OOTBS Thought: As humans move into more and more remote places, we will inevitably push into the territories of species that are endangered. As this happens we can only hope that the peoples occupying this new space have respect for their new neighbors and do as little to impact the animals lives as possible.
Original story below.
(CNN)Barren, wind-swept rock is all I can see through the telescope.
Even at this distance I see the cat’s thick fur being tousled by the biting wind on the mountain ridge 17,000 feet (5,000 meters) up.
Superbly adapted to life in the highest, coldest and most rugged mountains on the planet, the snow leopard seems content to continue its midday nap. Less well adapted, I retreat to the village below our vantage point.
Seeing a wild snow leopard is rare due to their inaccessible habitat, how few exist and how sparsely they occur across their vast range.
Known as the “ghost of the mountains,” snow leopards inhabit the major ranges of Asia, including the Altai, Tian Shan, Kunlun, Pamirs, Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalayas.
Only 4,500 to 10,000 of the elusive cats roam roughly 800,000 square miles of precipitous terrain from southern Siberia in the north to India in the south, and east to west from Uzbekistan to Yunnan, China.
This may explain why the sleepy snow leopard in Ladakh, India was only the seventeenth I have seen in over two decades of studying and working to conserve the species.
Remote but not isolated
While I am extremely fortunate to have seen even one of these magnificent beasts in their natural surroundings, the many humans, mostly pastoralists, who share Asia’s high peaks with snow leopards are somewhat less enamored with the stealthy predator.
Snow leopards subsist on wild mountain-dwelling hoofed animals such as ibex, bharal and markhor.
Domestic sheep and goats whose predator avoidance skills have been mostly lost, provide livelihoods for humans in the dry cold region where other forms of agriculture yield minimal returns.
Snow leopard habitat is often labeled as “remote” but that’s a relative term.
It is not “remote” to the large human population that pushes ever deeper into central Asia’s high valleys seeking grazing land for their herds.
There are few snow leopards who don’t interact with humans and their livestock at some point. Thus, the elements of conflict are all present and many snow leopards are killed in retaliation for preying on livestock.
Blame cannot be laid at either’s feet — snow leopards apply a highly evolved skill to gain a meal and a poor shepherd defends his flock to feed his own family.
A path to coexistence has long been sought by snow leopard conservationists.
National laws, international treaties and protected areas all play a role in saving endangered species such as snow leopards, but lacking participation of the people who live with the cats, true conservation success would be elusive.
Social science as much as biology guides snow leopard conservation today and yields remedies equitable to people and cats.
When herders in Pakistan explained they lost more livestock to disease than to predators, offering a vaccination program in exchange for tolerance of a few losses to snow leopards was an obvious, and quite successful solution.
In Ladakh, India and the Pamirs of Tajikistan, the root cause of conflict is removed by helping herders build predator-proof corrals.
Where corrals are not feasible, community-managed livestock insurance programs lessen the financial impact of predation.
On the Tibetan Plateau of China, Buddhist monks help monitor snow leopard numbers with automated cameras and use the images to encourage their followers to protect the cats.
It is moving to see 10,000 people at a Buddhist festival pledge to protect snow leopards for the rest of their lives. These are but a few of the many examples of how people who once feared snow leopards have become their stewards.
Is the snow leopard now safe?
Closer, but loss of native prey, poaching for hides and bones (valued in traditional Asian medicine), and the potentially serious impacts of climate change on their fragile high-elevation habitat still mean an uncertain future for snow leopards.
We must fight on.