Awareness mission to save snow leopards

 Bhimsen Thapaliya


Snow leopards (Pantherauncia), being the inhabitants of the highest slopes on earth, also remain on top of the food chain of the local ecological system. Revered and portrayed as the nature’s protagonist in books, reports, postage stamps and documentaries, the big cats of the mountain also face high threats of survival. “If we want to save these charismatic cats, we need to resolve the existing problem of human-animal conflict,” says Professor Karan Bahadur Shah, a pioneering snow leopard researcher of Nepal. Stopping the trend of retaliatory killings and illegal hunting is the topmost challenge, adds Shah, who is one of the editors of the publication we are discussing here.
After massive hunting of prey species like tharal, ibex, ghoral and blue sheep, snow leopards have turned their attention to domestic animals, drawing anger of the mountain farmers. Presently, snow leopards are said to depend on livestock for the supply of 20 per cent of their food. Naturally, the yak and sheep farmers of the Himalayan mountains of Nepal have developed an enmity with these animals. When a number of livestock is killed, it is an issue of livelihood and economic losses. This stands as a challenge to snow leopard conservation programmes.leopards
When the mountain farmers see snow leopards as a threat to their livelihood, they see no purpose in conserving these animals. Moreover, they assist the poachers who are out to hunt these animals. Snow leopards, regarded otherwise as shy and elusive by nature, are known to kill yaks and sheep in more number than they can actually consume. This has created an unending conflict between people and these wild cats. Before things take big ecological toll, a conservation intervention is urgently needed for building public awareness. The Snow Leopard (HiuChituwa) magazine was born to fulfill this aim.
Professor Shah is a co-editor of this publication teaming up with snow leopard expert of international repute Rodney Jackson, Dr.Som B. Ale and Anil Adhikari. It is par of snow leopard awareness mission, says Shah, and the students, local people and conservationists are the target audience.
The annual magazine was launched in 2015 to fill the awareness gap regarding the conservation of this elusive cat. The Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC), of which Rodney is a founder, has joined hands with the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), Global Primate Network-Nepal and Mountain Spirit for the publication of the magazine. It is truly bilingual in the sense that every article it carries is in English and Nepali. It has obviously targeted the local readers who may not understand English. The first volume was dedicated to the creations of school students of the snow leopard inhabiting mountain areas. The inputs from the young creators were based on the knowledge of the field trip training led by Professor Shah. School students teamed up as ‘Snow Leopard Scouts’ were taken to actual snow leopard trails along the Himalayan slopes to study habit, habitats, food, prey species and the techniques of camera trapping to capture the photos of the animals. “We aimed to create interests in the youth about this animal so that they could educate their parents and neighbours and some of them could continue their higher studies on the subject,” says Professor Shah.
As the editors are currently working on the fifth volume of the magazine, reading contents have evolved over the years to cater to the interests of all types of readers rather than the school students only. A wide variety of materials related to snow leopards and their conservation are covered by the magazine- scientific report, awareness tips, awareness activities, field experiences of the experts, role of the local citizen scientists and the recounting of tales and anecdotes surrounding this elusive mountain cat.
Professor Shah, who worked for 37 years at the Natural History Museum of Tribhuvan University, is regarded a pioneer scientist in the study of snow leopards in Nepal. From 1981 to 1986, he worked with Rodney Jackson in Dolpa district. He played a key role in radio collaring and study of five snow leopards in the first research of its kind in the world.
Nepal is among 12 snow leopard range countries all of which lie in Asia. They are Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
In January 2017, Nepal hosted the second steering meeting of the Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem & Protection Program (GSLEP), involving all 12 snow leopard range countries. Participants of this meeting discussed the status of management plans to secure 20 snow leopard landscape areas by the year 2020. These landscapes are to be located in all 12 range countries covering an area of 500,000 square kilometres. Each landscape area is intended to provide habitat and prey to support viable populations of 100 breeding snow leopards.
Nepal has learned important lessons on in the conservation journey of over four and half decades which points to the fact that desired results cannot be achieved without active participation of the local people. The same theory applies as far as saving snow leopard is concerned.
Retaliatory killings being the top threat for the survival of snow leopards, building conservation awareness among the local community members is very important to save these animals. In addition, economic (livelihood) reasons play their role in the lack of motivation and lead to retaliatory killings in high altitude habitats where monitoring is often difficult. Therefore, conservation initiatives should be supplemented by suitable economic programmes. In this regard, The Snow Leopard magazine can serve as an informative tool to herald a new era of motivated conservation.
Global snow leopard conservation efforts are paying good dividends in recent years, evident from the conservation status review of the animal done by the IUCN in 2017. In the Red List assessment made by a team of scientists, snow leopard’s was re-classified as ‘Vulnerable’ shifting if from the earlier status of ‘Endangered’. It indicates reduced threats faced by this animal thanks to conservation efforts.
The global population of snow leopard is estimated to be between 4,000 and 7,500. The animals live in the elevation range of 2,000 to 3,000 metres. Conservationists describe snow leopards as an environmental barometer meaning that its thriving is an indication of healthy ecology. An editorial in The Snow Leopard magazine says that this animal provides an “umbrella” for conserving the fragile mountain ecosystem and its wide array of plants and animals. 

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