Yak herders and the snow leopards that often prey on yaks might seem like natural enemies, but in the Soe and Lingzhi regions of Jigme Dorji National Park (JDNP), herders are benefitting from initiatives that simultaneously address their needs and help conserve snow leopards. Herding villages have not resorted to retaliatory killing of snow leopards for the last 25 to 30 years. In fact, the late Ap Zangbo, an elder in the community would recall, “His Majesty the Fourth King used to say that the snow leopards were the jewels of our mountains. It is our duty to protect them.” These unique values in the Soe and Lingzhi regions are just part of the reason why the Bhutan Foundation is partnering with herding communities to encourage their participation in protecting the endangered predators.
One program that has been instrumental in maintaining tolerance levels between herders and snow leopards is the livestock insurance plan, administered by the Snow Leopard Conservation Committees in the Soe and Lingzhi communities. The plan started in 2016 with initial seed money provided by JDNP and currently benefits about 45 households in the two communities.
Premiums collected from participating herders were added to the seed fund. In the event of a yak kill made by a snow leopard, as verified by a peer group of villagers and the committee, a nominal payout was given to the claimant to recoup a portion of the loss. While, admittedly, the sum is far below the market rate of a yak calf, the herders have expressed gratitude for the payout, as this was seen as a quick and efficient response to livestock predation. This fledgling program has been so successful that more herders are signing up for it. The positive attitude toward support for snow leopard conservation in these communities indicates that such programs should be strengthened further. If the seed money for the insurance plans can be increased, we can accordingly increase the payout amount and start another new livestock insurance plan in Lingzhi village next door.
In addition to maintaining herders’ tolerance toward livestock predation, we have also been working on improving their living conditions—especially while moving around with their yak herds during the summer. In an effort to replace their colorful and flimsy plastic tarpaulin tents, we have supplied a more durable and spacious tent for the herding families in Yutoed and Yaksa. These eco-friendly tents work to reduce plastic garbage while providing more space for herding families, accommodating wood-burning fires with chimneys so that the inside of these tents have very little smoke and particulate suspension in the air inside. They are windproof and therefore provide better warmth and comfort for the families. Based on the success and popularity of the improved tents, the herders from the Lingzhi community have also requested similar tents.