Of Tea and Snow Leopards, editorial by SLN member Shafqat Hussain

April 28, 2011

Baltistan, Post-Mortenson
Of Tea and Snow Leopards

OK, maybe just one cup of tea and not three, and just three schools not eleven. Whatever the truth about numbers, Greg Mortenson did a commendable job of building some schools in the peaceful and never-Talibanised Baltistan, and some in restless and Talibanised Afghanistan and Waziristan. But Mortenson’s story is not really about Greg or the numbers. Rather it is about something else.

The persistent scrutiny of his personal behavior or financial malpractices obfuscates that something else. Even in the failure of Mortenson the person, Mortenson the ‘state project’ continues to succeed. To differentiate between the person and the ‘state project’ his deceit and failures are not significant; what’s important is how he could be successful in the first place, and what his success has to do with the state.

How could Mortenson’s charity get away with the deceit for so long without being noticed? Did it have something to do with intimate usage of Mortenson and his book by the US military as part of its counter-insurgency strategy? The Pentagon made Three Cups of Tea required reading, buying copies in bulk. Mortenson went along with them, playing the game and getting dizzy on the fame, attention, and power that came from this connection. He dined with celebrities and diplomats and flew on a black hawk helicopter with US Generals. Current and former presidents donated money to his charity and he was nominated for the Nobel Prize. Mortenson became a non-governmental ‘state project.’ He was the soft face of American power, used to win hearts and minds overseas and used to quell domestic anxieties about the fairness of the war.

Mortenson’s story is certainly about human fallibility and the corrupting influence of adulation from above. But it is also about informal state projects; informal because these projects are not planned, initiated and explicitly funded by the state. Strategic imperatives makes a person’s career anopportunity for the state. Mortenson’s work as a humanitarian and a social development worker in Afghanistan and Pakistan became of strategic importance to the US state in the midst of the Afghan war in which it was losing both the hearts and minds of the Afghan and Pakistani people, and the patience and support of the American people.

But before there was Greg Mortenson, there was Leo the snow leopard. They are two ‘state projects’ that bear comparison.

In 2005 an orphaned snow leopard, later to be named Leo, was found by a villager in northern Pakistan, incidentally the same region where Mortenson works. The local wildlife department took charge of the leopard. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) which runs the Bronx Zoo in New York City found out about the cub and became interested in bringing the cub over to the zoo forbreeding purposes. The zoo sent a request to the local authorities through the US embassy in Islamabad and within a matter of months, the US State Department was involved. Soon afterwards Leo was officially handed over to the Americans in a ceremony in Islamabad in the summer of 2006 in which the US Ambassador to Pakistan was the chief guest. Leo got his visas and came to New York. A second ceremony took place here. The US Undersecretary for Democracy and Global Affairs was a central guest.

In the eyes of the US State, Leo’s story was about the use of international diplomacy to save biodiversity and the environment. In thesame way as Penguin and the Pentagon packaged Mortenson’s story (with a children’s book version of Three Cups), so too did the Bronx Zoo publish Leo the Snow Leopard (2010) to allow children to cultivate their view of the USState as magnanimous and environmentalist. Leo the Snow Leopard was packaged for a domestic audience, with parents soothing their children to sleep with comforting stories of the good, kind US State saving baby snow leopards from dangerous places.

Mortenson’s book is a story of the US bringing social development to the poor and oppressed, rescuing them from dangerous people in dangerous places; Leo’s book is a story of the US saving wildlife from those dangerous places and dangerous people. In both stories, an American hero lies at the heart of the tale. Leo’s story is not as popular as Mortenson’s, but it is along the same grain:

When the Wildlife Conservation Society learned of the Leo’s plight, they knew they had to do something. There was a special place that could save Leo: the world-famous Bronx zoo in New York… After a rescue that involved treacherous, winding treks in the Himalayas, an extra-ordinary partnership between Pakistan and United States, and the help of dozens of dedicated people, Leo is making the Bronx Zoo his new home.

