively insure them. If everyone followed suit, the programme would have folded up. The insurance committee instituted a rule that calves cannot be insured alone. Demos have to be insured as well.

The premium for a demo is ₹240 a year. If it is killed by a snow leopard, the owner gets ₹13,000. However, if it dies of disease, the assured sum is only ₹10,000. For an annual premium of ₹600 for a yak calf, since it’s at a greater risk of being killed, the owner gets between ₹2,500 and ₹3,000 in case of loss. For any family that has made no claim for three years, the committee waives the annual premium for the fourth year, a no-claim bonus.

Most families insure their demos and calves. A few do not, and I asked why .

“Every man thinks differently,” replied Chudim. “What can I say? Those families object to taking an oath on the Dalai Lama.”

Sometimes the carcass of a calf is hard to find. The snow leopard may stash it in an inaccessible spot, or the carcass may be completely eaten by scavengers. Since the insurance committee has no proof that the calf was taken, it asks the owner to take an oath on the Dalai Lama that the case is genuine. He swears he hasn’t sold the meat, nor has the animal died of disease. These families don’t think they ought to take the supreme leader’s name.

There’s also another possible reason for their reluctance in participating, Chudim said. To claim insurance, livestock owners have to leave the carcass for the snow leopard. If they retrieve it, the hungry snow leopard may kill another calf and the total loss may be more. Chudim said the non-insuring families may think that by recovering the carcass and selling the remaining meat, they may get more money than from the insurance.

The 13-year-old insurance programme in Kibber is the working model for eight other villages in Spiti, Ladakh and even Mongolia. Were people satisfied with the insurance programme, if there was such a huge discrepancy between market price and compensation amount?

“What’s not to like about it?” asked Tanzin Thinley, one of the first villagers to participate in the scheme. “There are many problems, but we are working to sort them out.”

Could the insurance programme be called a conservation success, for bringing peace between people and snow leopards?

“Conservation is a continuum,” said Bhatnagar. “Something that is successful today can become unsuccessful tomorrow. And vice versa. You are dealing with an ever-changing system.”

Market forces may change the scheme’s course. Or the devata may have a new fancy.

To replicate this model in areas where people lose crops to elephants or livestock to leopards, Bhatnagar said, “One key factor is that the community should have the ability to pay premiums. People shouldn’t be so poor that paying a viable premium isn’t affordable. Conservation funds can only subsidise the premiums paid by the herders if the original collection is substantial.”

The conservation NGO also has the added burden of having to raise funds to underwrite the premium costs. “Telling any donor that we will need to keep coming in cycles of three years may not always work. In Pakistan and Nepal, they’ve made serious efforts to link it to other sustainable local activities, like tourism, crafts, or even micro-finance, which can provide an annual contribution to the insurance funds.” The foundation is working with the community to set up an enterprise that could eventually fund the insurance programme.

Since 2014, the Himachal Forest Department has upped the compensation to ₹10,000 for both yaks and horses. As long as bureaucratic problems remain, these village-run insurance programmes help local livelihoods and wildlife co-exist, without letting either bear the costs of the other.

As winter envelops Kibber and the livestock is ushered into its well-secured barns, snow leopards hunt wild game — blue sheep and Himalayan ibex. This is the time Spitians take as much pleasure as tourists watching the hefty spotted cat prowling the hillsides.

(Janaki Lenin writes on wildlife conservation)

Published on February 19, 2016

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