On Snow Leopard Day this year we highlight the threat this beautiful big cat faces.
For livestock herders Shafyat Ali and Muhammad Ibrahim, life has changed. In Hoper Valley, Pakistan, global climate change has had a visible impact on the environment so crucial for their livelihoods. Over the last 25 years the snowline has shifted upwards by about 1,000 m. Vegetation has shifted upwards with it, and summers are warmer and longer. This means herders have had to change their traditional behaviours; “Twenty years back we used to stay in high altitude pastures from mid-May till mid-September but now they go 10 to 15 days early (mid-April) and return back late again 10 to 15 days (first week of October) from the pastures.”
These changes not only impact the area’s human communities, but also the iconic wildlife which lives alongside them. Floods, flash floods, erratic rain patterns, heat waves, increased glacial and snow melts, Glacial Lake Outburst Floods and many other climate induced events have resulted not only in large scale displacement of people but are also affecting wildlife behavior. One such species facing several threats is the ghost of Asia’s high mountain landscapes, the snow leopard, distributed across 12 countries of South and Central Asia including Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgys republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
A study conducted by WWF-Pakistan, under the Asia High Mountain Project shows that warmer temperatures are shrinking the snow leopard habitat, pushing it to extinction every day. Though the snow leopard is reported to likely be resilient to climate change and its impacts, the remaining small and fragmented population of the species is making it vulnerable to changing climatic patterns in different areas.
According to Shafyat Ali, from Broshal village and Muhammad Ibrahim, from Hakalshal village in Hoper Valley, Asia High Mountain project sites in Nagar district, Gilgit-Baltistan. “They are experiencing warmer and longer summers resulting in increased glaciers and snow melts and are witnessing upward shifts in vegetation as compared to the year 2000.” Studies conducted reveal that the snowline during the past 25 years has shifted upward by about 1 km. This shift means warmer temperatures are melting glaciers and increasing droughts, posing serious threats to the snow leopard population. This upward trend invites herders to stay for an additional 20 to 25 days, as compared to the past 15 years, by moving their livestock to new grazing areas. There is now a greater chance of herders and livestock coming across a snow leopard.
Human-wildlife conflict is already a serious threat to the snow leopards of Gilgit. According to Muhammad Essa, a livestock herder in Hoper Valley, who lost 30 sheep and 20 goats just by one snow leopard in a single attack in 2010 at an open livestock pen, “the snow leopard becomes more ferocious, taking everything we have.” On asking him about the reason for becoming that much ferocious, he said, “Maybe the herders are using its habitat and living for longer periods in the pastures added to low natural prey availability.”
For a herder who largely relies on livestock for sustenance, the snow leopard is a threat that needs to be eliminated. According to Ghulam Abbas, Vice President, Hoper Conservation and Development Organization, “In the past locals of the area gave rewards or gifts such as 1 kg butter or 5 kg wheat flour to the hunter who killed a snow leopard or wolf, assuming them their enemies and culprits.” This is the reason that in a place like Gilgit-Baltistan, human-wildlife conflict is a major cause of the declining snow leopard numbers. A recent survey showed that about 70 snow leopards were killed in the area by locals in retaliation. This is a large number for a population which has now declined to 200 to 400.
For years now, WWF has worked in the area to address the conflict. WWF-Pakistan has introduced human wildlife management measures, engaging local communities especially in predation hotspots, such as Hoper Valley in Nagar. Livestock insurance schemes are one such example initiated to compensate local herders for depredation losses incurred by the illusive cat. Furthermore, livestock vaccination campaigns are organized regularly to improve livestock health, as healthy animals escape predators, and to also control the transmission of diseases from domestic to wild animals. Predator-proof corrals are another serious effort to protect small ruminants from snow leopard and wolf attacks inside pens at night.
A strong element of snow leopard conservation in Pakistan is community education and awareness. Through these initiatives, the locals now realize the ecological importance of the snow leopard and through the help of community based organizations, such as Hoper Conservation and Development Organization, much needed cooperation is being assured.