Thankfully the analogy between Leo and Mortenson stops here as there are no financial scams and fudging of numbers involved in Leo’s story; the Bronx Zoo and WCS are respectable and credible institutions. Both Leo’s and Mortensen’s stories, however, present the US State work in Pakistan and Afghanistan to the domestic audience and to some in Pakistan, as being not about war, bombs and imperialism, but rather about heart-warming things such as wildlife, schools, and people doing good. Both saving snow leopards and building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan are noble and worthy causes, but these are not the things that the US and its citizens should be focusing their attention on.

Apart from a few books (Ann Jones’ Winter in Kabul), there are not many popular accounts of the other side of the US State project in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are no children’s books on how the US government, in the 1980s, sponsored the production of bilious textbooks for the jihadis, whose daughters Mortenson is trying to educate. Unless we understand this history, and how that history continues to haunt us today and provide the social and political conditions in which people like Mortenson become heroes, we may bring down Mortenson the person but not Mortenson the project.

Shafqat Hussain is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. In 2008, he won the National Geographic Society’s Emerging Explorer Award for his work, over the last eighteen years on social development and conservation in the Gilgit-Baltistan area, where Mortenson began his project.


Snow leopard caught on camera in Uttarakhand, India for first time

FRONT PAGE | Wednesday, April 20, 2011 | Email | Print | | Back

April 22, 2011 5:23:29 AM The Pioneer


The first-ever photograph of a snow leopard in Uttarakhand taken by a camera trap in Chamoli district this month has buoyed the spirits of the State forest department and scientists of the Wildlife Institute of India. Given the fact that this photograph was taken about four months after the camera traps were installed, this development has also drawn attention to the threats being faced by this apex predator, considered a flagship species of the high Himalayas. The population of snow leopards in the five Himalayan States of India is estimated to be about 500.

The Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India and the Uttarakhand Forest Department have been working closely on the monitoring of wildlife in Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve through research projects, field surveys, expeditions and regular departmental activities. According to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and Chief Wild Life Warden, Shrikant Chandola, the WII proposed the use of camera traps for monitoring snow leopards and estimating their population in Nanda Devi.

WII senior scientist S Sathyakumar provided training to the researchers and field staff of Nanda Devi in August 2010 following which about 15 camera traps were installed in the region during December 2010. This effort was undertaken as part of the WII-UNESCO Project for World Heritage Sites currently being implemented in Nanda Devi and the Valley of Flowers national park under the supervision of WII Dean VB Mathur.

Since being installed in December 2010, the camera traps captured photographs of many wildlife species including the common leopard, blue sheep, red fox, musk deer, Himalayan tahr and the Himalayan monal pheasant among others till the first snow leopard was photographed in the Malari region of Nanda Devi. The Government of India had launched Project Snow Leopard on the lines of Project Tiger in 1989 but the project failed to become operational and was revived in 2006.

According to Chandola, the State forest department will continue collaborating with the WII in the camera trapping efforts in Nanda Devi reserve for estimating the population of snow leopards in this region and, subsequently, other parts of Uttarakhand. He added that by effectively executing measures approved under the Centrally-sponsored Project Snow Leopard scheme, the Uttarakhand State Government will be able to enhance protection and management activities in the high Himalayan regions of Uttarakhand to safeguard the critically endangered snow leopard and its associated species of wildlife.


Snow Leopard captured on camera trap, Uttarakhand State, India

The image was released by by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) under Project Snow Leopard.

Here is the 1st on Snow Leopard in one of its last known habitat. The state forest department of Uttarakhand state (with cover of greater Himalayas) of India with help of Wildlife Institute of India (WII) found its first Snow Leopard by the virtue of a camera trap in the Malari region of the greater Himalayas. Malari falls under the Nandadevi Biosphere reserve and is a reserved forest region. The news comes as a great relief of the state forest department as the Snow Leopards were almost extinct from the region. Local farmers and nomadic shepherd have known to poach the cat for good prices of its skin and bone, bringing it on the brink of extinction.

