Living with snow leopards: the role of local communities in conservation.
For centuries, if not millennia, mountain communities from southern Russia to the Tibetan plateau have traded in tales of transient beasts patrolling the deep gorges and steep cliff faces around them – phantom cats that dissipate into the rocky terrain before you can glimpse their ice-blue eyes.
Better known now as snow leopards, these large predators are truly becoming the ghosts of folklore as their population continues to fall. Poaching, habitat degradation, retaliatory killing from herders, and a growing scarcity of wild prey are pushing the species towards a bleak existence and quite possibly, extinction. Somewhere between 4,000 to 7,000 individuals are estimated to remain, living few and far between across twelve range countries within and around the Himalaya.
Limited global scientific research and a long history of persecution by livestock owners – who make up a significant proportion of the human population within snow leopard range – presents great challenges for conservation efforts. Further to this, the IUCN down-listing of the species from ‘Endangered’ to ‘Vulnerable’ in 2017 set a dangerous precedent that has seen an increase in the illegal trade of snow leopards and their derivatives. The increasingly fragmented and changing environment of Asia’s mountainous regions leave little margin for error for conservation practitioners.
However, the tale of the snow leopard could soon become one of revival, and a conservation success to savour.
Innovative and progressive approaches have been taken in recent years to restore populations, incorporating local communities in decision-making processes and ensuring that they benefit from the continued existence of these elusive creatures. Not only do these conservation strategies set a benchmark for the protection of large carnivores across the globe, but they have the potential to put an end to human-wildlife conflict once and for all.
Snow leopard ecology and behaviour.
Snow leopards show incredibly efficient and purposeful, yet subtle, adaptions to deal with the harsh climate they inhabit. Their charcoal-spotted dirty white coat allows them to blend in perfectly with barren, rocky mountain landscapes. Small rounded ears and dense fur minimise heat loss in frostbite-inducing temperatures, and they use their oversized tail as a blanket to protect their face from the biting wind. Their broad paws with fur-laden undersides allow them to walk comfortably on snow and provide grip on the steep cliffs they use for hunting grounds.
With quick pace and sharp agility (combined with a casual leaping capacity of six times their own body length) snow leopards are fearsome predators, ambushing their prey from above. Wild prey consists primarily of mountain goats, ibex, and blue sheep, all formidable in their ability to dance with ease across near-vertical cliff faces. As more and more land is used for pastoral grazing by local communities, food availability for snow leopard prey reduces and as a result, prey numbers dwindle. This forces snow leopards to turn to killing domesticated livestock as a source of food and increases the strain on their relationship with local peoples.
Spatial ecology is one of the most important considerations for snow leopard conservation. Ranges can be as large as 500 km2, simply due to the scarcity of prey. If their range is restricted for whatever reason, then these solitary hunters must compete with others for what limited prey there is – currently a major threat to their survival. Females will rear offspring for up to two years before they move off to establish their own territories. Males, on the other hand, usually spend only two days each year in the company of another snow leopard – when mating – due to the sheer size of these vast ranges and low snow leopard densities. However, these ranges may not be so vast anymore.
As the effects of climate change expand and intensify throughout Asia and the rest of the world, rising temperatures are altering treelines and vegetative communities, shrinking the already degraded and fragmented suitable habitat left for snow leopards.
Threats to the snow leopard.
As our planet’s alpine zones continue to shrink due to greenhouse gas emissions, snow leopard range is projected to decrease by thirty percent by 2050 – coupled with the concurrent shifting treeline in the Himalaya caused by rising temperatures, snow leopards are losing habitat at an alarming rate.
Habitat loss, however, is not confined as a symptom of climate change alone. The mining industry has been furtively turning their attentions to the mineral-rich mountain ranges of the Himalaya, devastating natural habitats for snow leopards and their prey. In addition, their habitat has been severely fragmented by railways and highways that cut through ranges and important movement corridors that link subpopulations; these linkages are essential for dispersal and maintaining genetic diversity at the population level.
China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ program – due to be completed by 2049 – represents a huge threat to habitats and wildlife movement corridors, with new railways, highways, and gas and oil pipelines planned. It is essential that snow leopards be allowed the ecological plasticity and adaptive potential to respond to changes in habitat initiated by global warming, however human development such as China’s aforementioned program prevent them from shifting their ranges.
