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.