One of the many camera traps installed by the team of WII and state forest department captured the elusive image of Snow Leopard. The region was tipped as a habitat with high density of Leopard but those claims turned out to be incorrect. After several other clipping of Himalayan Tahr, Ibex (Bharal), Marmot and Musk Deer finally there was this cat on the camera. It was indeed a moment of joy for those who are really concerned about the status of this ghost of the mountains.

The image of the cat is breakthrough news of the local forest department as well. The legends of this cat know as ‘Him Tendua’ in Hindi has been part of stories and folklore since time immemorial. Although I heard many a stories from villagers and nomads it was the first time a conclusive evidence was reported in the state where I live.

Congrats to the SLN fraternity. Hope we get many more evidence like these.

Thanks to Yogendra Joshi for this posting. 19Apr11.

The Irbis System

The Irbis System monitors VHF transmitters and makes an alarm when the state of a transmitter changes. The Irbis System is designed for monitoring of trapsite transmitters such as Telonics TBT-500. It makes an alarm when an animal is trapped. This alarm occurs within a few minutes from capture. The time that trapped animals spend in traps is reduced to a minimum, reducing the risk to the animal. The alarm triggers a siren loud enough to wake a sleeping person. Click on the photo below for more information.

Ed Fischer upcoming book on searching for snow leopards

Chasing the elusive snow leopard
Squamish resident set to share story of his 30-year search for Asian ‘phantom’

Squamish resident Ed Fischer pauses during an acclimitization hike in May of 2010. Behind Ed are some of the typically upturned stratifications of the Stok Range; this was once an ancient seabed that was pushed up in front of the Himalayas as the Indian subcontinent collided with Asia 70 million years ago.

April 8, 2011

Ben Lypka

The snow leopard is known throughout the animal kingdom as a secretive animal.

The large cat is native to the mountain ranges of South and Central Asia and lives a highly solitary life. Because of the animal’s secretive nature and ability to remain well camouflaged, human interaction has been extremely limited.

The animal’s lifestyle is part of what attracted Squamish resident Ed Fischer to the majestic beast. For close to 30 years, he made it a life goal to spot a snow leopard in its natural habitat, and he will be showing his findings to anyone interested at the Squamish Adventure Centre theatre on April 20 with his “Chasing the Phantom” slideshow.

“I read Peter Matthiessen’s book, The Snow Leopard and was really inspired by it,” he said. “So back in 1985 I sort of went on a self-discovery voyage and spent the better part of the year looking for wild snow leopards in the Ladakh area in India.”

Despite a few close calls, Fischer ultimately was unsuccessful in his goal to see a snow leopard in the wild back in 1985.

“I did see a still-steaming carcass of a Dall sheep when I was 17,000 feet up and it probably was a snow leopard’s kill, but it was nowhere to be seen,” he said. “That was the closest I ever got back then and for the next 20-year period, I was so busy with business that I had no time to go back. But recently I had some free time and decided I’m going to go back and look for the cats.”

It wasn’t until the fall of 2009 that Fischer returned to the region, but he admitted that the desire to spot a snow leopard in the wild never really left.

“I really relate to the snow leopard as an animal,” he said. “It’s really a soloist of an animal and that’s part of the reason why I decided to try and spot it all on my own. The usual way with normal tourists is you find a guide and he leads you. That’s not really my nature to do something like that.”

For the next two months, Fischer searched for the snow leopard. Typically, he would look for tracks or scat that the cats left behind and try to figure out what the animal’s next move would have been. Again, he had several close calls but seemed to be just missing the creatures.

“One day I found some fresh tracks and it appeared the animal was running away,” he said. “It got away and while I was trying to track it, down came 25 centimetres of fresh snow, covering up the tracks. It was cold, I was exhausted and my feet were swollen, so I called it a day.”

Fischer said it seemed as though the leopards were toying with him at one point during the trip.

