Part I: Snow Leopard Conservation and Conflict in Nepal
In Lubra, a village located at an altitude of just over 3,000 meters above sea level (9,900 feet) in the fabled Mustang district, Nepal, livestock outnumber their combined owners of 14 households. Farming remains vital to survival and commerce. In many ways, the way of life here has not changed too drastically for this 800 year old Bon Buddhism hamlet, perched above the Panda Khola, a tributary of the Kali Gandaki.
What has changed, however, is the monsoon. Floods in this Himalaya rain shadow region now regularly erodes away the farmland, cutting farther into the village, every year. And in the quiet of the night, or during afternoon grazing in the highlands, as the wind howls and roars through the region, cattle have been attacked regularly too. Farmers are distraught.
Mustang is a critical habitat of Nepal’s prized snow leopards. Human-wildlife conflict in the region is not new, but there are reasons to be concerned about it increasing, and to find ways to mitigate them.
“Three days ago, a mother goat was attacked and killed by a leopard while grazing,” Ghirmi Gurung, 37, a local conservationist and resident of Lubra, told Onward Nepal as we discussed the issue at his home in June. “This is my sixth goat killed in two years by leopards. I don’t know if it is the snow leopard or common leopard, but it is a serious problem in the village.”
Killing of livestock by wildlife has emerged as a serious problem for the mountain inhabitants who eke out a living mostly from agriculture, and livestock herding such as that of yaks, sheep, and goats.
According to Gurung, leopards have killed more than 50 livestock from Lubra village alone in the last two years. About four years ago, a snow leopard even came inside a shed located in the highland and killed two yaks, he said. The increasing number of attacks and killings by wildlife, mostly leopards, has forced villagers to reduce the number of livestock so they become more manageable, and to lessen financial risk.
“Unlike before, when shepherds used to take their livestock for grazing in highlands, most villagers now prefer grazing closer to the village,” explained Gurung.
Data compiled by the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) states 202 livestock including mountain goat, sheep, horse, yak, and jhoppa were killed between 2015-2016 in Mustang by snow leopards. However, this data is based only on claims for livestock death compensation. The actual number of livestock deaths is much more. Many villagers do not come forward to claim compensation given its lengthy process, and cost of travel. For instance, authorities provide Rs. 2000 as compensation for a goat killed by leopard, but the cost of the goat is almost five times more than that.
Ghirmi Gurung, a resident of Lubra, Manang
I haven’t taken any compensation for my livestock. I have to travel to Jomsom and stay there for a day or two to get the money.
Often, the cost is much higher than the compensation amount, so farmers from remote mountain areas do not apply for compensation for livestock killed by wildlife.
The Most Significant Threat
“I think livestock killing and related conflict are already the most serious risks that need to be mitigated in order to protect the snow leopard population,” Dr. Rodney Jackson, a world renowned conservation scientist and snow leopard expert, told Onward Nepal, last week in Kathmandu.
Jackson, along with his wife Darla Hillard, and biologist Karan Shah, with support from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, conducted the first ever in-depth radio tracking study of snow leopards in Nepal between 1981 and 1984. That study provided unprecedented data on their habitats, home range, movement pattern, and prey utilisation.
“We called them the fourth cat species. The study was undertaken in rugged mountain areas that were uninhabitable, so conflict really didn’t enter the picture at that time,” Jackson shared while noting conflict between humans and snow leopards has been a major challenge for about a decade now.
“Frankly, it has not been addressed by the government or non-governmental organisations properly except for a few compensation and relief programmes in parts of Kanchanjunga, Manang and Mustang,” Jackson said.
This is mainly due to a lack of concern for livestock attacked and killed during conflicts. Long-term funding for livelihood enhancement projects along with mitigation measures to prevent livestock killing (for example, building predator proof corrals), is still inadequate, says Jackson.
Mitigation measures like improved guarding of livestock and compensation schemes, long-term funding for livelihood enhancement that includes better education, life skills, and improved market access for affected local communities will help to reduce deaths on both sides, he explains.
[Part II of this series will look at other threats and challenges outside of conflict.]
Counting the Cats
Due to rugged mountain terrain as well as the remoteness of the habitats of the snow leopard, their habitat remains largely unexplored and their estimated population is still unknown. Based on habitat availability and the density study done in known habitats, the snow leopard population in Nepal is expected to be between 350 to 400. Based on radio tracking and density-based studies in range countries so far, the estimated global population of snow leopards is between 4,000 and 7000, and is spread over an area of about three million square kilometres.
Bishkek Declaration to Kathmandu Resolution
It was nearly a decade ago, in 2008 in Beijing, China, that representatives from the Snow Leopard range came together for a major conference to discuss the need for global action to protect these cats in registered areas. Such was the positive momentum that the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI) decided they too would do something similar for tiger conservation. Conservation partners and organisations working on tiger conservation, with support from the World Bank, announced they would work to double tiger population in range countries by 2020.
A few years later, in 2011 at the Lina Bar, the president, vice president, and others from the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) were reflecting on the success of the GTI when it struck them that 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 2013, 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.
On January 19, the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme’s (GSLEP) second Steering Committee meeting took place in Kathmandu, Nepal. It was here that the Kathmandu Resolution on GSLEP was drafted after a robust discussion among high-level participants from the range countries.
The governments of the 12 snow leopard range countries are coming together to discuss the future course of snow leopard conservation in Bishkek from August 23-25, this year. Nepal recently organised the second steering committee meeting of GSLEP in Kathmandu in January. The government launched the Snow Leopard Action Plan 2017-2021 and pledged Rs. 50 million towards conservation.
In the upcoming Bishkek meeting, as outlined in the Kathmandu Declaration, countries will commit to enhancing the quality of life of high mountain human communities through sustainable development of snow leopard landscapes, said Maheshwar Dhakal, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation. In addition, Nepali delegates will appeal to the range countries and international finance institutions to adopt and incorporate smart green infrastructure in public policy and development agendas for Asia’s mountains.
“We are committed to providing a better habitat for snow leopards, and to communities living in and around their habitats,” Dhakal said.
This article is the first part of a series Onward Nepal is publishing on the ongoing Snow Leopard conservation effort in which Nepal plays a significant role. Part II of the series will be published next week.