The Changthang Region of Ladakh in the Indian Trans-Himalaya has a very challenging environment, as the climatic conditions are very harsh and unyielding. People of the region are however warm and acquiescent. They rear a variety of animals that are adapted to this austere environment. Pashmina or cashmere wool, a soft natural fibre produced by a local breed of goat, is the primary source of income of the people known as Changpas. Traditionally, they bartered Pashmina for barley and dried apricots from western Ladakh. But presently they are being dragged into the vortex of globalization, and the economy is being transformed fast into a cash-based market economy.
Changthang is a wonderland with unparalleled natural beauty with saucer-shaped valleys and immense space. Lush meadows with multi-colored mountains in the background are visual feasts to the covetous eyes of visitors. The people are largely nomadic, moving from pasture to pasture, living in spider-shaped black tents called Ribos. They have high cultural and religious affinities toward Tibet. Their diet consists largely of milk products and meat, and hardly any vegetable. Their dresses usually have inner linings of animal skin for warmth. Changpas are generally happy people and often indulge in cultural extravaganzas, performing a special dance called Zhabro.
Changthang is also home to a wide variety of wild animals that include charismatic species like the Tibetan antelope, Tibetan argali and Tibetan gazelle. These animals are currently threatened with extinction and conservation measures are undermined by the increasing needs and aspirations of the people. Recognising the need to conserve the threatened animals of Changthang, the Government constituted the Changthang Wildife Sanctuary in 1987 under the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act. But the effectiveness of this protected area is marred by growing uncertainty amongst the local people about the authorities' intentions.
The sanctuary is spread over an area of over 15000 km squared, and livestock grazing is pervasive in the entire area. One of the major flaws in the establishment of the protected area was that it was constituted without consulting the local communities as sanctuaries during those days could be enacted without settling the land rights of the people living inside protected areas. Recently, a Pandora's Box was opened when the authorities issued a fresh notification for the settlement of the statutory rights of the people living inside the protected areas. The Changpas are up in arms against the fresh directives. They are concerned that they will lose their traditional livelihood options, and will be evicted from their ancestral lands.
Given this quagmire, the long term survival of many rare and threatened animals in Changthang is questionable. These are species like the Tibetan gazelle, which has small populations often numbering less than 100 individuals. The Tibetan argali is another species that is inching towards extinction in India. Only about 350 animals are remaining in Ladakh, and the population is declining further due to competition with the increasing livestock population. If the people and the conservation authorities do not resolve their issues, and conservation measures are not taken well in time, species like gazelle and argali might soon leap on to the list of extinct species in India.
One of the main concerns of the Changpas is that establishing the protected area will compromise Pashmina production, the mainstay of their economy. Pashmina is taken to Kashmir and woven into exquisite shawls. Traditionally the Changpas sold the raw fibre to middlemen from Leh, the capital city of Ladakh, and also from Kashmir at very low price. But the government is making a concerted effort to scrap the role of the middlemen and add value to the fibre so that the Changpas fetch a better price for their produce.
The raw fibre needs to be dehaired, which was historically done by Kashmiri workers. But recently the local authorities installed a dehainring plant at Leh, and a cooperative society was formed, which ensures that the plant gets Pashmina in bulk. In 2006, 18000 kg of Pashmina was dehaired by the machine, but the capacity is 30,000 kg. However, the climate of Ladakh is not optimal for its efficient functioning. For instance, due to cold in winter, it can run only for 7-8 hours. Furthermore, there is no refrigerator for storing the fibre, so they can not acquire more than what they can dehair immediately, because the fibre gets rotten if not stored properly. But once the infrastructure is improved and the machine becomes more efficient, there would be further pressure on Changpas to increase Pashmina production.
It is however important for people and the government to realize that they can not keep on increasing the livestock population without compromising the health of the rangelands. Moreover, increasing livestock number does not necessarily translates into higher Pashmina production, because increasing livestock population gives rise to fodder crisis and consequently affects animals' health negatively, thereby compromising Pashmina production both in terms quality and quantity. Thus people need to look for alternative sources of income while optimising the Pashmina production. Besides, it always helps in the mountains with uncertain environmental conditions to have a variety of income sources as a risk minimizing strategy. Wildlife of Ladakh is unique and is attracting lots of nature enthusiasts every year; thus people need to capitalize on this by keeping healthy wildlife populations in their surroundings and organising eco-tours to enhance their incomes.