Life in the Himalayas cannot be imagined without large groups of people who move along with their homes. They are nomads living all along the Himalayas be it Tibet, India, Nepal or Bhutan rearing different livestock starting from Yaks to Goats and Sheep and even at times horses. Moving across the grasslands with their animals, their tents, nomads evoke mobility and the liberty to roam in search of grass and water. But they are constantly exposed to the harsh elements—rain, snowstorms, and drought; they take these events for granted and face them with remarkable equanimity. Nomads also have an intimate knowledge of their environment and an amazing ability to handle animals—a skill rare among most people today. But with growing time now they are facing the biggest challenge -climate change affecting their life and the hills.

The nomads are found in the entire Kashmir region between India and Pakistan, and in the Nuristan Province of northeast Afghanistan. Their brethren in Tibet mostly keep yaks and sheep. They lead a much more harsh life than their counterparts in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. There life has been vastly affected due to unprecedented development of roads, railways and buildings in Tibet.

In the Ramnagar forest area, located on the Jammu-Srinagar highway, which was once the hunting ground of the Maharajas that ruled J&K, is at present devoid of lush-green leaves because of the unexpected precipitation, which included three bouts of hail in the third week of October this year. The rains were reported because of a unique weather phenomenon that developed over north-west India due to a low-pressure area created in the Bay of Bengal. The unexpected weather strangely coincided with the much-publicised negotiations on climate change at the 26th United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) in Glasgow, Scotland ended last month.

The unexpected precipitation this October in parts of north India, including the several feet of snow in the Pir Panjal mountains that divide the Kashmir province from Jammu, coincided with the seasonal march of the Bakerwala (goat and sheep rearers) community to the low-lying areas. This journey has defined their way of living for centuries. Around the same time, the community caught in the snow when they reached Nathatop, at a height of over 6,500 feet in the Patnitop-Sanasar belt of J&K’s Ramban district. Many of their goats, who are less acclimated to the cold weather as compared to sheep, died shivering.

Besides the abnormal weather the available grazing areas in their winter abode have shrunk due to urbanisation both for human settlement and tourism. The unregulated use of the forest area for building dwellings has also led to a rise in wild animal- man encounters. Earlier, the Bakerwalas, who lived in the nearby forests, acted as a human wall to such attacks by wild predators in urban congested settlements. Their dogs can deter wild animals to many extents.

In addition to climate change, Covid-19 has left the community devastated. Covid-19 has depressed the global price of raw wool. Apart from selling goat and sheep for mutton, the sheared sheep raw wool yielded an additional source of income to the Bakerwalas.

The grazing lands for the nomads are from the headwaters’ environment where many important rivers like Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, and Sutlej originate. The preservation and management of these river source environments will be of increasing importance in the future. Upsetting the ecological balance in these high-elevation rangelands will have a profound effect on millions of people living downstream. These grazing lands, and the nomads who use them, deserve greater attention.

Any loss to the nomads is the loss to the whole Himalayas. Like many people living close to nature, nomads developed a close connection to the land and the livestock that nurture them. For thousands of years, they survived by raising animals. However, nomads didn’t merely eke out a living; they created a unique culture.

Nomads possess a great body of indigenous knowledge about the environment in which they live, the animals they raise for a living, and the wildlife that is found in their environs. This was a major reason why the nomads can persist in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Unfortunately, nomads’ vast ecological knowledge and animal husbandry skills are often not well understood by scientists and development planners.

Source: Himalayan News Chronicle