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Sakteng herders no more rear sheep

Residents instead import wool from Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh 

Unlike five years ago, a visitor to Sakteng in northern Trashigang today would not sight grazing horses, sheep and yaks.

A cluster of identical houses stands in the glacial valley now with the silvery Gamri Chhu flowing across. The traditional practice of sheep rearing for wool production in this nomad community has drastically declined and become almost a story of distant past.

Herder Karchung, 61, used to own a flock of 100 sheep and earned more than Nu 200,000 annually by selling wool products. But his sheep fell prey to wild dogs when it was out grazing in 2013. “A pack of wild dogs preyed on my sheep in three nights,” a father of seven sons said, adding that not one sheep survived.

He reported to the forest officers in Sakteng range office. “Foresters came to the pastureland and took some photographs of the carcasses. However, I was not compensated for the sheep lost to wild dogs,” Karchung said.

The herder today depends on yak for livelihood.

Stray dogs are another problem to the highlanders of Sakteng today. Zowo Passang from Tengma chiwog reared about 50 sheep in 2012. He harvested wool thrice a year and earned about Nu 100,000 annually. But, Passang lost all his sheep to stray dogs within a year.

“Except for few pet dogs, you cannot see a single stray dog during the day,” Zowo Passang said. “Come dark and packs of aggressive canines are out hunting for sheep.”

A flock of sheep was spotted at the bank of Gamri Chhu in  October last year
A flock of sheep was spotted at the bank of Gamri Chhu in October last year

Sakteng mangmi Lhundup also said that herders face problems both from domestic and wild predators in rearing sheep.

“When herders take their sheep along with yaks for grazing in summer, the wild dogs, foxes and even bears prey on the sheep,” he said. The sheep fell prey to stray dogs when they return to the villages in winter.

He said herders have been requesting the gewog administration that they be compensated for sheep lost to predators. It is also a concern to the community to see the use of traditional dress declining due to unavailability of wool.

The attire for men comprises of a thick jacket made from yak hair and sheep wool known as chuba. The woollen trousers, called kango are covered until the knee with a skirt-like piece called pishu. For women, an apron-like shingkha reaches some centimetres below the knees. Woven from raw silk, the shingkha is covered with a toedung that looks like tego.

Herders say they import wool from Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. “When we can’t produce wool at home, we are compelled to import expensive wool from India,” Zowo Passang said.

Thinley Wangdi of Department of Forests and Park Services said the sheep rearing practice among highlanders has not been replaced by anything as of now even though community has been raising the issue of declining sheep population at meetings.

He said the department provides meagre compensation to those who lose their livestock to tiger and snow leopard due to the lack of fund. Thsoe killed by wild dogs and bears have never been provided compensation to any communities in the country.

“However, the management of Sakteng Wildlife Sanctury (SWS) is looking for a project to initiate human wildlife conflict insurance scheme that may compensate if the communities are willing to insure sheep,” Thinley Wangdi, who also looks after the SWS, said.  “But we haven’t secured the fund yet. If we are successful in securing the fund, we will also supply additional sheep to the community in collaboration with the department of livestock.”

The government donated some sheep last year in Sakteng and Merak to encourage sheep rearing.

He said the impact of declining sheep rearing practice would lead to loss of brokpa dress culture, which is unique in the country. The brokpa dress for both male and female is made of sheep and yak wool. “Selling clothes made of sheep wool is not the main income generating activity of the brokpa community,” the official said.

Sheep in Merak and Sakteng were believed to have originated from Tsona in southeast Tibet. According to oral history, around 1347, a group of Tibetans migrated with their yaks and sheep after assassinating their local ruler Dreba-Yabu and were looking for a suitable place to settle in. King Dreba-yabu had made his subjects to blunt the high peak on the eastern side of the palace that blocked the sunlight.

Oral history has it that the group was crossing Nyagchungla, the high pass between Sakteng and Merak, when the old and the weak succumbed to fatigue.

The local protective deity of Sakteng and Merak, Aum Jomo, was the leader and when she looked back from the mountain, she saw Sakteng, a plain of bamboos (sak means bamboo, teng means plain). Aum Jomo and her group cleared the bamboos and founded the village of Sakteng for the old and the weak.

The rest of the group moved beyond Nyagchungla to Merak and settled there.

Rinzin Wangchuk

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