As human populations increasingly cluster in dense urban areas further away from the wild, we tend to lose track of our connections to the environments that shaped us – and the stories that describe those connections. Across the globe, cultures tell tales about the animals they once encountered – from those they domesticated, to those they feared, and even mythical creatures they imagined. These stories can provide insight into the way people lived or clues about what they valued, as well as how they interacted with the wildlife around them.
A new paper by Dr. Saloni Bhatia and her colleagues at the Snow Leopard Trust examines animal folklore in Ladakh, India to better understand people’s relationships with wildlife. Forming one of Saloni’s Ph.D. thesis chapters, the paper focuses on four animals for which she and her team could gather a considerable number of stories: the ibex, the wolf, the snow leopard and a mythical creature called the snow lion. What did the researchers learn from these stories, and how could it help conservation work?
The authors defined folklore as a traditional, dramatic narrative that is most frequently shared orally – though many have now been written down. These stories, myths, fables and legends allow the listeners and readers to examine their social structures and morals. From the vantage point of an outsider or researcher, they also share insights into people’s relationship with the wildlife around them. The researchers suggest that human-wildlife interactions can be both negative and positive, and are rarely simple or static. They give examples of the complex associations cultures have with animals such as the wolf, seen in Mongolia for example as simultaneously “diabolical or dangerous” but also courageous and fearless.
The authors conducted their study in Buddhist and Islamic settings. Ladakh, lying on the historical Silk Route, is a region with great and varied cultural and religious influences – notably animist, Buddhist and Islamic. They collected written and oral folklore through both online and library searches as well as interviews of people in Ladakh. They then examined the stories and folklore to determine the human values most referenced for each real or mythical species.
They found that Ibex were most associated with utilitarianism, with stories noting their domestication, use in trade (horns, pelt) and potential for meat in winter. The stories were also notably associated with positive symbolism – for example the Ladakhi Scouts, a locally based military unit, have the ibex as their mascot.
Wolves, on the other hand, were most frequently associated with negative emotions and negative symbolism. Stories revolved around ways to hunt and kill wolves as well as peoples’ fear or hatred of them, and ascribed wolves as being arrogant or greedy, often seen as bad omens. There were a few positive symbols of wolves though, as they were occasionally associated with local deities.
Snow leopards were more often associated with greater utilitarian values than their wolf counterparts. Stories of snow leopards told of hunting them as trophies, the value of their body parts and use in traditional medicines. Ecological values closely followed, focusing on their behavior or ties to the land.
The mythical snow lion, which shared many characteristics with the snow leopard but doesn’t kill any livestock, was overwhelmingly associated with positive symbolism and cultural values such as “fearlessness, pride, strength, etc.” The snow lion was referred to as king of animals and thought to bring prosperity and peace to the country where it resided.
These findings show that stories and folklore can hold great importance for understanding how cultures define their relationships to the natural world around them – and show that there are also potential consequences for conservation. It is important to note that various values were associated with each real animal and were neither consistent nor total. Such understanding can allow conservationists to integrate greater cultural sensitivity into conservation programs that better reflect and address the values of the people living in close proximity to wild animals. Saloni notes, “As such, folklore provides us with an opportunity to understand people’s psyche and the many nuances of their relationships with the environment. What this means is that individuals or communities are not monolithic but exhibit a range of complex, sometimes contradictory values and behaviors. Therein lies the opportunity for culturally sensitive conservation.”
Snow Leopard Trust has sought to integrate such findings into our conservation efforts. We have often faced skepticism about protecting wild snow leopards when for many rural communities, they are a source of economic loss because of livestock predation. This challenge can be addressed to some extent through livestock insurance and predator-proofing of corrals for securing livestock. Even if snow leopards retain some negative associations within these communities, this relationship with wildlife is integral to their own and collective identities – and conservationists must reconcile these cultural values with their practices so that both communities and wildlife benefit.