25-31 October 2013 #678

The comeback cats

Nepal’s success with snow leopard conservation is a case study for other countries in the region
Kashish Das Shrestha in BISHKEK

Twelve mountain nations of Asia have convened in the Kyrgyz capital this week to protect the snow leopard, one of the most elusive and endangered of the big cats in the world.

The presence of snow leopards is considered an indicator of overall health of the eco-system in its high-altitude habitat of the Himalaya, Hindu Kush, Pamirs, the Tibetan Plateau, and the Mongolian steppe. The snow leopard faces many dangers: poaching and retaliation by farmers whose livestock is preyed by the cats and more recently the threat of habitat destruction due to climate change.

Since the snow leopard’s range does not respect national boundaries, it is clear that conservation efforts have to be cross-border. Nepal, for its part, has reported success in its snow leopard conservation efforts. After a fall in population in the 1960s and 70s, the number of snow leopards has risen to as high as 500 in the wild, one-tenth of the world population. In fact, Nepal’s experience in snow leopard conservation, in DNA analysis, radio collaring, and community-based conservation is seen as a case study for other countries in the region.

Nepal has the highest density of snow leopards compared to other range countries and most are concentrated in Mugu, Humla, and Dolpo. Snow leopard expert Rodney Jackson and Karan Shah first radio-collared snow leopards in 1985 in Dolpo to study their behaviour. It was this information that became critical in further conservation work.

“Now, the Kangchenjunga region offers the best possibility for successful conservation and study in Nepal because of its altitude and the chance to study climate impact,” Ghana Shyam Gurung of WWF Nepal told Nepali Times in Bishkek.

Snow leopards normally live at altitudes between 1,500-5,000m. In India, the cats have been found at higher altitudes than previously documented and in Pakistan there has been a worrying change in vegetation in prey populations due to climate change.

In Nepal, Stanford University professor Elizabeth Hadley’s team has been studying snow leopard prey and how climate change might be affecting them. “Pikas form a significant part of the snow leopard’s diet, which means that the changing climate and its impact on the little pika may exert an influence on snow leopard survival,” Hadley said.

In the Kyrgyz nature reserve Sarychat-Ertash established to protect the wild cats, it is the argali and ibex populations that ensured the survival and rise of snow leopard numbers. In Nepal, the blue sheep population plays a critical role.

Nepal’s snow leopard conservation plan is estimated to cost $9 million, with the government committing to fund 25 per cent of the amount. Our terrain requires specific and costly logistics. Nepal’s Minister for Forest and Soil Conservation, Tek Bahadur Thapa Gharti told the Bishkek meeting this week that Nepal would use camera trapping, genetic studies, and collaring for snow leopard research.

A WWF Nepal team will be travelling to Kangchenjunga next month to radio collar snow leopards and Bhutanese officials this week expressed interest in coming along to watch the process to gain knowhow for their own conservation work.

Nepal has pioneered livestock insurance in Kangchenjunga, where farmers are compensated for livestock killed by snow leopards. This has reduced retaliatory killings by farmers.

Nepal’s community-based conservation program also promotes community scientists who are local villagers trained in setting up camera traps, collecting scat samples, and monitoring the snow leopard’s population and local ecology. Scat samples are used for DNA analysis to identify individual leopards and is an ideal method because the animal is so elusive and the terrain so difficult.

“This helps to create employment and skill development,” Gurung explained, “and more importantly it gives villagers a better sense of ownership and makes the conservation process more transparent and accountable.”

Kashish Das Shrestha writes on environment and sustainability issues at SustainableNepal.org

@kashishds

See also:

Scat!

Worth more alive than dead

Darla, Rodney and snow leopards

See video:

Snow leopard camera trap footage from Bhutan from WWF-UK on Vimeo.


The Bishkek Declaration

KASHISH DAS SHRESTHA
It all started at the Lina Bar, over drinks in 2011. As the president, vice president, and others from the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) reflected over the success of the Global Tiger Initiative, they wondered if a similar campaign could also help save Asia’s endangered snow leopards. With experience and contacts in Central Asia for snow leopard conservation, NABU presented its proposal for a global forum on the mountain cats to the then-Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva.

By 2012, preparatory meetings had taken place in Bishkek, New Delhi, Bangkok, and Moscow. On Wednesday, 23 October those efforts culminated in Bishkek with the 12 snow leopard range countries (Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) signing The Bishkek Declaration on the Conservation of Snow Leopards. Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev signed the declaration which was also signed by Nepal’s Minister for Forest and Soil Conservation, Tek Bahadur Thapa Gharti.

After some initial debate, it was also agreed that the working secretariat to facilitate program development after the Global Snow Leopard Conservation Forum will be located in Bishkek. The declaration emphasises trans-boundary protection and is supported by other conservation agencies like the Global Environment Facility, Global Tiger Initiative, NABU, Snow Leopard Conservancy, Snow Leopard Trust, UNDP, USAID, the World Bank, and the World Wildlife Fund.

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