Fast decline in fascinating snow leopards population, Pakistan

Noor Aftab for The International News
Sunday, February 20, 2011

Though extinction of wildlife species in Pakistan is not new as well as ‘astonishing’ phenomenon but for those who care it would be quite disappointing that fast decline in population of fascinating snow leopards in mountain ranges has now clearly indicated their near-disappearance from the wildlife scene.

Only two population studies of snow leopards in Pakistan have ever been attempted — one in 1974 by noted biologist George Schaller and another by Shafqat Hussain of Yale University in 2003. But unofficial reports unanimously portrayed a bleak picture in which it was stated that there were only 300 to 400 snow leopards left in the 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 for connecting bigger populations of snow leopards living in Pakistan, Central Asia, China, India and Nepal.

According to International Snow Leopards Trust, the main factors blamed for decline in the population of snow leopards included poaching, retribution killing, prey loss and lack of awareness among the local people.

Though trade in snow leopards is banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, their pelts bring high prices on the black market, often equivalent to an entire year’s income for a mountain villager.

The data showed that snow leopards are hunted illegally for their pelts, which are sought after especially in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Russia for coats and other garments. Their bones and other body parts are also in demand for use in traditional Asian medicine.

Many of the poachers are local people from snow leopard areas for them poaching may be a lucrative source of extra income to help them feed their families.

Snow leopards sometimes prey on domestic livestock. Herders in snow leopard areas lead precarious economic lives, and their wealth is almost entirely tied up in their herds. The loss of even a single sheep or goat represents a real economic hardship. Herders often retaliate for these losses by trapping, poisoning, or shooting snow leopards.

As humans push ever further into mountainous areas with their livestock, the snow leopard’s habitat is degraded and fragmented. Overgrazing damages the fragile mountain grasslands, leaving less food for the wild sheep and goats that are the snow leopard’s main prey.

Legal and illegal hunting for meat and trophies is also depleting prey populations. This situation also increases conflict with local people, because snow leopards are more likely to kill domestic livestock when their natural prey is scarce.

Sitting at the top of the food chain, snow leopards play a key role in maintaining the mountain ecosystem. Dr Ma Ming, of the Snow Leopard Trust in Xinjiang, China, calls it an ‘umbrella species’: protecting it ensures its habitat and many other local species are also preserved.

While going through the efforts made so far Project Snow Leopard (PSL) initiated by Yale University researcher Shafqat Hussain in 1998 appeared one of the effective steps to ensure survival of this endangered species.

The insurance scheme started by Shafqat Hussain compensates villagers for every goat killed by the predators, which effectively deters the villagers from killing the offending cat or any other suspect.

The annual premium paid is one per cent of the value of one goat, with each herder paying according to the number of goats he owns. This covers about half of all claims.

Director of Deosai National Park Zakir told this correspondent that they have been working on three conservation programmes to ensure increase in the population of snow leopards in mountainous regions.

He said despite the fact that there are only 80 personnel in the wildlife department to curb illegal hunting and implement plans in the area measuring 28,000 sq km they are trying their best to protect and preserve rare animal species.

“We have investigated various incidents in which local people poisoned snow leopards to protect their livestock so various mass awareness campaigns have been initiated especially in those areas where snow leopards enjoy their habitat,” he said.

Zakir said they have also signed MoU with Snow Leopard Foundation Pakistan that would pave the way for improving socio-economic conditions of the local people in return of their cooperation for protection of snow leopards from hunting or killing.

Innovative conservation project in Pakistan sees a slow but sure rise in the number of the endangered big cats

Endangered snow leopard clawing its way back: Innovative conservation project in Pakistan sees a slow but sure rise in the number of the endangered big cats

Zofeen Ebrahim in Karachi, for IPS, part of the Guardian Environment Network, Thursday 12 August 2010 16.41 BST Article history

An endangered snow leopard. Photograph: Rupak De Chowdhuri/REUTERS

For more than 10 years, Shafqat Hussain has been on the trail of the endangered snow leopard. He has heard the beast’s growl, and has seen its pugmarks against a snowy track. But his dream, of coming eye-to-eye with the elusive nocturnal feline, remains unfulfilled. “If you’ve seen the cat, you’ve seen the Holy Grail,” says Hussain.