“I remember looking at my own tracks one morning and seeing the tracks of a snow leopard inside my own boot print,” he said. “It was almost like they were mocking me.”

He returned to Squamish at the end of November 2009, still not having seen an elusive snow leopard. However, he returned the following spring, with his wife Helen Habgood.

“She’s full of spirit and adventure,” he said of his wife. “She would have gone with me before, but she’s a partner in her own business and can be very busy. I figured that she would be good to bring along because she’s very observant and is able to find things around the house all the time when I can’t.”

After a few unsuccessful weeks, the duo finally achieved their goal, spotting an entire family of snow leopards.

“When we finally did see them, we were only the third party to pass through that particular area for years,” he said. “It was totally unspoiled land and it was so ironic to see a family after everything I’ve read that they are solo animals. We talked to the locals and they told us how rare it was to see a family. We were both pretty amazed.”

Fischer is also working on a book about his travels searching for the snow leopard and is about one quarter done. He said he’s not sure when the book will be released but admitted the final product is a ways off.

The slideshow is about 90 minutes long and Fischer said that if ticket sales continue at the steady pace they’re going at, he may add a second show that evening. The first scheduled show takes place April 20 at 7:30 p.m. at the Squamish Adventure Centre theatre. Tickets are $6 and can be purchased in advance at the Adventure Centre box office. As of press time only 15 remained.

For more information and a preview of Fischer’s upcoming book, visit his website at www.chasingthephantom.com.


Ecologists see increasing snow leopard population in Tuva


Ecologists see increasing snow leopard population in Tuva

Mar 22 (dateline below listed differently)

Moscow, 17 March – RIA Novosti WWF’s Altai-Sayan Program announced that the snow leopard population along the southern part of the Shapshal’sky Ridge and on the Tsagan-Shibetu Ridge in Tuva Republic is in good condition and that the female snow leopards are reproducing.

Snow leopards are one of the least studied large cat species in the world. This is related in part due to the inaccessibility of their habitat as well as the species’ rarity.

Aleksandr Kuksin, Ubsunurskaya Kotlovina staff, is quoted as saying, “The snow leopards here are successfully reproducing, and we are constantly seeing signs of females with offspring along the Tsagan-Shibetu Ridge. This means that the predator’s population is being complemented with young individuals, and that overall the group of snow leopards in the southern part of Shapshal’sky Ridge and on Tsagan-Shibetu Ridge in Tuva can be called favorable. It can be assumed that the snow leopard population even slightly increased between 2004 and 2011.”

Signs of snow leopard activity were discovered in all river valley studied, including the Khemchika and Shuya headwaters and the Toolaylyg and Barlyk Rivers watersheds. Researchers identified 19 signs of snow leopards belonging to 17 different snow leopards, and there was a single encounter with the rare predatory. In 2004 in that same region, 13 snow leopard spoors were found, belonging to 8-10 individuals. Staff from Ubsunurskaya Kotlovina Zapovednik staff and Tuva’s state Hunting and Fishing Committee staff conducted field research to assess snow leopard and Siberian mountain goat populations concluded on March 6

In addition to finding the spoor of this rare predatory, expedition participants found numerous sites showing ongoing marking activities by snow leopard, which like any cat, they use to indicate individual territories.

Approximately 40 scat samples were gathered and will be sent to the Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evolution Problems (RAS) for DNA analysis, which will permit determination of the population’s size, their gender, and age.

Evidence of snow leopard on Shapshal’sky Ridge and Tsagan-Shibetu

Moreover, snow leopard excrement is needed to train scent dogs, an activity now being conducted with WWF-Russia support in Barnaul. In the future Erik the German shepherd, now being trained to locate and identify snow leopard spoor by scent, will support Tuvan and Altai conservationists in fieldwork.

“Today, Erik is training using excrement from zoos, but using material collected in the snow leopard’s natural habitat will significantly increase the dog’s competence, because the dog will be working in this predator’s actual habitat, “ explain WWF-Russia experts.

