Bridging the divide

Connecting communities in Nepal with government relief scheme for snow leopard conservation

For the people of Dolpo, the Covid years marked a turning point. In 2021/22, more than Rs10 million in government relief was granted to the communities for livestock killed by wild carnivores, notably the snow leopard and the wolf. This was a stark increase from five years ago when there was no relief despite existing provisions.

A community leadership program combined with efforts of dedicated officials helped bridge this divide, creating a model for Nepal wherein remote communities benefit from the federal government’s welfare schemes.

Like other mountainous regions, Dolpo relies largely on livestock rearing for livelihood. But they are also an easy meal for the elusive big cat compared to the more agile wild prey such as the blue sheep.

While some livestock lifting is accepted given the region's Buddhist faith and values, severe cases - known as ‘surplus killing’ – are understood to attract ire and occasional retaliation against the snow leopard which are among the gravest threats to this vulnerable species with their worldwide population limited to a few thousand.

In one instance of surplus killing last year, 98 goats and sheep, belonging to one household in Lhuri - a remote upper Dolpo village, were killed in a single night. Such incidents mostly occur when herders stow their animals in open corrals that allow snow leopards to enter and trap the livestock within. The wild cat’s hunting instincts then drive it to bring down the scurrying prey, one after another.

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Shey Phoksundo National Park’s (SPNP) relief records show that 1,334 livestock were killed last year. The Park authorities granted Rs10.4 million to nearly 387 households, including around Rs300,000 to the Lhuri household.

In 2018, SPNP, supported by WWF initiated a snow leopard conservation project under the leadership of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. A baseline assessment which included a survey among 124 herders found that 96% of them were facing livestock loss to wildlife.

Community-managed livestock insurance schemes (LIS) had been initiated more than a decade ago through a similar collaboration, but sustainability had remained as elusive as the predator it tried to save. The schemes had been initiated following a similar effort in Kangchenjunga Conservation Area (KCA), where community-run LIS was found to have successfully contributed to zero retaliatory killings of snow leopards.

However, despite nearly Rs10 million in cumulative investments till 2018, high conflicts combined with low strategic management capacity in SPNP caused the LIS to remain unfeasibly reliant on constant external investment.

Alternatively, Nepal government’s Wildlife Damage Relief Guidelines (WDRG, 2069) promised relief up to Rs30,000 for livestock killed by protected predator species. However, awareness about the guidelines and the process to access it was low. Moreover, locals reported that taking the necessary documents to SPNP Headquarters in Suligad required weeks of travel and often cost them more than the relief they received.

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SPNP Chief Conservation Officer Lal B Bhandari teaches locals about WDRG. Photo: SHEREN SHRESTHA

With these two relief provisions running parallelly but neither delivering the objective of sustainable relief to community, the SPNP-WWF project saw an opportunity to integrate the two. Then began the process of restructuring the community-run LIS to access the WDRG relief.

SPNP-WWF had been training and mobilising community youth as citizen scientist members of Snow Leopard Conservation Committees (SLCC). Working closely with them, the reinitiated SPNP-WWF project began making adaptations, and a pathway to reform the LIS.

A major step included retrieval of LIS funds started through an earlier Northern Mountain Conservation Project that had since been distributed among the community households or used for other purposes. This was encouraged with commitments of additional fund support for the LIS from the SPNP-WWF project. Alongside, discussions were held to generate acceptance for individual contribution by community members as ‘premium’, which would collect in LIS coffers to support the cost to access WDRG.

Read also: Satellite tracking snow leopards in Nepal to study climate impact, Nepali Times

Pic: SLCC members during a reflective workshop on conflict relief management.

Reflective trainings were held about twice a year to identify challenges and develop capacity of SLCC members to manage the reformed LIS. Learnings were incorporated into the project cycle in the form of adapted activities or approaches. To make LIS relevant locally, a model guidelines document was prepared for adaptation in five blocks - Bhijer, Saldang, Dho, Phoksundo and Dolphu. Yet, they all had a common objective - to aid respective communities in accessing relief, and a common approach - requiring individual household contributions.

Not all previous funds have been retrieved, and the LIS are in different stages of functionality. Bhijer has begun implementation, collected premiums, and retrieved all funds belonging to its beneficiaries. Remaining four have reached out to their respective communities, generating increasing understanding and interest in owning this community welfare initiative.

For now, LIS management costs borne by SPNP-WWF project are showcasing what could be done with their own funds when systematically managed. Nearly 270 households of mid and upper Dolpo were among the beneficiaries of WDRG relief receiving over Rs8.2 million of the Rs10.4 million granted by SPNP last year.

The communities’ SLCC and LIS leadership has contributed to this success. SPNP teams under the leadership of several Chief Conservation Officers, including young officers who reached the remotest regions of SPNP, blending with the community, to seasoned senior officials with years of experience in protected area management, have played a key role. With their knowledge of policy and understanding of the community, they have mobilised their authority to draw national WDRG funds to help the people here access their rights.

Read also: Nepal leads in snow leopard study, Sonia Awale

Likewise, local government authorities, such as the Shey Phoksundo Rural Municipality, have facilitated strengthening this bridge. Among their key contributions to this initiative has been improvement in communication. Five years ago, without satellite phones, connecting the remote upper Dolpo with the rest of the world including NP authorities required physically traversing these extreme terrains. Now most villages are connected through telephones and even the internet.

Without clarity of context, one may be tempted to criticise the nominalism of the relief provided. After all, the last fiscal year’s relief from WDRG provisions, averages just about Rs8,500 per livestock lost. Yet, for the community that only five years ago were excluded from this benefit, the change has been transformational.

Whether this has benefited snow leopards is a matter of further research. Subjectively however, knowing what was then, what is now, and what has gone on to reach this state, the WWF team is privileged to have been a small part of this change to help the communities that live with and protect the snow leopard.

The LIS are far from perfect; learning, adapting, and improving is the only constant. Yet, as we celebrate this mountain day, we honour these community leaders and government officials who have used this scheme to bridge the divide and taken us another step closer to secure the future of the magnificent snow leopard together with the mountain communities.

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