Nepal brings back the snow leopard

Shey Phoksundo National Park gets communities active in saving the elusive and endangered cats

Snow leopard sighting at Shey Phoksundo National Park. Photo: SHEREN SHRESTHA/WWF NEPAL

In the summer of 2018, on the very first trip to Dolpo, I saw a wild snow leopard as it cat-walked along a slope before vanishing into the icy vastness of the Himalaya.

Our team was there to learn more about this elusive animal and understand its inter-relationship with communities, as well as assist conservation efforts of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC) and Shey Phoksundo National Park (SPNP).

Along with SPNP staff and local citizen scientists, we rolled out various assessments that had been over half a year in planning. The challenges of this extreme trans-Himalayan terrain were aggravated by unpredictable weather and unfulfilled commitments.

Perseverance, adaptive management by a dynamic local colleague and the support of local partners were crucial in protecting the snow leopard, which has been called ‘God’s Pet’. 

Our ecological and socio-economic surveys identified challenges and also opportunities to strengthen work by our predecessors, laying the foundation for the integrated project by the DNPWC, SPNP and World Wildlife Fund Nepal (WWF) to benefit both people and cats.

Read also: Trekking to save Nepal's snow leopards, Sonam Choekyi Lama

On International Day of Mountains on 11 December, we realise that so much has been achieved, despite challenges including our collective confinement during the Covid pandemic. Here are five milestones to mark five years of the project:

1. A global snow leopard conservation hotspot

Snow leopards and their ecosystems are among the least studied of the big cats, globally. The Nepal government prioritises research to better understand the species for informed conservation.

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Karma Tarkey is a former SLCC Chair whose conservation efforts culminated in his unopposed election as the Ward Chair in 2022. Photo: SANJOG RAI /WWF

With the crucial engagement of local youths as citizen scientists, there is diverse research and periodic monitoring to guide and improve conservation efforts. We know more about snow leopards than ever before, strengthening the conservation prospects of this flagship species of mountain ecosystems.

The SPNP hosts about 90 individuals, and is a global hotspot for snow leopard conservation – a matter of immense pride, opportunity, as well as responsibility for Nepal.

Read also: Snow leopard redux, Tayama Rai

2. Integrated conflict management

More snow leopards translate to increased human-animal contact leading to livestock loss. But by integrating knowledge of snow leopard behaviour, the local socio-economic context and by addressing practical challenges, livestock losses have been reduced and communities affected have been compensated.

Pastoralists have been trained in mesh wire fabrication and improving livestock corrals to avert surplus killings – instances when snow leopards kill multiple livestock without eating them.  

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Parliamentarians visited SPNP in 2020 to understand grassroots issues. With tireless efforts of many institutions including the DNPWC, a recent win was an amendment to the government’s Wildlife Damage Relief Guidelines, including doubling the ceiling of relief amount and explicit inclusion of mountain livestock varieties. Photo: WWF NEPAL

If snow leopards are unable to enter livestock corrals, surplus killings can be virtually eradicated, as has been reported by the community from piloted improved corrals. With most households owning yaks and mountain goats, there are efforts to scale this out to benefit the wider community.

SPNP has played a catalytic role to capacitate community leadership and granted over Rs20 million of government relief to local households in the past five years.

Read also: Nepali conservationist among Rolex awardees, Nepali Times

3. Secure livelihoods

Safeguarding livestock is crucial to secure local livelihoods. Which is why it is even more important to diversify livelihood options but these are inherently limited for mountain communities more so now due to heightened geopolitics and the increased impact of the climate crisis. 

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Tshiring from Dho Tarap village is a trained veterinary technician. By saving injured animals, he is busting local myths that livestock injured by wildlife are doomed to die. Other local youth are trained in disease surveillance and control, which is becoming an increasing risk.

We supported livelihoods that have immediate returns but also long-term prospects that benefit the wider community, and preserve local cultures and nature while also enhancing their resilience as best we can.

4. A bright future

As remote as SPNP is, it is never far from the impact of globalisation. There are new roads in Dolpo, and local governments have been leading efforts for electrification in remote parts of SPNP. The project has been contributing to their larger initiatives to assure clean energy access to local communities.

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Technicians install panels of a solar mini-grid in Kugaon – a remote village in upper Dolpo, that could easily take us 10 days to reach from Kathmandu. Now, 36 households here have the first solar mini-grid connection facilitated by the local government which has prioritised clean energy connection. Photo: PEMA TSHERING GURUNG

Read also: Nepal leads in snow leopard study, Nepali Times

5. Conservation stalwarts

Engagement of the community is key to snow leopard conservation. Local knowledge in planning and implementation is mandatory, but it also creates new expertise in environmental protection.

The project supports education and has helped form and capacitate diverse youth groups, including one with aspirations for sustainable tourism management and stronger linkages to the local economy.

One of the challenges, however, has been effectively engaging women. Even so, last year, women groups of Dolpo led a massive undertaking removing nearly 8,000kg of solid waste from rangelands.

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SPNP youth and the WWF team at WWF headquarters in Kathmandu. Photo: SNEHA TAMRAKAR/WWF NEPAL

These milestones are an expression of the immense effort by government officials from Kathmandu to the remotest parts of Dolpo most notably DNPWC, SPNP and various rural municipalities, communities and youth who have worked tirelessly, and all the experts and donors.

This is also a call for help. This is still a work in progress and needs further intervention to help the SPNP protect the snow leopard and its ecosystem. 

Read also: Bridging the divide, Sheren Shrestha and Ghana Shyam Gurung

Sheren Shrestha is Manager of Wildlife Programs with the WWF currently overseeing planning and management of Snow Leopard programs.

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