Protecting the predator

From: India Today

By Sandeep Unnithan

May 15, 2008

Till a few years ago, whenever the people of the picturesque Kibber village in Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti valley discovered that their cows and yaks were killed by the snow leopard, they would try to poison or trap the elusive cat.

Today, however, after every such incident, they merely inform the village community members who then confirm if the preyed animal had a thumbnail-sized numbered metal tag on its ear—a proof of insurance—and hand them anything between Rs 2,500 and Rs 10,000 as compensation.

Thanks to a unique livestock insurance scheme started by the International Snow Leopard Trust (ISLT) and the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), villagers do not vent their anger on trying to kill the endangered animal and instead are compensated for their loss.

Every year, all the households of the five quaintly named villages of Spiti—Kibber, Kee, Gete, Tashigang and Chichim—pool in Rs 800 towards insuring their cows and yaks—sheep and goats are not covered yet— against assaults by snow leopards.

These shy cats are smaller than the common leopard but sport a thicker spotted-coat and tail. They number less than 500 and are found mostly in the upper reaches of the Himalayas.

The project was initiated nearly six years ago because of the failure of the usual state-run compensation schemes mired in red tape, corruption and fake claims.

It owes its success mainly to the fact that the villagers have taken ownership of the programme and treat it as their own. “There are no fake claims because the villagers realise it is their own money,” says Koustubh Sharma, regional field biologist with ISLT.

The scheme began with the two organisations paying 60 per cent of the premium but is now wholly paid for and run by the villagers.

From 171 households in the five Spiti villages which pooled in over Rs 24 lakh, the scheme has now spread to nearby Ladakh where it covers 72 households.

The villagers have taken up the scheme with a missionary zeal. “Their democratic and tightly-knit social structure and the involvement of women have played a big role in its success,” says Pranav Trivedi, who heads ISLT’s education programmes.

The trust also got the villagers to set aside a 20 squarekilometre reserve for the snow leopard near their villages to ensure that the endangered animal found enough prey.

Consequently, when they spot a snow leopard now, the villagers in Spiti valley do not see the animal as a threat, instead they treat it as a gentle interloper. It’s a welcome change in attitude, which could augur well for other areas of human-wildlife conflict as well.

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