However, he is not as much “driven by sighting the animal, as ensuring its survival”, says the 41-year-old Hussain, an environmentalist and anthropology professor at Trinity College in the United States.

Snow leopards are globally “endangered”, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, with total population estimated at between 4,000 and 7,000.

While the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) bans the trade of snow leopards and its body parts, the wild feline – found only in the mountainous regions of central and south Asia – faces much antagonism from local herders who kill them in retaliation for attacks on their goats, Hussain says.

In 1999, Hussain started an innovative insurance programme in two Baltistan villages, named Project Snow Leopard, with funding from the Royal Geographical Society and the U.S.-based Snow Leopard Conservancy.

“I’m not totally indifferent to the loss the local community bears at the loss of their goats,” Hussain told IPS in a telephone interview during his annual visit to Skardu – the capital town of Baltistan, a northern Pakistani region bordering Xinjiang, China.

His “alternate approach”, Hussain explains, “helps in the conservation and protection of the snow leopards, but also compensates the local herders for every goat killed by the feline, on the condition that the villagers will not kill it”.

Some six months ago, a snow leopard attacked Ghulam Mehdi’s herd in Hushey village in Baltistan. “They (Project Snow Leopard) paid me a compensation of 4,500 rupees (52 U.S. dollars),” says Mehdi, a 35-year-old goat herder.

Mehdi has insured all his goats. “We pay two rupees (2 cents) per month for each goat. The project registers our livestock and keeps count,” he says. “They only compensate if the goat has been killed by a leopard, not by a wolf or another wild animal. They can tell which animal has attacked our goats.”

The key to the success of the programme – which has over 5,000 herders in it – is that the villagers own and run it. Residents have been trained to use and maintain remote cameras installed at various locations to monitor and study the snow leopard.

Project Snow Leopard has expanded to 10 Pakistani villages, and has been replicated in neighbouring countries like Nepal, China and India.

Indeed, “such programmes only succeed if the community is involved,” says Ejaz Ahmad, the deputy director general of the World Wildlife Fund Pakistan. Similar programmes are underway for the common leopard in the resort towns of the Galiaath region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

“Over the years,” he explains, “there is less and less reporting of the community involved in retaliatory killing of the both the species of the cats.”

Humans are the biggest threat to the survival of snow leopards, found in the Himalayan mountain ranges in Afghanistan, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. They have been spotted as far north as Siberia.

Weighing between 27 and 54 kilogrammes, the snow leopard can grow to lengths of up to 130 centimetres and sits at the top of the food chain. “One less species of the cat can cause the ecosystem to topple,” says Hussain.

This can trigger environmental changes such as the denudation of vegetation cover, he explains. It can cause the population of wild goats to increase, which may lead to degradation of pastures that in turn causes soil erosion.

Based on a survey he conducted in 2003, Hussain estimates there are some 450 snow leopards left in Pakistan, spread across Chitral in the Gilgit-Baltistan territory; in the Dir, Swat, Kohistan districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; and in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

“Its population grows, slowly,” Hussain says, confident he will find improved figures when he carries out the next survey in 2013.

But snow leopards also continue to attack domesticated animals, though there is no scarcity of natural prey like the ibex and the markhor. “It’s easier to kill a goat than stalking wild prey,” explains Hussain.

Another reason for these attacks is the rapidly growing human population that is encroaching on the leopard’s habitat. “But even that is not so much a concern as the attitude,” Hussain points out. “There is a growing intolerance of the human race to let other species exist.”

“The local people always held the view that the leopard was a threat that needed to be eliminated,” Hussain says. “Over the centuries, with advancement in weapons, the negative slant has been transformed into negative action and thus its indiscriminate killing.”

