Nepal leads in snow leopard study
What has helped save the endangered snow leopard thus far is that it lives in the world’s most inhospitable mountain terrain. But this is changing as new roads improve access, making the elusive cats more vulnerable to those who mean it harm.
Research into the behaviour and ecosystem of snow leopards is therefore an important part of protecting them, and a new international survey has shown that Nepal leads other snow leopard range states in studying and conserving the threatened species.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study, Over 100 Years of Snow Leopard Research, shows that 74% of the snow leopard habitat in northern Nepal has been the subject of research into the species.
Most of the snow leopard’s vast 1.7 million sq km range in remote mountains spanning 12 countries in central Asia has never been researched to study its ecosystem. Nepal’s neighbours India and China have only 40% and 25% of their snow leopard habitat explored.
“The snow leopard lives in rugged terrain, so research poses significant logistical challenges. Most of the habitat is still unexplored and we don’t have a full picture of the status of this magnificent big cat,” says Rishi Kumar Sharma, WWF Global Snow Leopard Leader, who is the lead author of the report.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kiIwR3LeEtM&feature=emb_logo
Of the 23% of the area studied, only 3% of the snow leopard range has been more closely examined through camera traps and genetic tools to estimate their number in the wild, the WWF survey shows.
This, coupled with the absence of long-term monitoring programs makes it difficult to evaluate the impact of measures taken to protect the species, as well as track emerging new threats to the snow leopard. Sharma's report examines the current state of knowledge by including peer-reviewed published papers on the species and its habitat.
The countries with the most snow leopard research are Nepal, India, China, Mongolia and Pakistan, in that order. The studies mostly focus on ecological research, human-wildlife conflict and socio-ecological dimensions of the snow leopard range.
However, since so little of the snow leopard’s ecosystem has been researched, the survey concludes that there are critical knowledge gaps that could be hampering more effective conservation measures.
“Snow leopards are not just the emblems of Asia’s high mountains but are also critical to sustaining the landscapes they live in, which support water sources for over 2 billion people,” says Margaret Kinnaird of Lead Wildlife Practice at WWF International.
She adds: “This report will be a guide for the conservation community to diversify and prioritise areas of research to preserve sufficient and suitable habitat for snow leopards and to ensure water security for the vast human populations downstream.”
Indeed, protecting the snow leopard habitat also means protecting the environment of the Himalaya, Tibetan Plateau, Karakoram and Pamir that are together called the ‘Water Tower of Asia’ because 1.2 billion people downstream depend on the rivers that originate there.
The snow leopard is listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and globally, there could be as few as 4,000 of them left in High Asia. The remaining population faces traditional and emerging threats.
Nepal has an estimated 359 big cats, 320 of them in Western Nepal, 18 in the Kangchenjunga area, 17 in Rolwaling and four in the Sagarmatha National Park. Nepal has the fourth largest population of snow leopards after China, Mongolia and India, in a much smaller area.
Despite their endangered status, between 221-450 snow leopards are killed annually across Asia, 55% of them driven by retaliation for preying on livestock like sheep, yaks and goats.
Increased habitat loss, degradation and poaching have also contributed to their declining numbers, and with new roads making remote mountains more accessible, the snow leopards face new threats. However, only 14-19% of the snow leopard range is protected, with 40% of those being smaller than a single adult's home range.
The new threat to the snow leopard ecosystem comes from the climate crisis, and their numbers are predicted to decline by 8-23% by 2070 as the mountain ice caps melt.
The good news is that in recent years there has been more interest in saving the elusive cats, national-level population assessments have been carried out in several range-countries. New studies on the impact of the climate emergency have been conducted, with research in Nepal’s Shey Phoksundo National Park, Manang and Mustang.
Scientist Madhu Chetri has extensively studied cat scat in Upper Mustang and Manang to analyse their prey composition, and find clues about human impact on their habitat.
Similarly, researcher Tshiring Lhamu Lama is planning Snow Leopard Conservation Treks to Dolpo’s Phoksundo Lake to attract premium tourists from all over the world, bringing jobs and income to locals. She believes this will convince them of the value of protecting the habitat of the snow leopard in Nepal’s largest district bordering the Tibet Plateau.
The WWF report recommends evaluating the effectiveness of conservation actions, monitoring snow leopards and prey species, integrating human dimensions into conservation, studying disease, spatial ecology and impacts of climate change and infrastructure development as priority areas for future research.
Says Sharma: “We need to build a more accurate picture of the status of snow leopard populations and their prey species so that range states can better assess future changes and evaluate the impact of conservation actions. But more than anything else, we need a much better understanding of what the people sharing space with snow leopards think.”
Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.