Landmark Studios Put Elusive Snow Leopards Back in the Spotlight

Ladakh, India – In late 1973, after two months wandering the wild Dolpo region on the Tibetan Plateau, American naturalist and writer Peter Matthiessen realized it was time to hang up his blood-soaked boots.

Exhausted, he left zoologist George Schaller alone in the mountains, giving up his dream of seeing a snow leopard (Panthera uncia) in the wild.

Matthiessen wrote the story of that grueling expedition in 1978 in The Snow Leopard, capturing the world’s imagination at a time when scientists still knew next to nothing about these elusive creatures.

Snow leopard in Hemis National Park, Ladakh, India [Courtesy of Behzad J Larry]

The harshness and sheer vastness of the snow leopard’s high-altitude environment, which stretches across 12 countries in central Asia, comprising some of the highest mountain ranges and plateaus in the world, is both a prohibition for humans as for technology.

But after more than 40 years of continuous research and innovation, studying snow leopards has become a less daunting task. Thanks to extensive camera capture, two large-scale environmental studies earlier this year revealed strong scientific data on the snow leopard population for the first time.

Emblematic developments

“We now have more than a decade of data collected from our long-term ecological study in the southern Gobi of Mongolia, along with more reliable population estimates from many different parts of the range,” said Marissa B Niranjan, deputy director of the organization with Seattle-based Snow Leopard Trust told Al Jazeera.

A snow leopard stalking blue sheep in Hemis National Park, Ladakh [Courtesy of Behzad J Larry]

Founded in 1981 by then-Seattle Woodland Park Zoo education curator Helen Freeman, the Trust celebrated 40 years of existence on January 28, 2021. It is the oldest and largest non-profit organization supporting conservation, Snow leopard research and education by fostering local community partnerships in animal habitats.

Niranjan refers to the first such three-year survey completed in February in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, which estimated the presence of up to 73 wild snow leopards there.

Conducted by the Snow Leopard Trust team in India, in conjunction with the state forest department, the Himachal Pradesh Snow Leopard Survey was part of the Population Assessment of Snow Leopards of the World (PAWS) program.

Camera trap image of a snow leopard captured in Mongolia’s South Gobi region [Courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust]

Formally approved in 2017 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, by the 12 countries that have snow leopards, PAWS aims to produce a robust estimate of its world population over the next five years.

In late March 2021, a second landmark PAWS-related study assessed preliminary snow leopard populations for all of Mongolia, with first results indicating the presence of nearly 1,000 cats, the world’s second-largest population after China.

“Until now, population numbers tended to be the best guesses. New figures from various countries, using scientifically standardized techniques under PAWS, will be added together to provide a reliable global estimate of the snow leopard population for the first time, ”Charudutt Mishra, CEO of the Snow Leopard Trust, told Al Jazeera.

A blue sheep, traditional prey of snow leopards. Overgrazing of human-owned herds has reduced their numbers, leading to snow leopards hunting in pens. [Courtesy of Behzad J Larry]

Mishra added that such efforts were also enabling new conservation partnerships with communities and governments in countries that have snow leopards.

“These rigorous studies at large spatial scales rely on strong local capacity, which means that considerable capacity improvement is now taking place at the local level,” he said.

Snow leopards at risk

Recent scientific milestones have rekindled interest in the snow leopard, which remains “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

According to the Snow Leopard Trust, an estimated 3,900 to 6,400 snow leopards remain in the wild worldwide, although the actual number is unknown.

Some risks are well established. “Traditional threats include retaliatory killing due to their predatory behavior on livestock, hunting snow leopards and their prey, and overgrazing in certain situations,” Mishra told Al Jazeera.

But others have appeared relatively recently. As Mishra noted, “New and emerging threats include large-scale degradation due to mining and other development activities in snow leopard habitats, threat of disease and warming of their habitats, and intensification of the poaching and the illegal trade in body parts. “

A snow leopard in Ladakh, India [Courtesy of Behzad J Larry]

For some, the most pressing problem remains coexistence and conflict between remote communities and snow leopards.

If they enter a herder’s pen, “a villager can lose all his sheep in one go, leading to loss of income, anger and retaliation against the leopard,” reports the website of the High Asia Habitat Fund, an entity US registered organization that promotes conservation through the empowerment of dependent communities in the snow leopard territory.

Livestock predation is responsible for the killing of 220 to 450 snow leopards each year. “With levels of conflict continuing to rise, what matters much more [than population numbers] it’s the local people’s perceptions of snow leopards and their willingness to tolerate the presence of this predator, ”Professor Rodney Jackson told Al Jazeera.

Jackson, a leading expert on snow leopards and their habitat, was the first to radio-collar snow leopards in remote western Nepal in the early 1980s to study their behavior and population. He founded the Snow Leopard Conservancy in Sonoma, California, in 2000.

“The most urgent priority for conservationists must rest on immediate communication and the full participation of villages in implementing solutions to prevent, or at least reduce, livestock predation while improving livelihood opportunities,” he said. Jackson.

View of the village of Rangdum in the Zanskar region of Ladakh, India [Courtesy of Behzad J Larry]

Lack of tourism

Prior to travel bans triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, snow leopard-focused tourism was an important opportunity to help manage human-animal conflict in key locations such as Hemis National Park in the Ladakh territory in northern India.

“Snow leopard expeditions generate many primary livelihoods for trackers, drivers, camp staff, cooks, porters, etc. They also generate secondary and tertiary income as we purchase vegetables, grains, and meat from our neighbors,” said Behzad J. Larry. the CEO of Voygr Expeditions, a US-based tour operator specializing in snow leopard tourism in Ladakh and Kyrgyzstan.

The lack of tourism for the second season in a row is certainly taking its toll on Ladakh, which is dependent on tourism.

Dorjay Stanzin, a chief snow leopard tracker at Voygr Expeditions and a resident of Hemis National Park, said that “those who have traditionally raised and grazed livestock are farming more and increasing herd sizes to provide some income and food.”

But larger herds also mean a potential increase in the chances of conflict.

Abdul Rashid, Voygr Expeditions vice president of operations, said that while the state-funded Department of Wildlife Protection has continued to safeguard wildlife, local conservation initiatives are affected because “tourism pays for many aspects of conservation, such as helping locals in snow leopard or wolf territory to safeguard their herds through predator-proof pens, or by installing fences around their fields so blue sheep or mountain goats don’t eat their crops ”.

Khenrab Phuntsog, a wildlife guard at Hemis National Park and a legendary Ladakhi snow leopard conservationist, believes that “conservation can only work when the locals provide the same support as the local wildlife department, and to that is what we need tourism, since it provides them with a source of livelihood ”.

This challenging time may prove crucial in rethinking the interdependence between local communities, snow leopards, and future tourists.

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