A small stupa at the shangdong at Mane Kiri in Kyamar valley, next to prayer flags fluttering in the wind. Photo: Karma Sonam/NCF.
We had parked our jeep on one side of the vast Kyamar valley encircled by mountains, and were walking along a pencil-thin ledge in soft screed with a shallow stream, with a vertical drop of 20-something feet on our right and mountains rising on the left. Karma ley was walking as if in a garden. For me – the more carefully I stepped, the more my fear increased. I barely managed to negotiate the rest of the length, and we entered a section with a gentler slope. “This entire length could be negotiated by jeep earlier,” Karma ley told me. But the stream had cut into the rough road recently, leaving only a shepherd’s path.
We had left early from Karma ley’s hamlet of Rumtse, part of the village of Gya. Located along a tributary of the Indus at about 4150 m above sea level on the Leh-Manali highway; we’d taken the Manali route. We drove upstream with the river flowing on our left through a deep gorge. Soon, the gorge flattened out and the river was sparkling more or less at our level. At a point where it wasn’t too wide, a bridge allowed us to cross over.
We were now going along the flow. As we approached its confluence with a bubbly stream, we turned to the right, and drove upstream. We were following the Salt Road, along which salt had been transported until the 1980s from the high altitude lake of Tso Kar to Leh. The herders used to come with livestock saddled with bags of salt, and after 15-20 days of barter, would head back loaded with barley. Today, the road is part of a popular trek route to Tso Moriri.
As the valley broadened out, we reached a point where we had to cross the stream. We stopped, and Karma ley examined the water carefully, as if he was reading a hand. It was precious, ice-cold snow-melt from the Trans-Himalaya. Carefully manoeuvring the jeep, we crossed the stream to enter into the broad flat Kyamar valley – the Gya pasture land.
“We are visiting a very special place, an ancient wolf trap,” Karma ley told me. I was intrigued. What would a wolf trap in this vast open landscape be like? It seemed straight out of the middle ages.
Typical of the high-altitude, cold, desert-like regions of Ladakh, livestock herding was a vital livelihood. Until the 1970s, 24 of Gya’s 150 or so families depended on livestock herding. Today, 14 such families remain; some of them have up to 400 animals. They take the entire livestock of Gya, including about 10-15 animals per non-herding family, for grazing. In winter, the entire village’s livestock camps out in the Kyamar valley. The conditions are harsh – the temperature dips to -30º C accompanied by winds blowing at around 25 km/hr.
This landscape harbours some rare and hardy wild ungulates like the bharal (blue sheep), ibex, argali, urial and kiang, and smaller wildlife like hare, pika and marmot. However, the predators of the Trans-Himalaya, mostly wolves but also snow leopards, lynxes and even Tibetan sand foxes find easier prey in the herder’s sheep and goats. But the predation of livestock didn’t go down well with the herders and there was conflict. And to counter the wolves, the herders came up with the shangdong – a wolf trap.
We had probably been walking for 45 minutes, spotting birds and pika, small, hare-like creatures in the low scrub. All of a sudden, Karma ley pointed and shouted, “shangdong”. Some 50 metres away, I could discern a distinct dry-stone wall. When we got closer, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The shangdong was a large circular well of sorts, with every stone layer curving inwards a little more than the previous layer. The shape resembled that of a bowl, with the sides abruptly ending on a flat floor at about six feet down.
The construction was quite impressive, and must have required a high level of skill and a lot of work. The stones were large, flattish and rectangular, many up to two feet long, some even longer. This shangdong was about 40 feet wide. The stones had clearly come from faraway places; we couldn’t see any others of the same size nearby.
A young healthy sheep or goat would be placed inside as bait. The animal’s bleating or odour would attract a wolf, tempting it with the chance of an easy meal. The wolf would jump in – only to realise quickly that the inwardly curved walls rendered escape impossible, trapping it.
The Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) recently released a 13-minute film, entitled ‘Shandong to Stupa‘, online, describing the shangdong in more detail, including a trapped wolf being stoned to death. Karma ley works with NCF as a field manager.
The shangdong we were checking out hadn’t been used in a while, and had shrubs growing inside. Karma ley recalled an incident from his teenage years. His family had cultivated small parcels of land in Gya. On early winter mornings, he’d accompany his father on horseback into the Kyamar valley, to collect livestock droppings for their fields. One morning, they noticed a clamour near the shangdong. When they took a look, they found a large, beautiful wolf, with a partly black coat, trapped inside. The herders were stoning it; Karma ley even helped collect some stones, and watched the poor creature die. That was 35 years ago. Today, Karma ley is more aware of the need to conserve Ladakh’s precious wildlife.
