The Sacred Valley Concept (including the leopard Thagu)
From Jack Kinross:
There are indigenous cultures who believe we were put on this earth to take
care of it. It’s fair to say we’re not doing a great job but there is hope based on
what we can still learn and understand. Wild animals help our understanding.
“To touch people, you need poetry” said a friend to me recently, not his original
quote but he knew I’d appreciate it.
Thagu occupies my thoughts with his story, his poetry. This project, and any associated story
telling has to be about making things better for him and the people he coexists with.
The Sacred Valley Concept (SVC) is very much based around the human and nature connection and in this case has direct and long term benefits for people and leopards as well as the habitat they live in. A mountain community I’ve known for twelve years, their connection to the land, is central to the SVC. An important component is the “Rights of Nature” which is a philosophy gaining foothold globally especially with biodiversity targets for 2030 and 2050 in mind. We share the planet with other species, respecting that in our actions going forward is critical to the health of the planet but also our individual health, physically, mentally and spiritually, the SCV represents that thinking.
A little about the leopard Thagu
Before going any further, check out the muscularity of this leopard I got on
camera trap when he visited Leopard Camp in 2015 during the rewilding of the
leopard Asa. This leopard isn’t Thagu (or is he?) and this is where the situation is
interesting in that these huge mountain leopards have never been properly
studied plus there is another twist because although Asa is in the enclosure you
can see (there were several interactions between this leopard and Asa during the
rewilding), he did himself become a very powerful leopard by the time he became
completely independent and no longer needed my help.
This all adds to the mystery of Thagu and his behavior a couple of valleys over
from where this image was taken. Time will reveal more about Thagu but for now
this is a brief summary of what we know:
*Thagu is a very secretive cat, pretty much never seen, it is his actions by
way of kills that give away his presence along with some sign in the form of
pugmarks and scrapings.
* Thagu has never attacked a human, this is an important point I’ll touch on
later in updates, it pertains very much to the whole thinking of the
Sacred Valley Concept (SVC) and the importance of the Annapurna
*Thagu’s attacks on livestock include kills of yaks, goats and remarkably of
adult buffalo, at least one but maybe two incidents, an almost unknown
occurrence by a leopard anywhere, giving indications of Thagu’s size and
*Thagu’s territory, based on these wildlife kills, is incredibly varied and
within some of the most rugged terrain imaginable, he is a true mountain
Annapurna Dakshin and the Sacred Valley
Annapurna Dakshin at 7219 metres at the head of the Sacred Valley, there is
usually more snow in January, in many ways this story is about the Himalaya itself,
a crucial environment (part of what is known as The Third Pole) undergoing
change. The lack of snow during the most ‘wintry’ month of the year has alerted
many in the environmental field, there is little doubt the roof of the world is one
of the most climate change affected areas on the planet.
Annapurna Dakshin (also known as Annapurna South) is part of the Annapurna
massif. The mountain itself adjoined by a ridgeline to Annapurna 1, the planet’s
tenth highest peak, notorious for claiming the lives of some the world’s most
renowned climbers. As foreboding as the Annapurna range can be, it is even
more striking for its beauty and sheer scale. Some of Earth’s deepest gorges are
flanked by steep mountain jungles leading to ridgelines on the high peaks
themselves. Just to the left of the text marked ‘Sacred Valley Chhomrong Khola’
is a ridgeline that has long captured my imagination as I viewed it from many
vantage points for more than a decade.
Thagu has visited that ridge and now, so have I.
The Annapurna is an incredibly important landscape not only in the scope of the
Himalaya but also for the initial framework of community conservation
management which has not been followed through, something of great concern to
those of us who love and respect the mountains. The SVC has the potential to help
accelerate the much needed changes in policy needed as development and often
shoddy tourism practices threaten the area. The local community we are working
with very much recognize the importance of this issue, the plight of the leopard,
once again, a symbol.
Najar, the Stupa, the Sacred Valley Concept
Working on the story of Thagu in the context of the SVC is a big part of my focus
for the next few months before monsoon, it also fits in perfectly with these two
entities, my friend Najarman Gurung and the stupa he has built.
The building of the stupa and integrating local wildlife into the painting and other
depictions, this includes the leopard, is central to the SVC. The location of the
stupa means people passing by or spending time there gaze into the Chhomrong
khola valley, a spectacular landscape and powerful entity due to both the
geography and sacred significance. At its head is Annapurna Dakshin. Other
culturally and spiritually recognized peaks such as Machhapuchchhre (the Fishtail)
add to the sheer drama of the area. The ridgelines and high altitude forests as well
as the glaciers adorning high Himalayan mountains give a surreal feeling to a
place where important animals live, the stupa reflects a new bridge to the recognition by the community.
Several years ago Najar and I discussed the building of a stupa in Chhomrong. I
then went to work at Bardiya National Park and covid came to the world. Four
years passed. Najar built the stupa. The opening is in March this year. The
hardship involved to build this stupa is a story in itself, no one knows how many
times Najar and his horse walked up and down the hundreds of Chhomrong steps
above and below the stupa.
Our goal is that everyone who visits Chhomrong will spend time at the stupa to
soak in the meaning and look into the Sacred Valley which is spectacular in the
background. The valley itself has through it flowing the Chhomrong Khola (river)
down from Annapurna Dakshin and the ridgeline which joins it to the equally
impressive peak of Hiunchuli.
Chhomrong’s location is ideal in so many ways. As mentioned there is no road
head, it can be trekked to from several points, the shortest walk is around two
hours for the average trekker, it does however include a steep uphill climb which
lends itself to the Buddhist ‘Beyul’ thinking that sacred places are not easy to get
to, one is rewarded with effort. Tiribun is not marked on the map above, it is at
3500m on a local trail from Chhomrong, under the watchful gaze of Annapurna
Dakshin. While there are several designated sacred landscapes by way of
ridgelines, valleys and mountains, Najar and I are talking to the community about
how sacredness lends itself to the whole area in general, the response has been
very positive as to how people can learn and connect with Chhomrong being not
just a trekking hub but a place to obtain rich understanding. Being a village of the
Gurung people, Chhomrong has strong Buddhist overtones especially now with
the building of the stupa but Najar is adamant this is a place for all, the name of
the faith, if people have one, is irrelevant, Chhomrong is about connection. I’ll go
deeper into the education aspect in the next update at a time when we’ve made
further progress especially with schools in the area (some kids walk several
hours in steep country for schooling) but also regarding the learning we are all
making, the coexistence between the herders and big cats really relevant. This
will all sit in to the evolution of our online learning platforms as well.
Above all though, we simply ask that people look into the Sacred Valley, to
connect to Thagu and his poetry.
In the next update more about Thagu and the yak herders he coexists with.