Tibetan monks partner with conservationists to protect the snow leopard

Panthera has allied with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries to conserve Snow Leopards in the mountainous areas where the monasteries are found. The following article provides a thorough interview with Tom McCarthy and Li Juan. Full text is as follows:

Tibetan monks partner with conservationists to protect the snow  leopard
Source: http://news.mongabay.com/2013/0610-hance-zacc-mccarthy.html#SEpUrjcuC3twTR0P.99

June 10, 2013

Tibetan monks could be the key to safeguarding the snow leopard (Panthera  uncia) from extinction, according to an innovative program by big cat NGO Panthera which is partnering with Buddhist  monasteries deep in leopard territory. Listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red  List, snow leopard populations have dropped by a fifth in the last 16 years or  so. Large, beautiful, and almost never-seen, snow leopards are the apex  predators of the high plateaus and mountains of central Asia, but their survival  like so many big predators is in jeopardy.
Tom McCarthy the head of the  Snow Leopard Program at Panthera told mongabay.com that the high-altitude  predators are facing three major threats: poaching for illegal snow leopard  skins, fur, and parts; decline in natural prey; and revenge killing by locals  over livestock losses.

Soujia Monastery. Photo by: Panthera (B. Weckworth). Soujia Monastery. Photo by: Panthera (B. Weckworth). 

“Snow leopards share their mountain  habitat with poor herding families whose lives are highly dependent on  livestock,” McCarthy says. “When a snow leopard kills a sheep, goat, yak or even  a young camel, it is a huge economic loss to the herder. It is hard to blame  them for wanting to kill the snow leopard in retaliation.”
To mitigate  this conflict, Panthera has turned to Tibetan-Buddhist monasteries as allies.  Inhabiting the same sky-high regions as snow leopards in China, Buddhist monks,  who maintain a special status in the society, have become effective partners,  working with local communities to mitigate conflict and killings while  monitoring the cats’ status. Moreover, this program could be expanded across  snow leopard habtiat.
“As a strategy, monastery-based snow leopard  conservation could be extended to other Tibetan Buddhist regions, covering about  80 percent of global snow leopard range,” explains Li Juan, who is the world’s  first female scientist with a PhD in zoology focusing on snow leopards and is  currently a post-doctoral student at Peking University. She has played a key  role in the work on the Tibetan Plateau, which is a collaboration between the  Chinese conservation NGO Shan Shui, Panthera and the Snow Leopard Trust.

Tom McCarthy and Li Juan will be presenting on their work at  the 2013  Zoos and Aquariums: Committing to Conservation (ZACC) conference on Tuesday,  July 12th in Des Moines, Iowa.

Tom McCarthy far left in China. Photo by: Panthera. Tom McCarthy far left with monks in China. Photo by:  Panthera (T. McCarthy).
Mongabay: What’s your background?
Tom McCarthy: I am a wildlife biologist and started my career  in Alaska. I did my MSc on brown bear ecology and then worked with the Alaska  Department of Fish and Game for several years as a research and management  biologist.
Mongabay: What drew you to snow leopards initially? 

Rare image of female snow leopard with cubs. Photo by: Panthera/Shan Shui (E. Zhu). Rare image of female snow leopard with cubs. Photo by:  Panthera/Shan Shui (E. Zhu).

Tom  McCarthy: It was almost an accident. I had always wanted to work overseas,  so when a friend from Alaska was going to Mongolia to film the work of George  Schaller I sent a letter along asking if there was anything there I could get  involved with. I was thinking one of George’s Asian bear studies. Many months  later when the answer came back he said there was a snow leopard project in the  Gobi that he needed someone to lead. I had never before even thought of doing  snow leopard work, but that project became the basis for my PhD and started me  on a 20-year career in this field.
Mongabay: What are the  major threats facing this species?
Tom McCarthy: There are  several primary threats and they include:
Retribution killing for  depredation on livestock. Snow leopards share their mountain habitat with poor  herding families whose lives are highly dependent on livestock. When a snow  leopard kills a sheep, goat, yak or even a young camel, it is a huge economic  loss to the herder. It is hard to blame them for wanting to kill the snow  leopard in retaliation.
Loss of natural prey. Snow leopards subsist  primarily on large wild mountain ungulates, like ibex, blue sheep, argali, and  markhor. Many of those are in decline from poaching for food and sale of parts.  In some cases poorly managed trophy hunting is also driving populations down,  leaving the snow leopard with little choice but to shift attention to livestock,  with the resultant conflict with herders.
Poaching for hides and bones.  Snow leopard hides, and more so their bones, are extremely valuable on the black  market. A single set of snow leopard bones on the Traditional Asian Medical  market can bring upwards of $10,000. Hides remain popular for fur garments,  primarily in eastern Europe. Despite the fact they are protected legally in each  of their 12 range countries, they are persecuted and hunted in many areas and  populations may be in steep declines in some of those.
Mongabay: You’ve partnered with Buddhist monasteries to help save these cryptic cats.  Will you tell us how this partnership works?

Li Juan climbing to snow leopard camera trap site. Photo by: Shan Shui (Li Juan). Li Juan climbing to snow leopard camera trap site. Photo by:  Shan Shui (Li Juan).

Li Juan: We  have since 2009 initiated cooperative programs with four monasteries for snow  leopard conservation in the Sanjiangyuan region. We provided funds for  patrollers and for buying binoculars, cameras and GPSs, as well as training  monks to observe, monitor, and record wildlife systematically. The Rinpoche,  Khenpos, and other high-ranking monks were requested to emphasize the special  value of snow leopards and other wildlife in their religious convocations. At  the same time we distributed snow leopard posters to encourage conservation of  this iconic cat. These programs have seen their initial effectiveness.
Mongabay: How do the monks feel about the snow leopards?
Li Juan: Actually, they do not have special feeling about  snow leopards. In their view, they treat all beings as equal.
Mongabay: How do the monasteries advocate with local  communities for the leopards? Li Juan: The Rinpoche, Khenpos, and  other high-ranking monks would emphasize the special value of snow leopards and  other wildlife in their religious convocations. They also encourage the locals  to swear an oath not to kill wildlife every year.
When some herders  complained about their severe loss of livestock to snow leopards, some Khenpos  even pay their own money to compensate them. When they encountered Tibetans  hunting wildlife, they might ask them to kneel and do penance, order them to  leave, or report illegal activities to the local governments.
Mongabay: What scientific duties do the Buddhist monks  perform?
Li Juan: The monks do the scientific monitoring  routinely, including counting blue sheep, recording the wildlife they  encountered, recording the plant phenology etc. Some monks work as our field  assistants, help us with collecting feces and changing the batteries and cards  of camera traps. They are very excited about the camera trapping and enjoy  receiving and sharing the photos with their community.
Mongabay: What is the research uncovering? Any surprises?
Li Juan:  We are surprised to find that more snow leopard habitats in the Sanjiangyuan  area could be directly protected by monasteries than the core areas of the  Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve. Tibetan monasteries have similar habitat  selection with snow leopards, both on the large and small scales. As a strategy,  monastery-based snow leopard conservation could be extended to other Tibetan  Buddhist regions, covering about 80 percent of global snow leopard range.

Monks reading snow leopard field guide. Photo by: Panthera (T. McCarthy). Monks reading snow leopard field guide. Photo by: Panthera  (T. McCarthy).

Read more at http://news.mongabay.com/2013/0610-hance-zacc-mccarthy.html#SEpUrjcuC3twTR0P.99

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