Ladakh, India – At the end of 1973, after two months spent surveying the Dolpo wilderness on the Tibetan plateau, the American naturalist and writer Peter Matthiessen realizes that it is time to hang up his bloody boots.
Exhausted, he abandons zoologist George Schaller alone in the mountains, abandoning his dream of seeing a snow leopard (Panthera uncia) in the wild.
Matthiessen wrote the story of this grueling 1978 expedition in The Snow Leopard, capturing the world’s imagination at a time when scientists still knew next to nothing about these elusive creatures.
The harshness and vastness of the snow leopard’s high altitude environment – which spans 12 countries in even central Asia, including some of the world’s highest mountain ranges and plateaus – is intimidating. for humans and technology.
But after more than 40 years of continuous research and innovation, studying snow leopards has become a less overwhelming task. Thanks to intensive camera trapping, two large-scale environmental studies earlier this year uncovered solid scientific data on the snow leopard population for the first time ever.
“We now have over a decade of data collected as part of our long-term ecological study in the southern Gobi of Mongolia, as well as more reliable population estimates in many parts of the range,” Marissa B Niranjan, deputy director of the Seattle-based organization. Snow Leopard Trust, told Al Jazeera.
Founded in 1981 by Helen Freeman, then curator of education at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, the Trust celebrated its 40th anniversary on January 28, 2021. It is the world’s largest and oldest non-profit organization to support the conservation, research and education of the snow leopard by encouraging local community partnerships in the animal’s habitats.
Niranjan refers to a first-of-its-kind three-year survey carried out in February in the state of Himachal Pradesh, northern India, which estimated the presence of up to 73 wild snow leopards there. .
Conducted by the Indian Snow Leopard Trust team in collaboration with the State Forestry Department, the Himachal Pradesh Snow Leopard Survey was part of the Snow Leopard Population Assessment Program in the world (PAWS).
Officially endorsed in 2017 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan by the 12 countries that have snow leopards, PAWS aims to produce a robust estimate of its global population over the next five years.
At the end of March 2021, a second PAWS-related milestone study assessed preliminary snow leopard populations for all of Mongolia, with initial results indicating the presence of nearly 1,000 cats – the world’s second largest population after China. .
“Until now, the population numbers tended to be the best estimates. The new figures from various countries, using scientifically standardized techniques under PAWS, will add up to provide for the first time a reliable global estimate of the snow leopard population, ”Chardutt Mishra, Executive Director, told Al Jazeera. from the Snow Leopard Trust.
Mishra added that such efforts also enable new conservation partnerships with communities and governments in countries with snow leopards.
“These rigorous large-scale spatial studies depend on strong local capacity, which means that considerable capacity building is now underway at the local level,” he said.
Endangered snow leopards
The latest scientific advances have revived interest in the snow leopard, which remains “vulnerable” on the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
According to the Snow Leopard Trust, it is estimated that there are between 3,900 and 6,400 wild snow leopards left in the world, although the actual number remains unknown.
Some risks are well established. “Traditional threats include retaliation for their predatory behavior on livestock, hunting snow leopards and their prey, and overgrazing of pastures in some situations,” Mishra told Al Jazeera.
But others have appeared relatively recently. As Mishra noted, “New and emerging threats include large-scale degradation from mining and other development activities in snow leopard habitats, the threat of disease and the warming of their populations. habitats, as well as increased poaching and illegal trade in their body parts ”.
For some, the most pressing issue remains the coexistence and conflict between remote communities and snow leopards.
If they enter a shepherd’s pen, “a villager can lose all of his sheep at once, resulting in loss of income and anger and retaliation against the leopard,” reports the High Asia website. Habitat Fund, an organization registered in the United States. organization that promotes conservation by empowering dependent communities in the snow leopard territory.
Livestock predation is responsible for the deaths of 220-450 snow leopard each year. “With the levels of conflict continuing to rise, that matters a lot more [than population numbers] are the perceptions of the local population regarding the snow leopards and their willingness to tolerate the presence of this predator at the top, ”Professor Rodney Jackson told Al Jazeera.
A great expert on snow leopards and their habitat, Jackson was the first to wear radio collars on snow leopards in remote western Nepal in the early 1980s to study their behavior and population. He founded the Snow Leopard Conservancy in Sonoma, California, in 2000.
“The most urgent priority for environmentalists must be immediate communication and the full participation of villages in implementing solutions to prevent, or at least reduce, livestock depredation while simultaneously improving livelihood opportunities. Jackson said.
Lack of tourism
Prior to travel bans triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, snow leopard-focused tourism was an important opportunity to help manage conflict between animals and humans in key locations such as Hemis National Park in the northern Indian territory of Ladakh.
“Snow leopard expeditions generate a lot of livelihood for trackers, drivers, camp staff, cooks, porters, etc. They also generate secondary and tertiary income when we buy vegetables, grains and meat to our neighbors, ”said Behzad J Larry, CEO of Voygr Expeditions, a US tour operator specializing in snow leopard tourism to Ladakh and Kyrgyzstan.
The lack of tourism for the second consecutive season is certainly weighing on tourism-dependent Ladakh.
Dorjay Stanzin, a chief snow leopard tracker at Voygr Expeditions and a resident of Hemis National Park, said that “those who have traditionally raised and grazed cattle are doing more agriculture and increasing herd sizes to provide income and food “.
But larger herds also mean a potential increased risk of conflict.
Abdul Rashid, vice president of operations at Voygr Expeditions, said that while the state-funded Department of Wildlife Protection has continued to protect wildlife, local conservation initiatives are affected, as “tourism pays for many aspects of conservation, such as helping inhabitants in the snow leopard or wolf territory to protect their herds through predator-proof enclosures, or putting up fences around their fields so that blue sheep or ibex do not eat their crops ”.
Khenrab Phuntsog, a wildlife ranger at Hemis National Park and legendary Ladakh snow leopard conservationist, believes that “conservation can only work when people are just as supportive as the local department of wildlife – and we need tourism for that, because it gives them direct access to sustenance ”.
This difficult moment can prove to be crucial in rethinking the interdependence between local communities, snow leopards and future tourists.