Snow leopard conservation handicapped by lack of research

By Chimi Wangmo

With climate change exacerbating the threat to this elusive Himalayan cat, researchers say study of snow leopards must be beefed-up and diversified to secure the health of Asia’s mountain ecosystems and save it from further extinction.

According to a recent report by WWF, more than 70% of snow leopard habitat remains understudied by conservationists leaving conservation planning handicapped by large information gaps.

Snow leopards live across the cold and rugged high mountains of Asia, from Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bhutan, through China and Central Asia to Russia and Mongolia.

In this landscape spanning approximately 1.8 million square kilometres, there are estimated to be fewer than 6,400 snow leopards. Another estimate by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) puts the global population between 2,710 and 3,386 adult snow leopards.

The WWF report states that mountains where snow leopards live also form the headwaters of 20 major river basins, a crucial water source for the more than two billion people across 22 countries who live in the basins of these rivers.

The WWF report is based on a systematic review of snow leopard research spanning 100 years up to 2020. The idea behind the report was β€œto figure out whether we have adequate information on snow leopards to determine what the conservation action should be.

The report shows that Nepal and India are leading snow leopard research, followed by China. There are huge research gaps in Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bhutan, Russia and Pakistan.

β€œWe have tagged snow leopards that have gone to Afghanistan from Pakistan but because there’s no research going on in Afghanistan, we have no idea at all how many snow leopards there are,” said Rab Nawaz, senior director of programmes at WWF-Pakistan.

Nawaz said that research on snow leopards in Pakistan is β€œvery concentrated in very few areas” like Chitral National Park in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Valleys on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that are very likely home to snow leopards have not been studied because they are difficult to access.

β€œThe tough terrain and harsh climate of much snow leopard habitat makes research particularly demanding, a primary reason why vast sections of snow leopard habitat remain uncharted territory for researchers,” the report states.

Further, access to some of these areas is difficult and even if you manage to access them, the logistical challenges of doing research come into play,” Rishi Sharma, a researcher, said He compared his research experiences with tigers in central India with his work on snow leopards.

The report also points out that less than 3% of snow leopard range has robust data on snow leopard abundance, and that multi-year research is being carried out in only four research hotspots.

There is however space for hope. Justine Shanti Alexander, regional ecologist at the Snow Leopard Trust and executive director of the Snow Leopard Network, who provided inputs for the WWF report said the one positive thing she see is that there has been a huge increase in research in the last decade.

 The WWF report also points to glaring gaps in the human elements of snow leopard conservation in research to date. Rangeland-related issues are highlighted as one of the least studied aspects of snow leopard conservation, despite their importance.

Lands that make good snow leopard habitat are also often those where livestock herding is the dominant human activity. Meanwhile, only 14-19% of snow leopard range overlaps with protected areas.

This means that herders and snow leopards largely live alongside each other, leading to potential for conflict which endangers both livestock and snow leopards.

The WWF report states that between 221 and 450 snow leopards are killed by people every year, and that 55% of these killings are driven by retaliation for snow leopard predation on livestock.

A study published last month also highlighted case studies from India, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Pakistan to show how β€œrespectful engagement and negotiation” with local communities can go a long way in addressing human-wildlife conflict.

Many conservation organisations, including the Snow Leopard Trust, Nature Conservation Foundation and WWF, are working to support communities in mitigating conflict. For instance, there are efforts underway to reduce livestock loss by building predator-proof corrals and holding pens in the Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh and Changthang in Ladakh.

Rishi Sharma said: β€œThese efforts are limited in terms of their geographical coverage. So, unless [the issue of conflict] finds place in government policies, we will only find success in certain areas. The hard thing to do is replicate the success across larger areas of the snow leopard range,” Rishi Sharma explained.

Commercial livestock rearing – more capital-intensive and organised than traditional pastoralism – can also cause problems for snow leopards. A 2015 study found that livestock grazing and snow leopard habitat use are compatible up to a certain threshold of livestock density, beyond which habitat use declines. The reason for this, as pointed out, is possibly due to depressed wild ungulate abundance and associated anthropogenic disturbance.

 β€œThe challenge is, how do you reconcile wildlife conservation goals with government policies which aim to promote pashmina and when pashmina is also an important economic activity for the people.” According to Sharma, such economic incentives have led to a situation where β€œthere is more livestock than what these rangelands can sustain,” Rishi said.

Further, the growth of mining and infrastructure like roads and dams pose challenges for both snow leopards and rangelands. Researchers and conservationists said in the last 10-15 years, demand for minerals has opened up remote pastures for mining in countries like Mongolia, China, Kyrgyzstan.

Climate change impacts on snow leopard habitat

A 2016 study predicted that only around 35% of current snow leopard range will remain climatically stable and suitable for viable snow leopard populations by the late 21st century. Despite such startling statistics, the WWF report highlights that climate change is a major unexplored theme in snow leopard research.

Researchers said we call climate change the mother of all threats because it amplifies each of the other threats that snow leopards face like retaliatory killing, poaching and extreme weather resulting in lack of prey.  This makes these threats much more severe and urgent and complex.

The report points that climate change is driving more frequent flash floods and dzuds, a Mongolian term for extreme winters, among other visible impacts. This can push people into hitherto unexplored areas, in search of better pastures for livestock or more comfortable conditions for living.

The pressures of climate change can also make other conservation interventions more difficult. β€œIt remains challenging to expect communities that are experiencing poverty and climate change-related shocks like drought to go beyond immediate mitigation of risks of carnivore depredation and take on additional broader actions related to snow leopard conservation,” said a conservationist.

She added that working with communities to build resilience against environmental shocks is important for long-term conservation of high mountain ecosystems. 

The way forward

In 2013, the governments of all 12 snow leopard range countries adopted the Bishkek Declaration with a shared goal of conserving snow leopards across their habitat.

The Declaration lays out steps countries should be taking towards conserving snow leopards over the long term through the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme (GSLEP).

Conservationists highlighted the importance of secured and connected habitats for snow leopards. In China, who is predicted to host 50-60% of the world’s total suitable snow leopard habitat, large areas are protected as nature reserves.

Recognising landscape-level issues also means acknowledging that the landscape is used in multiple ways. The best way to conserve snow leopard, according to researchers and conservationists, is to partner with local communities, minimise the losses they face and maximise the benefits they can gain from the fact that they share snow leopard habitats.

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