Sakteng herders no longer rear sheep

|     Rinzin Wangchuk     |


SAKTENG, Trashigang (Kuensel/ANN) – 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 river 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.

Sakteng, which is located at an altitude of more than 3,000 metres above the sea level, is a remote nomad community in eastern Bhutan where they primarily rear yak and sheep for daily sustenance. These highlanders speak a unique dialect and also wear unique clothing.

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 they were 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.

A flock of sheep was spotted at the bank of Gamri Chhu River in October last year. – KUENSEL/ANN

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.”

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 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 (woman shirt).

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 practise among highlanders has not been replaced by anything as of now even though the community has been raising the issue of declining sheep population at meetings.