New challenges in conserving Pakistani snow leopards

* Only 300 to 420 wild snow leopards left in mountain ranges of Pakistan
* Snow leopards’ habitat threatened by climate change, rising temperatures

By Syed Mujahid Ali Shah

In Pakistan, the northern mountain ranges of the Himalayas — Karakoram , Hindukush and Pamir — Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan host one of the most fascinating animals of the world: the snow leopard. The magnificent animal is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red-list of endangered species.

According to a recent scientific study by Yale University, there are 300 to 420 estimated snow leopards left in these snow-covered mountain ranges of Pakistan, out of a total estimated world population of 4,000 to 7,000. This region is the main corridor of connecting bigger populations of snow leopards living in Pakistan, Central Asia, China, India and Nepal.

Climate change and increasing temperatures have caused fast degradation of the bio-tops in these mountains, which also host wild species of ibex, Marcopolo sheep, blue sheep, Astor Markhor and the musk deer, on which the snow leopard depends.

This has resulted in a tough inter and intra-specie survival competition. Due to food shortage in its natural sanctuaries, snow leopards have started moving down to villages in search of food and frequent encounters with cattle herds are now being reported from villages near Khunjerab National Park and Central Karakoram National Park in Hunza-Nagar district. Two decades ago, the government started ‘trophy hunting’ programmes in collaboration with mountain villagers in these regions to protect the snow leopard and its prey. Such hunting expeditions cost $3,000 to $80,000 and 80 percent of the money goes directly to the mountain communities, while 20 percent goes to the Forest and Wildlife Department in Gilgit-Baltistan.

The project has showed positive results in stopping illegal hunting of Marcopolo sheep, ibex, Astore Markhor and blue sheep.

Faced with an alarming future scenario in the shape of critical depletion of the snow leopard’s prey species, the conservation of wild fauna in these mountains will need more than just relying on trophy hunting projects.

As a new protection strategy, measures can be taken in the form of incentive programmes for the villagers to help them conserve wild life hot spots, as well as new awareness and educational campaigns on mass-level in these mountain regions.

As we are already on the verge of losing this endangered wild species — mainly due to lack of awareness and direct dependency of the local population on natural resources — the world should show responsibility by realising the value of Pakistani snow leopards and play its role in protecting them through economic and educational means.

Syed Mujahid Ali Shah is a student of Landscape Ecology and Nature Conservation in Germany.

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