Another significant threat to the snow leopard is conflict with humans.
An estimated 450 snow leopards are killed annually, many through poaching for the illegal trade in bone and skins, but most cases involve retaliatory killing by local herders. Pastoralism has been an essential piece of the culture of mountain communities for up to three millennia and continues to dominate land use to this day; seven of the dozen snow leopard range countries have more than a quarter of their total land area under permanent pastures. Historically, snow leopards have been viewed as a curse in these communities, provoking resentment for the big cats when their livestock are killed.
However, livestock and snow leopard prey show considerable overlap in diet. Due to the large numbers and high densities of livestock kept by local communities, snow leopard prey are outcompeted for grazing access and are forced to move elsewhere lest they starve to death. Consequently, snow leopards themselves must then turn to livestock to find food.
Curtailing retaliatory killing and restoring wild prey populations are perhaps the most urgent issues that snow leopard conservation must address. Local communities worldwide bear heavy costs related to the presence of large carnivores, deriving little benefit from wildlife conservation.
Snow leopard conservation in particular has long sought to remedy these issues and made positive steps towards ameliorating the relationships between local communities and snow leopards.
Snow leopard conservation–to spare or to share?
Conserving any large-bodied animal – such as the snow leopard – near human settlements often acts to local people’s detriment. Livestock depredation represents a significant threat to the livelihoods of communities within snow leopard range, as livestock constitute the wealth of most herding families. For example, with a mean of thirteen livestock heads per family in the Indian Trans-Himalaya, five are killed by snow leopards on an annual basis. This can be financially ruinous for those living in regions with underdeveloped economies where more than half the populations struggle below national poverty lines.
Much of the failures of conservation efforts worldwide can be boiled down to the neglect of local community needs and livelihoods. Protected areas (the land sparing approach) are essential for maintaining ecosystems and the organisms within by shielding them from human activity and presence. Land sparing does work, but it cannot work alone; the case of the snow leopard is testament to this. Forty percent of the 170 protected areas within snow leopard range countries are smaller than the average home range of a single snow leopard. This means that the conflict ignited by the interface between pastoralism and snow leopards cannot be solved simply through land sparing. It provides little to no benefit for local peoples, and little to no refuge for snow leopards.
Land sharing seems to be the approach that best serves both snow leopards and local communities, by encouraging coexistence.
In 1998, then student and now Science and Conservation Director of the Snow Leopard Trust, Charudutt Mishra, proposed a locally managed livestock insurance program for villagers in the northern Indian Spiti Valley, who had been in conflict with snow leopards for centuries. The idea was to discourage retaliatory killings. In the first year, four claims were paid out in front of the entire community, supported by India’s Nature Conservation Foundation as well as the Snow Leopard Trust, prompting all to join. Biannual monetary rewards are given to those who practice ‘safe-herding’ (least number of livestock predation cases), whilst regulations include clauses that safeguard wildlife from persecution and prohibit retaliation. Furthermore, in exchange for the potential financial rewards offered by the scheme, village councils agreed to set aside large swathes of grazing land in order to help local snow leopard prey populations rebound.
After four years of protection from livestock grazing, these set-asides saw a threefold increase in numbers of blue sheep, snow leopards’ primary prey. With prey abound and retaliatory killings discouraged by community members, this program led to a healthy increase in snow leopard numbers. As a consequence of this land sharing conservation strategy, the Spiti Valley has become a hotspot for wildlife tourism and one village (Kibber) made approximately US$100,000 in 2019 from ‘snow leopard tourists’ alone.
The successes achieved by Mishra’s work and local communities in protecting the snow leopard are substantial and highlight the need for conservation practitioners to consider the risks and costs for local people sharing their homes with endangered animals. This approach is now being implemented widely in various forms of conservation and provides us with a joyful tale of man and creature, where so often it has been one of tragedy.
Defending the conservation interests of wildlife need not proceed at the expense of the local community. In fact, it must not.
DSWF has been supporting the work of the Snow Leopard Trust and community engagement and conservation participation for over 23 years.
Written by: Linus Hiscox, studying MSc Global Biodiversity Health and Conservation at the University of Bristol and DSWF Programmes and Policy Intern.