“There is a lot of pressure on the wild animals,” acknowledges Ahmad of WWF. But he opines that it is not easy for the leopard to attack goats as herders take extra precautions. “The feline will only attack when its natural prey is unavailable and the cat is very hungry.”

With a sprinkling of 212 villages across 50 percent of the snow leopard’s habitat, Hussain acknowledges that his project has long way more to go. “Protecting and conserving animal species is the responsibility of the state,” he says. “Hopefully we’ve provided a model to emulate.”

Shafqat Hussain honored for work with snow leopards

Eli honored for work with snow leopards

Ilana Seager

Staff Reporter

Published Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Love is blind, and Shafqat Hussain GRD ‘08 learned this the hard way. Despite having devoted his professional life to his passion for saving snow leopards, the closest he has come to one is the zoo gift store.

Yesterday, Hussain, a doctoral student in anthropology and the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, was officially named one of 10 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2009 for his work with snow leopards in northern Pakistan. The $10,000 research grant, which recognizes adventurers for their contributions to world knowledge, will allow Hussain to continue to work with local communities to ensure the survival of this endangered species.

Hussain first appeared on the international radar when he pioneered Project Snow Leopard in 1998, a self-funding livestock insurance scheme that offers Pakistani villagers compensation for any livestock they lose to snow leopards. But some environmentalists remain unconvinced that insurance is the only way to save the majestic cat.

“Our program is still expanding,” Hussain said in an interview with the News. “We don’t have any grand visions or plans. We just somehow want to see that large conservation projects that are funded by international agencies can see that the approach of separating human society from the environment is not the answer.”

Hussain dreamt up Project Snow Leopard after witnessing the threat snow leopard populations pose to local villages in the Skoyo and Basha valleys of north Pakistan. The cats hunt the villagers’ livestock — their only source of income. The villagers, in return, hunt the cats to protect their livelihood, creating a vicious circle of predation.

The idea has taken off since it was put into effect in Pakistan and serves as a model for similar projects in India, China and Nepal, Hussain said.

“Shafqat Hussain’s Project Snow Leopard is an example of innovative thinking and the ability to balance the needs of individuals, communities and the environment,” said Cheryl Zook, National Geographic’s manager of Emerging Explorers and Special Projects. “It is an example of forward-thinking, holistic conservation work.”

But Hussain is not your average conservationist. With an undergraduate degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in economics, a master’s in biology — and soon enough, a Ph.D. in anthropology — the son of a Pakistani civil servant has sampled a wide range of disciplines. His heart, though, has remained with the imposing mountain landscape he recalls admiring in his childhood.

“When I was young I used to go to the hills,” Hussain said. “I found out there were these amazing mountains in the north, and I knew that I wanted to go back and work there.”

His own fascination with nature convinced him that the solution to problems of conservation was not to artificially separate humans from their natural surroundings.

This view has shaped his outlook on national parks, which he sees as sources of historical conflict and as an ineffective means of preserving nature.

“The whole idea of the national park is enshrined in this philosophy that there is wilderness and pristine nature and that it’s timeless,” he said. “But historical records show that there is no part of the world that hasn’t been touched by humans.”

But Todd Remaley, chief ranger with the Appalachian Trail, argues that Hussain’s idea — that nature and humans should coexist naturally — is not in opposition to the thinking behind a national park.

While he acknowledged that there is no one right way to tackle all problems of conservation, Remaley remained doubtful that programs like Project Snow Leopard could be entirely effective without the environmental preservation that the national park framework provides.

“On the surface it sounds like he’s found a solution, but what is he doing to preserve the habitat?” Remaley said. “One of the biggest problems facing endangered species today is the destruction of their habitats.”

But Hussain argues that such thinking — conceiving of an animal’s habitat as wilderness — represents a “typically first world view of nature conservation.”

“A habitat is separate from human society,” he said. “Humans have been part of the same habitat for millions of years, so clearly it is not their presence, but their behavior and

practices that are [at fault]. And that is what we are trying to address.”

Only two sightings of snow leopards have taken place in the past fifty years.