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The Hindu last Saturday effectively analyzed the potential conflicts between conserving wildlife in the protected areas of Ladakh and preserving the livelihoods of people who live in them.

The State of Jammu and Kashmir designated three protected areas in 1987: Hemis National Park near Leh, the Karakorum Wildlife Sanctuary in Northern Ladakh, and the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary in the southeastern area of the district. The act designating these three protected areas specified that the rights of the inhabitants should be recorded, so that the government could purchase their properties, move the boundaries of the preserves, or change the designations. For almost 20 years, nothing happened.

In 2006 the Supreme Court asked the states why the rights of the people had not yet been settled. The Jammu and Kashmir State government made a commitment to complete the process by October of 2007, and it finally began the process in the middle of last year. Revenue officers were designated to do the work of reconciling the sometimes conflicting needs of wildlife and humans.

The authors, Ashish Kothari and Sujatha Padmanabhan, contend that, in contrast to many other sections of India, wildlife in Ladakh has existed in harmony with human populations for centuries. The low population densities, Buddhist beliefs that prohibit hunting and fishing, and sophisticated herding practices have contributed to this relative harmony. Wildlife, including snow leopards, continue to live in close proximity with human settlements.

People in the villages visited by the authors within the boundaries of the designated protected areas were perplexed as to why their areas had been singled out for protection. They feel they have lived harmoniously with wildlife for centuries, and the local birds and animals live both within and outside the zones of protection.

The larger issue, though, is that some of the Ladakhi wildlife species have become endangered. While the population of snow leopards is holding up quite well, the numbers of Tibetan argali, large wild sheep, are plummeting. An influx of herders from Tibet in the 1960s has caused environmental problems in the Changtang region, as has the presence of a significant army detachment in that area. These people are evidently hunting indiscriminately.

Many villagers, especially in the Hemis and Changthang protected areas, are becoming resentful about the government imposing restrictions when they have been the ones who have traditionally protected the wildlife. They feel they are being discriminated against unjustly. They also resent the fact that developments offered to other areas of Ladakh, such as new roads, tourist facilities, and other projects have been denied to them because they happen to lie within ill-defined protected areas.

The authors describe workshops held in Leh in October 2007 that included representatives of the communities within the protected areas plus a range of government and NGO officials. They indicate that the participants were able to rise above their complaints and recriminations to agree on the dual needs of securing the traditional rights of the villagers and of protecting the wildlife.

Villagers from Hemis described valleys that they felt should be completely protected. Six months earlier, the people of Rumbak village in Hemis had decided to eliminate all grazing from a 16 square km. area because they realized that the 18 remaining Tibetan argali animals in the valley needed space to live and rebuild their population.

The authors conclude that “only time will tell if [the discussion process] will help the traditionally peaceful mosaic of humans and wildlife in this unique landscape survive the current challenges.”