In addition, expedition participants observed 148 mountain goats (Siberian mountain goats), which, in comparison with past years, indicates the stability of this grouping. A low-snow winter has left grazing areas accessible to mountain goats in the high mountains, where over the course of the winter a significant portion of ungulates remained. The main threats to snow leopards remain shepherds that lose sheep to predator attacks and local snare poachers, according to WWF-Russia. One to two local snow leopards are lost every year as a result of an animal accidentally ending up in a snare trap. The inspectors that participated in the expedition succeeded in arresting three poachers from Ovyursky Rayon for illegal mountain goat hunting along the Eldig-Khem River.

Translation courtesy of Jennifer Castner.

BBS Blog mentions Snow Leopard Network

Big cats prefer the taste of wild flesh
Post categories: Conservation

Matt Walker | 12:01 UK time, Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Asiatic lions are extending their limited range

Conservation stories can be hard to tell. Not so the story of the Asiatic lion – which is a rare beast, in every sense.

New research just published highlights an increase in the numbers of Asiatic lions surviving in the Gir Forest of India.

The numbers aren’t large. From a base of 180 lions left in 1974, the population has risen to 411 by 2010.

But that’s impressive considering just a few dozen survived at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Even more impressive is how it was achieved (more of that later) and how lessons might be learnt that could help ensure the survival of other threatened big cats, such as snow leopards.

It may seem odd to say that conservation stories can be hard to tell. BBC Nature has recently reported on the decline in British oil beetles, and how an oil spill is affecting up to 10,000 rockhopper penguins on Tristan da Cunha island, a UK overseas territory.

But they are hard to report. Not because they don’t matter – they do, hugely so. And not because they are dull – they are not, often focusing on some of the world’s most beautiful, iconic, unique or interesting species.

They are hard to tell because they tend to follow the same narrative: a once populous species suffers an alarming decline in numbers due to habitat loss, poaching, invasive species or disease.

It can become numbing to repeatedly hear this basic plot line. So much so that we struggle to listen to the hugely complex web of ecological factors that can drive a species toward extinction, or help bring it back.

That’s why it’s important to celebrate the good news stories. If you care about wildlife, you’ll want to celebrate them for their own sake. But it’s important to highlight them for another reason: because success breeds success, and successful breeding programmes can help bolster each other.

Take India’s Gir lions.

Asiatic lions are a subspecies of the modern lion, which remains much more abundant in Africa, although its numbers there are dwindling. Being a subspecies doesn’t make the Asiatic lion less worthy – it’s the last of a kind that once roamed the Asian subcontinent.

This big cat has a preference for dry deciduous forests, thorny forests and savannah, which have disappeared fast in India. But it’s also worth remembering something that seems obvious: big cats have a taste for wild flesh.

The key to the Gir lions’ revival appears to have been a dramatic increase in the numbers of wild ungulates. Between 1970 and 2010, numbers of chital, sambar, blue bull and wild boar among others rose 10-fold in total within the Gir forest in the southwest part of the Saurashtra region in the state of Gujarat, scientists report in the journal Biological Conservation.

Even more important, this new abundance of natural food meant the lions no longer relied on hunting livestock, which brought them into direct contact, and conflict, with local herders.

The increase in prey, and lions, has come as the result of decades of hard work and intensive management by conservationists in Gujarat.

The big cats are even tentatively dispersing out into their former range with a quarter of the population (35 males, 35 females, 19 subadults and 16 cubs at the last count) now existing outside the Gir forest.

Lessons learned here could be vital for bringing other large carnivores back from the brink.

Which brings us to the snow leopard. Fewer than 7000 snow leopards are thought to survive in the mountains of central Asia.

New research has, for the first time, attempted to establish exactly what wild snow leopards in the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges in Baltistan, Pakistan, are eating.

The study, published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research, examined the faeces, or scats, left by these elusive animals.

