You will not find anyone here, they left last month," said Ramesh Chand about other shepherds in his mountain village. At 49, Chand is among a handful of men left in Kareri, near the town of Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh. The rest have set off on a months-long journey with their flocks of sheep and goats.
“They stay in makeshift tents on the mountain and once the snow starts melting, they will move further up," said Chand, pointing to the snow-covered peaks of the mighty Dhauladhar ranges standing tall along the eastern edge of the village.
Every summer, the Gaddis, a semi-nomadic community that rears sheep and goats, travel with their herds between the upper reaches of Chamba and Lahaul in search of grazing pastures and come down in the winters when it starts to snow uphill.
“One has to see the difficult terrain that Gaddis plod, to believe the degree of risks involved. Sometimes there is sudden, unprecedented rainfall or snowfall and they get trapped. Such incidents get reported often," says senior scientist Brij Lal, formerly with the CSIR-Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology, Palampur.
The tribe, famous for its carpet wool, is on the front line of climate change and is struggling to preserve its traditional livelihood. As of 2011, there were only 178,000 Gaddi pastoralists in the state.
Changes in the tree line, snow line and pastoral grounds have impacted the traditional route of seasonal migration. With the temperature rising by 1.6°C in the north-western Himalayan region over the last century, indigenous tribes have moved higher up, an act that has only heightened the risks.
Global warming in Himachal Pradesh leads to erratic rainfall, shifts in snowline and extreme weather events, according to the state’s action plan on climate change. Some regions could see an increase in the intensity of rainfall, coupled with storms.
“People have stopped rearing sheep. The grasslands have shrunk," said Chand. “Neither are our children willing to take this up anymore. So, we have begun to hire workers to take the livestock for grazing," he said.
The average temperature in the state has been rising across seasons and, under the most probable scenario, is likely to increase by 3°C by 2100. Rising temperatures may improve the quality of grass and prolong the grazing season, but these likely benefits are already being offset by other challenges. Pests and diseases among livestock have grown, affecting the quality of wool the shepherds produce.
Disease causing organisms living in an environment of low mean temperature may witness increased development even if there is a small increase in temperature, reducing animal productivity and possibly leading to an increase animal mortality. Some may adapt to changes in temperature by changing geographical distribution.
“The ecology is shifting upwards. Foot and mouth disease has become quite common among the animals. It appears in Una, a low-lying city bordering Punjab , where the temperature is 28-29°C in March. However, as the Gaddis reach higher altitudes, where temperatures are 28-30°C during that period, the host of the disease shifts accordingly," said Ranbir Singh Rana, principal scientist at Himachal Pradesh Agricultural University (HPAU), Palampur.
Studies show that the temperature humidity index (THI), a measure of heat stress faced by animals is projected to rise in many parts of the state.
“Livestock has become more prone to lice and ticks," said Rana. The increase in temperature has also exacerbated the weed problem in the hills, as some warm season weeds have spread to higher altitudes. “The pastures are no longer clean. There is unwanted grass, which compels the Gaddis to go higher up," he said.
The agriculture and livestock keeping are amongst the most climate-sensitive economic sectors. The recent report by Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) also highlighted how limited resources and fragility of environment are rendering the hill tribes more vulnerable to climate variations and the risk of them falling into poverty is much higher than in the lowlands.
A recent report by United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also highlighted that global pasture area has begun to decline in last 20 years.
The challenge has led the state government to draw up a ₹250 crore programme for skill development for communities, focusing on biodiversity conservation and climate change.
“The idea is to train people on how to adapt and manage these pastures for sustaining their livelihood and develop their skills to protect the landscape," said Suresh C. Attri, principal scientific officer in the department of environment, science and technology, Himachal Pradesh.
With one of the oldest indigenous communities of the state beginning to abandon its traditional livelihood, it may not be surprising if wool making disappears from this part of the hills. “Those who still continue are those who have already crossed the prime of their life. The younger ones are hard to find," said Rana.
This story was published as part of IHCAP-CMS Media Fellowship programme 2019.