Monday, 13 October 2008

Bhutan : The other side of the conservation coin

13 October, 2008 - Of late, cattle herders of Merak and Sakteng have been looking for a solution to a new problem that they say could slowly threaten their livelihood.

Yak and cattle herders in the remote dungkhag say that their pastureland is slowly shrinking after a huge portion of it was absorbed by the 650 sq km Sakteng wildlife sanctuary.

Herders say that, because of the sanctuary, clearing of forest for pastureland had also been stopped. The problem is not so much disallowing felling of trees as the fast spreading forest coverage, according to herders. “Our pastureland grazed for centuries is fast shrinking,” said a farmer, Wangda, at a meeting with forestry officials last month.

“The juniper trees, if not controlled, grow and spread very fast,” said Wangda. Herders lopping branches were also levied fines by forestry authorities. Recently, as a part of land management and forestation programmes, the park has also planted trees.

“Our animals are our only means of survival. If they don’t survive, then we’ve nothing left,” said a villager at the meeting. “How will we survive if the pastures continue to become smaller with each passing month?”

Brokpas (highlanders) of Merak and Sakteng feel that the conservation plan has become a double-edged sword for sheep and yak rearing families. Also, with forest coverage increasing, livestock is more exposed to predators, according to brokpas.

Sakteng brokpas said that more than 20 sheep were snatched recently from their sheds at night by wild animals, mostly wild dogs and bears.

Dorji Tshering, 32, from Merak, has lost half his flock to fara (wild dogs) and bears. “The bears even come close to homes and take away sheep. We can’t do anything,” he said.

Norbu Wangdi, 36, who lost nine sheep, said that the fara and bears were everywhere. “I’ve lost three sheep from the village and six at the nobrangsa (area where livestock are kept, especially in the jungle). The fara come in groups and, once they attack, they kill more than one at a time,” he said.

Although no research has been done, herders claim that the wild animal population has increased because of increasing forest coverage. “While our pastures are becoming smaller, wild animals are coming nearer our villages,” said a brokpa.

The park office earlier compensated livestock killed by tiger and bears but, since last year, compensation was only given for animals killed by tigers.

The Sakteng gup, Phurba Wangdi, said that, because of the change in compensation, villagers do not report attacks by predators on their livestock. “There are attacks by leopards, bears and fara on horses, sheep and yaks, but the reports are very few,” said the gup.

“Tiger attack is almost non existent, so we should also be compensated for other wild animal attacks,” said a villager.

Villagers say that bear attacks have increased in recent years. Herding cattle or travelling alone has become difficult with frequent attack from bears, according to villagers. Laydra, 42, from Merak, nearly lost his right eye when a bear attacked him in July last year. Pema Wangchuk, 32, from the same village was also attacked but escaped without injury.

Forest officials, however, said that wild animal attacks increased because villagers were hunting them, which could have disturbed their food chain.

Records with officials show that between 2007 and 2008, more than 20 traps were found and destroyed in Merak range alone. The risungpa (local forest guard), Tashi Phuntsho, said that villagers still hunt bears, musk deer, and other small wild animals despite strict vigilance by park officials.

“Hunters have even moved deep into forests to set traps,” said the deputy ranger, Jambay Dendup, of the Merak Park range.

They said that locating animal sheds amidst thick forests also made livestock vulnerable to predators.

By Tshering Palden

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