Cat concernsWhy we need to be really worried if snow leopards are under threat
By the time you read this, officials from 12 countries meeting in Kathmandu will have been wrapping up a ministerial-level meet on conservation of snow leopards. Organisers believe it will be an important event in the run up to a presidential summit Kyrgyzstan is hosting later this year to step up efforts for the protection of these endangered species.
Between 3,500 and 7,000 snow leopards are estimated to be living in 12 Himalayan and Central Asian countries. Under different projects, researchers radio-collar these elusive cats on high mountains or set camera traps to monitor them. Scientists study those pictures and other clues before producing a raft of reports on the endangered species. Based on those studies and warnings from scientists, technocrats and politicians talk about what is happening with this creature that lives in remote rocky parts of the mountains.
Even researchers on the ground barely get to see them. No wonder they are called the ghosts of the mountains.
So, why should we bother about this animal that most of us will perhaps never get to see in our life time? Answers like “for biodiversity” or “for sustainability of the planet” or “to protect our ecology” may hardly mean anything to many of us.
A new normal
Communication of scientific findings to the masses has not been very effective most of the time, and the general impression is perhaps that we are just talking about saving a beautiful wild animal from going extinct. And what keeps the extinction issue from becoming “extraordinary” is because so often these days, we get to hear about one or the other species disappearing from the planet—although scientists admit that there is no accurate information.
“From the imperfect evidence that is available, it appears that around 300-350 vertebrates and nearly 400 invertebrates have become extinct during the past 400 years,” according to the Convention on Biological Diversity, a global treaty for conservation of biological diversity. “In recent time, the known rate of extinction among mammals and birds is far higher than the estimated average rate through geological time.”
Ticking off a species of frog or, say, bird every now and then has become a new normal. So one may ask why snow leopards should receive special attention then. Each and every species has its own value and role in any ecosystem. It is just that in some cases we can see and feel their importance while in others it takes scientific expertise to appreciate their value.
Since this write-up is on snow leopards, let’s focus on them. Broadly there are two issues when it comes to these endangered cat species. The first concern is about how their population is under threat mainly because of poaching for their furs and bones. The second one is over the dangers their habitats—the high mountains of Asia including the Himalayas—are facing.
Both of these should worry us but it is the latter one that is the more apparent cause for concern. Snow leopards’ habitats are ultra-fragile region on the high mountains where even slight changes can have far reaching consequences. No wonder scientists worry about the accelerated melting of glaciers and the rapid filling up of glacial lakes.
In the wake of rising temperatures—more so in the Himalayas that have seen more warming than the global average—permafrost gets exposed and that disturbs the geology of the place. Greater incidents of avalanches, rock falls, destabilised glacial lakes and, as a result, rivers getting dammed by rocks and landslips are what we are increasingly seeing in recent times.
In the last few years, the Annapurna region alone has already seen at least three such incidents. These places that are home to snow leopards are also our water towers. They also regulate and shape our weather systems and—not to forget—they overlook many mountainous locations where we have human settlements of both farmers and tourism entrepreneurs.
Scientists are worried that in a warming climate, treeline is moving up and encroaching into the barren and rocky areas of the high Himalayas where snow leopards live. This week I reported for the BBC how concerned conservationists were after the first ever video footages and still pictures from Tibetan plateau showed snow leopards and common leopards exactly at the same location. Wildlife experts believe common leopards, which are normally found in lower elevations, have begun to reach there with the treeline moving up each year.
They fear that if the habitat of snow leopards shrink, that will impact their population and also the availability of their prey species. “As we lose species, especially large carnivores, it really reflects on the overall health of the place they live in,” said Byron Weckworth, China programme director with conservation organisation Panthera, whom I interviewed for the report.
Health of the ecosystem
This means that if the population of the endangered cat species declines under such circumstances, that would disturb the balance of the supersensitive ecology in the Himalayas. That is why the number of snow leopards in a given area helps
scientists determine how functional the ecosystem there is.
“They are like thermometers that help us know how healthy these places are,” said Koustubh Sharma, an expert with the Snow Leopard Trust that has worked with the Nepal government to organise the snow leopards conference this week.
And now the health of these ultra-vulnerable regions is drawing extra attention with ramped up efforts to build infrastructures. An increasing number of roads, bridges, dams, tunnels and rail tracks are being built on the Himalayas, Hindukush, Karakoram, Pamir and Tian Shen mountain ranges, where snow leopards are found. This is not to suggest that we stop development works and just let the population of these cats grow.
Experts say we need a balance here because even these infrastructures will need a stable geography. To understand this picture, we can think of tiger conservation. To do that, we will first need to conserve forests; and once we do that, we will have tigers in them. This means, by conserving tigers, we also protect forests that provide us with plenty of natural services like clean air, water, soil protection apart from resources like timber and food, among others.
The ecosystem and ecology of high mountains also provide us with key natural services and play crucial roles in maintaining the planet’s biodiversity. By conserving snow leopards, we will be securing this vital natural system for ourselves.
Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London