It revealed that 70% of what snow leopards are eating in the region is domestic livestock, and a range of livestock at that: 23% of the biomass eaten came from sheep, 16% from goat, 10% from cattle and the rest from yak or yak-cattle hybrids.

This heavy predation on domestic livestock appears to be a likely cause of conflict with local inhabitants – and when conflict between humans and wild animals occurs, there tends to be only one winner.

So it’s clear that conservation initiatives need to focus on mitigating this conflict by minimising livestock losses – and one way to do that, the Gir lions recovery tells us, is to boost wild prey numbers once more.

(On a related note, news arrived late last month, sent by the Snow Leopard Network, (SLN) that the Mongolian government has reversed an earlier decision to allow the killing of four snow leopards in the country. The volte face came after pressure from conservationists, including Charudutt ‘Charu’ Mishra, executive director of the SLN and a past winner of the Whitley Gold Award.)


Snow leopard killing livestock in Gilgit, Pakistan

Wildlife: Snow leopard on the prowl in Gilgit
By Shabbir Mir
Published: April 5, 2011
The endangered animal has been on a killing spree of cattle for weeks.

A snow leopard – also known as the Uncia or Panthera uncial – went on a killing spree in a remote Valley of Gilgit late on Sunday, slaughtering a dozen goats owned by a poor shepherd.

The incident occurred in a pre-dawn attack at Nazim Abad – a village of Sost Gojal, which is about 300 kilometres from Gilgit and is adjacent to the Pak-China border at Sost.

Chairman Khunjerab Village Organisation (KVO) Rehman Posh, who is also a conservationist, told The Express Tribune that, “The wild cat has killed 11 live stock including goat and sheep.” He added that the snow leopard had managed to break into a cattle shed, belonging to Ashim Shah, a shepherd.

“I examined the spot after a villager informed me of the incident and found that seven cattle were dead while four were seriously injured,” he said, adding that the wounded animals were put down as they had little to no chances of survival.

Posh said that the snow leopard has been on the rampage for the past couple of week in the valley, as it had previously killed two domesticated animals (yaks) in the Morphun area. He said that in the wake of the attacks, locals have stepped up security of their livestock as the assaults usually come as surprise.

Posh added that the incident was immediately brought to the notice of the forests and wildlife department. Asked if they will provide any compensation to the owner of the cattle, the chairman said that they were in the process of dialogue with the aggrieved party and said that his organisation would provide compensation to the farmer. He, however, didn’t say how much.

Divisional forests officer [DFO] Wildlife Ghulam Mohammad told The Express Tribune that he has assigned the task of verification and compilation of the report of the incident to his subordinates. He said that such incidents in the Gilgit-Baltistan are frequent and that a systematic approach is needed to settle the issue.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 5th, 2011.


National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) and US-based Snow Leopard Conservancy has launched snow leopard conservation project in Nepal

Snow leopard conservation project

Added At: 2011-04-03 11:36 PM
Last Updated At: 2011-04-03 11:36 PM

KATHMANDU: The National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) and US-based Snow leopards Conservancy has launched the snow leopard conservation project.

Altogether there are 4,510 to 7,350 snow leopards across the world. Nepal has around 500 of them.”Special efforts are required to conserve the species,” said Som Ale, an expert.

In Nepal, the snow leopard is found in Mustang, Mugu, Dolpa and Humla. The government has legally protected the snow leopard by including it on the list of protected animals in the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1973 and provisioning penalties up to NRs 100,000 or 5 to 15 years imprisonment or both, for poaching snow leopards and buying and selling of its pelt and bones.

“We are now gearing up efforts to conserve a most elusive species in the world,” said Krishna Prasad Acharya, Director General, Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.

The snow leopard-human conflict is taken as one of the main threats to its survival as it is known to kill sheep, goats, horses, and yak calves.

“The snow leopards are facing the problem of poaching and habitat loss, so there is need for community-based conservation efforts to tackle this problem,” said Juddha Bahadur Gurung, Member Secretary, NTNC.