A Tibetan wolf (Canis lupus) male on rocky snow covered slopes in the Ulley Valley in the Himalayas, Ladakh, India. Credit: Nature Picture Library/Alamy

Black wolves in Ladakh, India’s cold desert, have been given a reprieve, through the efforts of conservationists who worked closely with communities to change an age-old tradition of trapping wolves and stoning them to death, to protect valuable livestock, especially goats and sheep.

Shandongs, or wolf traps, are an entrenched Ladakh tradition. A pit in the ground is circled with stones and a goat or sheep placed in it. When a wolf (shanku in the local dialect) targets the livestock, it falls into the pit and is stoned to death by the herders. One animal is sacrificed to protect eight or more animals that would have fallen prey to the slain wolf. The goats sacrificed are Pashmina, whose light, soft, but very warm wool is among the most prized in the world.

Ladakh lies about 3,500 metres above sea level and human-animal conflicts have been a constant for the semi-nomadic pastoral communities who bring their livestock to graze in the valley, territory for wolves, snow leopards and lynx. Snow leopards are known to kill grazing horses or yak.

“Shandong was the traditional way to dig pits in the ground surrounded by stones,” says Rigzin Dorje, first author of a recent study1 on the success of a community-led initiative to conserve black wolves.

Dorje, and lead author, Karma Sonam, and their team have been surveying and counting shandongs since 2019. They found almost 120 in just three of six blocks (a state-defined area of a cluster of villages within a district). The blocks surveyed were Changthang, Rong and Sham, covering about 25,000 km2 in Leh district.

Sonam, who is the field manager at Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), which initiated the effort, says it sought to find a solution to the menace of wolves preying on livestock without hurting the wolves. “We understood the intention behind killing wolves was to protect livestock. We neither pursued measures to penalize the community that hunted wolves, nor did we seek to destroy the shandong, which represented cultural heritage,” says Sonam.

The solution was to build the wolf an escape route from the pit. This method came after months of interactions with the deeply religious and ritualistic communities to gain their trust and convince them to turn the traditional wolf traps of Ladakh into religious stupas (Buddhist shrines) and allow the trapped wolf to escape. Dorje says “Women herders feel deeply about the damage the wolves cause and are more difficult to win over. The goats are Pashmina goats and their death causes considerable economic losses to the pastors.”

A neutralised shangdong and stupa at Tsaba valley. Credit: Rigzen Dorjay

The conservationists spoke of their own experiences. Sonam says that as a child he had joined in a shandong ritual of hitting a trapped wolf with stones. But, he regretted killing an animal, and he involved himself in conservation work. Building stupas came to be one of the measures to stop the killing of wolves. A powerful religious deterrent.

“The talk of building Buddhist stupas near shandongs made herders more compliant.” The task of identifying shandongs and building stupas near them continues. As Dorje says, “The stupas ensure the shandongs will not be used to kill wolves again.”

Ajay Bijoor, who advises on NCF's conservation efforts in Ladakh and the neighbouring state, Himachal Pradesh, says “the intervention is backed and blessed by the local rimpoche (Buddhist leader). So it finds acceptance.”

A consecration ceremony is held by the community soon after a stupa is built. The rimpoche usually presides over this meeting and the stupa is sanctified. Additionally, mesh enclosures are made for areas where livestock are corralled to protect from snow leopards at night.

An insurance scheme to cover the loss of livestock, has been expanded. “We had begun an insurance scheme to insure horses in 2006 in Gya Village with three hamlets. Today, the community collects the insurance premium from their neighbourhood and NCF supports monetarily, too. The scheme has spread to six villages; Rumtse, Sasoma, Miru Hemya, Kyungyam, Sumdho and Samad-Rokchen,” says Sonam.

Dorje explains that the herders avoided a valley in the eastern part of Ladakh, leaving it free for wild animals to roam.