Trapping a wolf and stoning it to death used to be cause for celebration. Residents would carry the wolf’s head in a procession through the village. Herder families would contribute one young animal in good health for every hundred they owned to be used as bait, in rotation.
This said, shangdongs weren’t the only means to keep wolf attacks in check. Wolves litter during the winter, so herders would identify active dens, kill the pups, and be awarded by other villagers with barley. And while shangdongs aren’t in use anymore, herders continue to kill pups, endangering Himalayan wolves.
This is an exceptional, and highly understudied, animal that has evolved to thrive in the intimidatingly rarified air 4,000 m above sea level, and is on the verge of being described as a separate species of its own. Its range extends from Sikkim to Ladakh, encompassing parts of Tibet, Nepal and the Spiti valley. We don’t exactly know how many Himalayan wolves there are. They haven’t received the conservation attention they deserve, and researchers fear they may fade into oblivion if we don’t start soon.
Over time, herding practices have changed, alternative livelihoods have emerged, and there is more awareness today of Ladakh’s unique wildlife. Although Karma ley hasn’t heard of any wolves being killed for close to a decade, and and shangdong lie in a state of disuse, there’s still the risk of wolves and other animals accidentally falling into these pits and getting stuck. In a roadside shangdong near the high altitude lake of Tso Kar, I saw skins and skeletons of sheep and yak thrown in, potentially tempting predators.
Ringzin Dorjay of the NCF led an effort that mapped over 80 of these traps spread over eastern Ladakh and the Sham valley, indicating that their use was quite widespread. According to Karma ley, shangdongs were in use until about a decade ago in Ladakh and appear to still be in use on the Tibetan side. Dorjay and co. are planning to cover other parts of this vast region, including Kargil.
The idea to turn shangdongs into symbolic places of worship took shape in 2016. To convert a shangdong into a stupa, the NCF conducted consultations with the goba, the village headman, and village youth groups, women’s alliances, herding community representatives and government officials. In 2018, following a discussion between Charudutt Mishra of the NCF and His Eminence Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche of the Lamayuru monastery, Chushul received its first such stupa. Gya followed in 2019, after enthusiastic village youth associations reached out to villagers, religious leaders, government officials and, importantly, herders to build consensus.
The people of Chushul decommissioned four shangdongs to build and consecrate one stupa, and the Lato community consecrated a maney, a stone plate with engraved prayers. Other than erecting the stupa, the shangdong is retained as is (other making a small opening to allow any animals that may fall in to escape), as a unique part of the region’s rich agro-pastoral heritage.
The Chushul stupa was also blessed by Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche and other monks in the region. Religious leaders have taken the lead because they believe this initiative could undo past wrongdoings and promote coexistence.
If we’d stayed for longer, I might have jumped into the shangdong much like wolves past. Karma ley was cool as a Himalayan wolf but I thought the visit had been special for him as well. It had turned a bit cloudy and cold, and we decided to turn back. Karma ley had to participate in some discussions on shangdongs in Gya that evening.
By the time we got to our jeep, a drizzle had started to come down; Karma Ley said it must be snowing in the higher reaches. It was an unusual time for rain and snow in Ladakh.
Karma ley feared officials may have closed traffic on the Manali-Leh road. We took the same route back — but our gazes had changed. We started sensing the presence of wolves all around us. We spotted multiple droppings — they could’ve belonged to the wolves or to snow leopards, but Karma ley figured they were the wolves’. We could visualise wolf packs moving languidly as grey specks in this wide expanse, encircled by mountains. We stopped at a couple of places on the way back to look at birds and marmots.
Transforming shangdongs to stupas was great for the wildlife but the herder community would continue to face losses. But Karma ley said there are other initiatives to help preserve the community’s livelihoods. According to him, NCF, his employer, has also been working with villagers on insurance schemes, predator-proofing corrals and creating grazing-free reserves.
Later that evening, he told me that a meeting about a stupa at a shangdong had gone well. A few months after I returned to Delhi, I received beautiful images via WhatsApp of a lovely little stupa and prayer flags fluttering next to the shangdong we had visited, with llamas dressed for the ceremony in regal attire.
There is a Ladakhi folktale in which a wolf trapped inside a shangdong pretends to befriend the lamb, calling her “dear sister”, hoping the herders spare him then. This couldn’t have been a happy situation for the lamb or the wolf. But now, with shrines in the place of traps, the story becomes an old memory.
Peeyush Sekhsaria is an amateur naturalist.