Saving the ghosts of the mountainsOctober 23 is International Snow Leopard Day, designated for celebrating this majestic predator of the Asian high mountains.
October 23 is International Snow Leopard Day, designated for celebrating this majestic predator of the Asian high mountains. This day commemorates the adoption of ‘the Bishkek Declaration’ in 2013, that brought together the global community to secure the future of snow leopards through coordinated action under a common vision.
Nepal is fortunate to be among the 12 countries that harbour wild populations of snow leopards. Known as the ‘Ghosts-of-the-mountains’, this wild cat is found in the country’s northern Himalayan region. Our country could be home to more than 6 percent of the estimated global population of 3290 to 6390 snow leopards.
Of course, many challenges exist in Nepal, as in other range countries. Habitat degradation, conflicts with people and poaching jeopardise the survival of snow leopards; unplanned infrastructure and man-induced climate change threaten to compound the risks. Yet, Nepal has achieved significant milestones in snow leopard conservation, giving cause for hope and providing impetus for efforts to save the species.
In Nepal, more than 40 lakh people live in the mountain districts that host snow leopard habitats. Livestock rearing is an important source of sustenance and fuels the livelihood of these people. The estimated population of livestock is around 50,75,000 heads. In this sparse terrain, these livestock are an easy alternative diet for snow leopards, supplementing wild prey like the blue sheep. Predominantly Buddhists, the people tolerate these losses to an extent, valuing snow leopards as ‘God’s Pet’.
However, as experienced with other species like the elephants that represent Lord Ganesha in Hindu tradition, tolerance erodes as circumstances change and conflicts intensify. People retaliate in anger, killing animals that may still hold a special place in our culture.
Nonetheless, many locals in the mountains have been working to save the snow leopard. They are members of Snow Leopard Conservation Sub-Committees or citizen scientists, facilitating research on this elusive cat in extremely difficult terrains; Community-Based Anti-Poaching Units, assisting in preventing illegal killing and trade; or User Groups aiding sustainable management of community forests. These are but a few examples of how communities are participating in conservation. The results of such involvement are seen in the creation of protected areas like the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area that are managed by the local communities.
Nepali researchers and conservationists from both government and non-government sectors assist the mountain communities. These include Nepali youth from diverse backgrounds—locals from the mountains, from urban centres like Kathmandu and even from the Tarai plains.
Their research spans over a number of areas with the aim of enhancing ecological understanding of the snow leopard, their prey species and habitat, and to study human dimensions of wildlife conservation. As a result of the leadership and expertise of these actors, the country has contributed to the scientific understanding of the species, aiding in conservation globally. For instance, Nepal has collared four snow leopards with satellite telemetry devices to track movement and make scientific derivations. This has provided evidence to the snow leopard’s wide-ranging behaviour, making a strong case for landscape management, as well as international trans boundary collaboration.
Other research has helped identify gaps and suggested solutions to improve management of Protected Areas within the country. There have also been efforts to study the impacts of climate change on snow leopards, their habitat, and eventually on human well-being. Research of this nature, along with the experiences of managers, conservationists and local communities themselves, further help in strategising critical long-term conservation plans and visions for the country.
In August 2017, Nepal became the first country to produce a climate-integrated landscape management plan for snow leopard conservation. The Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Management Plan (SLEMP) for the Eastern Himalaya Landscape (EHL) of Nepal, 2017-26, was unveiled at the global snow leopard summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic.
The EHL is one of the three snow leopard conservation landscapes within Nepal—the other two are the central and western landscapes. Spread across 11,516 sq km from Langtang National Park to Kangchenjunga, the EHL region is among the most climatically-diverse landscapes in the world.
Mobilising a team of global experts, this plan by the Government of Nepal anticipates potential climate changes within this landscape. It notes that annual mean temperature could increase by 0.9 degrees Celsius to 1.3 degrees Celsius by 2040, causing water bodies to shrink, and causing havoc to the natural eco-cycles of snow leopard survival. Likewise, the plan predicts an increase in monsoon precipitation, leading to greater risks of landslides and flooding downstream. Evidently, such changes will not just impact survival of snow leopards, but our own as well. The plan lays out holistic steps for mitigation and prevention to save the snow leopard while ensuring livelihood security of people for the next decade.
As with other modern conservation models, this plan focuses not just on saving wildlife, but also on linking economic benefits for local communities to ensure sustainability in conservation. Moreover, it acknowledges evolving science, situations and understanding, leaving space for review and incorporation of learning during implementation.
Preparing the plan is one challenge, but executing it effectively is another ball game altogether. This plan lays out a budget of around $5.57 million. Evidence of increasing
personal wealth and unused or misused revenues generated in various sectors is rife in Nepal. Yet, for conservation and other social issues, we still rely on international aid. Where does this ‘aid’ money come from? WWF Nepal’s snow leopard conservation interventions are funded by donors like WWF UK and USAID, who are in turn supported by the citizens of these respective countries.
Ghana Shyam Gurung, Senior Conservation Program Director, WWF Nepal says, “We have immense responsibility. Our donors include regular individuals—an octogenarian hoping her children may someday see snow leopards in Nepal; a young child breaking her piggy bank to support our cause, and the likes. We cannot let them down.”
A former herder from the central Himalayan region, Gurung was recently nominated the Snow Leopard Champion for the entire WWF Network covering around 100 country offices. For a Nepali to be representing the species’ conservation worldwide is yet another feather in our cap.
Nepal’s conservation success stories so far are a result of the combined efforts of many—normal civilians and governments in donor countries to officials and citizens in our own. And rightly so, as Nepal’s snow leopards are also the earth’s heritage.
While the country’s instabilities are challenging, hope remains in the form of officials working overtime to show Nepal in good light, in communities sacrificing their losses, and in youth working for a cause rather than for the salary they can generate. Still, much remains to be done.
As citizens of Nepal, we have the right to complain about the state of the affairs, but we also have the responsibility to work towards improving it.
Not all of us can become snow leopard conservationists, and not all of us need to. However, we can and must contribute in our own ways to improve survival chances of snow leopards and nature in general. This could be achieved by traveling to these mountain areas to help livelihoods of local communities; by not littering in pristine environments; by working towards reducing our carbon footprint; and above all by aspiring for development and improved infrastructure, but not at the cost of our future.
Sheren is a Senior Research Officer for WWF Nepal