A scientific breakthrough has made saving the snow leopard – one of the world’s most rare, endangered and beautiful predators – both more complex and more feasible.
For almost two decades Pakistani conservationist Shafqat Hussain has worked with the shepherds and villagers of remote Baltistan, high in the Karakorum Mountains, to dissuade them from killing the leopard in reprisal for its depredations on their flocks.
At the same time, he has tracked these elusive animals through wildly rugged terrain and closely studied their conflict with local farmers. Since 2010, Shafqat and his project team have been working closely with an international team of ecologists, that includes another Rolex Laureate, Dr. Rodney Jackson, who used the genetic information contained in leopard droppings to study and map individual animals and the population as a whole. In 2017, this led to the dramatic announcement by the team that there is not one single species of snow leopard – but three distinct sub-species.
Snow leopards inhabit an immense range – 1.6 million square kilometres of the coldest, most forbidding and mountainous landscape on Earth, spread across 12 Asian countries. How many still exist is not known with certainty, but estimates range between 3500 and 7000 individuals. Prior to the genetic analysis it was thought they all belonged to the same species, Panthera uncia.
The study, led by Dr John Janecka of Duquesne University in the United States identified three distinct groups of snow leopards – a northern group in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, a Central group in the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau and a western group in the Pamirs and Tien Shan mountains. The significance of this new insight is that conservationists can now focus on the three distinct regions – instead of trying to spread their efforts too thinly across the animal’s entire range.
“Hopefully, it means we can now set realistic management goals and design context specific interventions because, frankly, the nature of conservation challenge is quite varied across snow leopard range. The fact that there are three sub species will allow us to pay closer attention to each one of them,” Hussain, a 2006 Rolex Associate Laureate, says.
In his own region of Baltistan, for example, local shepherds are the snow leopard’s main foes, killing the big cats on sight for taking their sheep and goats. Hussain and his team quickly realised that conventional conservation measures like protected areas were not going to work in their area – a series of vertical precipices, deep gorges and inaccessible crags on the shoulder of K2, the world’s second tallest mountain – and came up with a clever solution: an insurance scheme which compensates the shepherds for losses caused by leopards. They also helped the herders build leopard-proof sheep pens and introduced environmental education in local schools to widen community awareness. His Rolex Award funding was used to help extend the scheme to 16 other villages in the region. He estimates these measures have together saved the lives of from 25-40 snow leopards.
“We have shown that direct cash compensation can work to increase tolerance for snow leopards among local farmers. We have also demonstrated that predators and herders can coexist when conservation is based on a fair distribution of costs and benefits,” he explains.
Such a scheme works well in regions where herding is the main human activity – but in other parts of the snow leopard’s vast range conditions vary and different tactics are necessary. The scientists have proposed dividing the range into the six sub-regions inhabited by the three newly-discovered subspecies of cat to make its conservation both more manageable and adaptable to local conditions.
Furthermore, as Hussain points out, his own group, Baltistan Wildlife Conservation and Development Organisation (BWCDO) only has sufficient resources to work with the 17 villages in its area – and certainly not the entire 1.6 million square kilometre range patrolled by snow leopards. However, conservation groups in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan and China have been quick to pick up his idea and are adapting it to local circumstances coupled with their own measures.
The achievements of BWCDO attained global recognition recently with the award of one of the UN Development Program’s coveted 2017 Equator Prizes, which celebrate innovative projects by local and indigenous groups in the fields of poverty reduction, the environment and climate change. It was Pakistan’s first such award.
“It is a great honour for us and, indeed, for Pakistan,” Hussain says. “This is a wonderful show of confidence in our approach to conservation by the international community.
“But we are equally delighted that our award coincided with a decision by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to down-list the snow leopard on its Red List from “Endangered” to “Vulnerable”. Data gathered from our project’s valleys show that the local snow leopard population is stable and may even be increasing.
Hussain feels the down-listing of the snow leopard’s threat status is testimony to the decades of hard work by BWCDO and its sister organizations in the snow leopard conservation community to save and protect this magnificent species worldwide.
But there is no room for complacency, he cautions. “There are still serious threats to the snow leopard, so governments and foundations should continue supporting efforts on the ground. I guess the biggest threat of all to snow leopards is climate change, but more proximate threats such as conflict with farmers and poaching remain significant.
Social service swap
Taking the idea of compensation and engagement with the local community a step further, Hussain says BWCDO is testing a new approach to conservation called “social service swap for conservation”. “Under this approach, we will provide social services, such as schools or healthcare clinics, to communities in return for their commitment to conserving the snow leopard or other animals and habitats,” he explains. In this way protecting wild and endangered animals becomes a platform on which to build the development of local communities – and a goal sought and supported by the community at large.
When he is not pursuing snow leopards through the rugged heights of the Karakoram, Shafqat Hussain is a professor of anthropology at Trinity College, Connecticut, United States, and gives public lectures on the political economy of human interactions with the wild world. In 2009, he received a National Geographic Emerging Explorer award. He has published five scientific papers about snow leopard conservation and has written a book – The Snow Leopard and the Goat: Politics of Conservation in Western Himalayas – that will be published in the autumn of 2018. But constantly, in spirit and person, he returns to his soaring wilderness: “I like chasing snow leopards as it takes me right in the heart of the some of the tallest mountains in the world.”Learn more about Shafqat Hussain