Building partners in high altitudes through participatory action research – The Applied Ecologist


Lead author Munib Khanyari takes us through his team’s journey through the high altitudes of Changthang in trans-Himalayan India to co-design conservation interventions that benefit the communities who live alongside the wildlife.

“We have solutions, but often we don’t have the ability to operationalise it”, whispered the Acho (Elder brother in Ladakhi) Starzi from Rupsho. Acho Starzi, much like most people inhabiting the harsh landscape of Changthang in the High Ladakhi Himalaya of Northern India, is a nomadic pastoralist, whose life depends on his livestock.

Changthang has nearly 50 villages and hamlets, inhabited by less than 10,000 settled and nomadic pastoralist populations. Changthang is also home to unique wildlife such as the enigmatic snow leopards and their rare and uniquely adapted prey species, such as the Tibetan argali.

The local community and wildlife live alongside, but equally in conflict with, each other, and negative interactions often result in the Changpa people losing their precious livestock. This is exacerbated by the negative impact of climate change on their livestock by affecting the surrounding resources and habitats.

Snow leopard and Argali
Snow leopards (Panthera uncia) and argali (Ovis ammon) are some of the unique wildlife inhabiting the trans-Himalayan landscape © Rigzen Dorjay

Amidst this backdrop, Changpas have felt alienated by the government for over two decades over the notification of the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary. They fear the creation of the protected area will limit their access to services like electricity and, at worst, lead to eviction. As such, the Changpa people have been a target of various community-based conservation initiatives that seek to meet both the community’s needs and conservation targets.

However, the Changpa people have voiced criticism of these approaches for inadvertently delivering on external, top-down ideas; decisions behind such conservation actions and their product often lack input and consultation from the very people they are aimed for.

With this context, we worked with two communities in Changthang to co-design context-specific conservation interventions using participatory action research.

Map of Changthang showing the regions where we worked

The story of Rupsho – summer corrals

After several focus group discussions with the herders of Rupsho, it became apparent they were facing heighted depredation (wildlife killing their livestock) events in the summer:

In Rupsho, livestock (primarily sheep and goat) are usually left grazing out in the flat, open plateau at night near the owners’ rebos (traditional tent). However with changing climates, there’s been increased rainfall in the summer, especially during the night, and livestock have been observed to run from the exposed plateau into the neighbouring cliffs to take shelter. In doing so, they exposed themselves to predators like snow leopards and wolves that prefer these cliffs as refuge.

In the minds of the Rupsho Changpas, the solution was evident – build a rectangular corral/pen that would prevent the livestock from scattering.

summer corrals
A) Building the summer-time corrals, B) the finished corral that is currently in use, C) a community meeting with the Rupsho herders, and D) a Changpa lady tending to her Rebo with the co-designed summer corral in the background. Consent was taken from people in the photo before taking and using these images.

Such a corral would require a concrete one-foot rectangular base on which six-feet steel poles would provide a frame for the steel wiring to run along the perimeter. It would also have a rectangular door that the herder could lock.

(Upon several discussions, the Rupsho Changpas reassured us that the goal of the rectangular summer corrals is not solely to prevent livestock depredation, as with most other reinforced corrals in snow leopard landscapes, but to not let their livestock scatter.)

Being in the plains away from the cliff, these corrals aren’t at risk of predation as the large Changkhi (cousins of the Tibetan Mastiff) dogs could chase away any approaching predators. This was in contrast to the winter corrals which were mostly in or near cliffs and predators had a better chance to enter unnoticed during the night.

We co-designed these corrals with the Rupsho herders and trialled them with seven households.

The story of Tegazong – community researchers

After several initial meetings with the Goba (elected leader) and the Korzok village council, it was unclear what the key issues of the region were. They suggested we work in the Tegazong region, the Korzok community’s winter pasture that is known to have harsh weather conditions but otherwise about which not much is known.

In a community meeting, we emphasised that delivering under the philosophy of science-driven socially-just conservation would require us to gather more information about the region to better understand the prevailing issues. The Korzok Changpas herders understood this and offered to help gather the necessary information for us, as Tegazong is much more remote than other places in Changthang and the community is much more spread out.

Korzok Changpas
A) Community-meeting with Korzok Changpas, B) the group of Korzok Changpas that recorded information on livestock losses and wildlife presence with their diaries, C) diaries with data in local Ladakhi language, and D) image of livestock that died due to the cold. Consent was taken for people in the photo before taking and using these images.

This participatory community-monitoring revealed nutrition and hypothermia to be a key cause of livestock death.

Subsequently, we delimited two previously untested interventions: lamb cribs and provisioning of locally sourced barley as feed supplement. The wildlife monitoring recorded the first record of Tibetan Gazelle (Procapra picticuadata) outside of their known distribution, in Tegazong.

Building partners by enabling the trinity of voice

Through this experience we aimed to operationalize the PARTNERS (Presence, Aptness, Respect, Transparency, Negotiation, Empathy, Responsiveness, Strategic Support) principles of working with local communities. But as the two examples demonstrate, there is a need to ensure meaningful participation when working with local communities. We enabled such participatory processes while using the PARTNERS principles by integrating Senecah’s Trinity of Voice (TOV).

A schematic displaying the integration of Trinity of Voice into the PARTNERS (Presence, Aptness, Respect, Transparency, Negotiation, Empathy, Responsiveness, Strategic Support) principles. For each principle a phase (in the same colour as the principle) is written to describe its essence

Participatory approaches to research is a highly collaborative process where professional researchers must relinquish their authority as principal investigators, and both conceptualization and execution of the research are shared between professional researchers and local participants. TOV combines access, standing and influence, helping build and maintain trust between professional researchers and participants.

While such endeavours aren’t devoid of challenges, ultimately, such projects are needed to ensure ethical knowledge generation and conservation, which aims to be decolonial and inclusive.

Read the full Practice Insights: “Co-designing conservation interventions through participatory action research in the Indian Trans-Himalaya” in Issue 4:2 of Ecological Solutions and Evidence

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