Oct 2, 2008

India - Protecting the snow leopard

As a big cat native to the icy trans-Himalayan ranges, the snow leopard is an elusive and intriguing species. Uncia uncia is a graceful golden-eyed animal with thick fur, padded paws that help it move noiselessly on rocky slopes, and a gloriously long tail that provides balance on the tricky terrain. Like the tiger, the snow leopard is a keystone carnivore species whose future is clouded by conflicts with people — in this case, high-altitude pastor al communities. Although these peaceable folk have historically co-existed with the snow leopard in a dozen range countries, the increase in livestock numbers in recent times has resulted in depredation and retaliatory killing of the animal. Poaching to supply markets for fur and body parts presents another challenge. Fortunately, in India, conservation initiatives for the snow leopard look quite promising. Communities have been encouraged, with excellent results, to work for its survival in places such as Spiti valley (Himachal Pradesh) and Ladakh.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests has taken the progressive step of drafting a Project Snow Leopard; this it has done on the strength of the technical expertise built up by the Nature Conservation Foundation, the International Snow Leopard Trust, the Wildlife Institute of India, and State forest authorities. The project aims to cover 128,757 square kilometres of habitat in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh. The essential experience of tiger conservation holds true for the snow leopard. Success — as a decade-long experiment in Kibber, a part of the Spiti valley, demonstrates — will depend primarily on the revival of its main prey base, a variety of wild sheep and goats. Thanks to a pastoral tradition of leasing out land to graziers, conservationists received rights to a designated area in Kibber from the community and achieved the opposite outcome — a reduction in livestock grazing. The reduced pressure allowed prey species to multiply. A participatory insurance scheme of cash compensation for livestock lost to snow leopard attacks certainly helped. Communities in Ladakh have reduced their dependence on livestock by opting for sustainable home stay tourism. A comparable income-based approach using handicrafts has worked in Mongolia, which hosts a major snow leopard population. These are the working models Project Snow Leopard, drawing on the best scientific research on the species, can re-validate and help scale up. Conservation failure will of course result in what conservationist George Schaller calls a “sad compromise” — survival of the species in zoos.

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