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Ghost of the Mountains: Snow Leopard Conservancy

Categories: Conservation

snow leopard lounges at the sac zooThere are few animals that capture the imagination like snow leopards. As Tashi R. Ghale wrote in Searching for the Snow Leopard, Guardian of the High Mountains, “Beyond the ecological importance of a top predator like the snow leopard, there is something inherently mystical that draws us to these powerful big cats. Their ability to survive in one of the world’s harshest climates, combined with their beauty and ethereal quality, has been the impetus for humans to not only respect and admire them but also revere them.”

Snow leopards live in the mountains of central Asia, across 1.2 million square miles and 12 different countries. Due to the extreme conditions, more than 70% of snow leopard habitat is unexplored. Snow leopards can be found from 3,000 feet to more than 18,000 feet when crossing mountain passes. The snowy, rocky habitat is perfect for snow leopards to thrive with their thick, grey-white coats and large paws. Depending on where they live, these cats can be either nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk). The mountain terrain is home to snow leopard prey, such as Argali wild sheep, ibex, marmots, pikas, and hares. Impressively, snow leopards can kill prey up to three times their own weight.

Despite their important role in their ecosystem and local culture, snow leopards are endangered. These threats range from habitat loss, prey depletion, by-catch snaring and poisoning, to poaching and retribution killings for livestock predation. Today, there are an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 snow leopards left in the wild.

Organizations such as Sac Zoo partner, the Snow Leopard Conservancy, have stepped forward to make a difference in snow leopard conservation. Based in Sonoma, California, the Snow Leopard Conservancy works in partnership with local communities in eight of the snow leopard range countries in Asia. The goal of the organization is to protect snow leopards through “environmental awareness programs and by promoting innovative stewardship practices.”

 

Monitoring

When scientists monitor a population, they use a variety of methods, such as trail cameras, radio cameras, and fecal sampling, to track the behaviors and size of a particular population as well as evaluate the health of that population and determine how species and ecosystems change over time.

Monitoring provides a vital insight into snow leopard populations. It allows scientists to estimate population numbers, behavior, migration patterns, and more. Using five different methods, the Snow Leopard Conservancy uses the data they collect to build a comprehensive picture of the wild snow leopard population. Conservation is more successful if scientists have reliable information on habitat, where snow leopards are at most risk, and where the animals overlap with humans. This information helps develop cost-effective and efficient conservation plans.

 

Conservation Solutions

Predator-proof corrals
Predator-proof corrals have proven to be an effective measure to protect livestock from predators. Photo provided by the Snow Leopard Conservancy
foxlight installation snow leopard conservancy
A team installs Foxlights® to help deter predators. Photo provided by the Snow Leopard Conservancy

Local communities within the snow leopards’ range depend on livestock to survive. Throughout the year, herders take seasonal migrations up and down the mountains. These migrations overlap with snow leopard habitat. Snow leopards’ typical prey include Argali and blue sheep, which are also hunted by local communities to supplement food supplies obtained by livestock. The limited prey and access to livestock in the mountains leads to snow leopards killing livestock for survival. When snow leopards kill livestock, it can prompt a lethal retaliation.

Livestock safety depends on the ability of corrals to protect them at night when snow leopards are liable to kill them. Everything from the type of structure, location to additional guarding techniques make a difference. Predator-proof corrals are one solution. These corrals have sturdy, high walls and are covered with a strong roof, typically chain link fencing. This prevents the snow leopards from jumping into the enclosure. Predator-proof corrals are also equipped with Foxlights®. These lights emit random light patterns that simulate human activity to frighten predators.

The Snow Leopard Conservancy partners with local communities to determine the best location for community predator-proof corrals and to raise funds for construction supplies. Over the past ten years, the Snow Leopard Conservancy has distributed 350 Foxlights® and facilitated the construction of 70 predator-proof corrals.

These predator-proof corals have proven to be extremely effective at protecting livestock from snow leopards and other predators. The success of these structures has prompted local governments and conservation organizations to grow the program, bringing more predator-proof corals to indigenous herdsmen.

 

Engaging Local Communities

Engaging with local communities about snow leopard conservation raises awareness of the importance of the species and instills a sense of ownership and passion for snow leopard conservation.

Snow Leopard Day Festivals
international snow leopard day festival in pakistan
The International Snow Leopard Day Festival celebration in Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan, included a special community clean up where school
children used their new eco-friendly bags in place of plastic bags, now banned in the district thanks to environmental advocacy. Photo provided by the Snow Leopard Conservancy

Snow Leopard Day is an annual festival celebrated in Mongolia, Nepal, and Pakistan. The celebrations and educational workshops increase awareness of the role snow leopards play in their ecosystem. These celebrations reinforce the cultural and spiritual significance of snow leopards for the native people.

Land of Snow Leopard Network

Historically, indigenous people have been absent from conservation planning and implementation. The Snow Leopard Conservancy seeks to change that with the Land of Snow Leopard Network (LOSL). Established in 2010, the Snow Leopard Conservancy collaborates with Indigenous Cultural Practitioners (ICPs), including shamans, sacred site guardians, regional faith leaders, and Elders, who live in snow leopard habitats. LOSL employs local people who work towards cultural and environmental conservation, such as herders and hunters who practice traditional subsistence hunting, indigenous educators, historians, conservationists, schools, and nature conservation clubs.

Snow leopards play an important role both in their ecosystem and to indigenous culture. Snow leopard populations are in danger, but it isn’t too late to make a difference. Organizations like the Snow Leopard Conservancy partner with local communities to expand environmental awareness and create innovative conservation solutions that are beneficial to everyone.

 

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