“The snow leopard is an astonishing animal, the product of millions of years of evolution that have equipped it to adapt to the harshest conditions of extreme cold, and to hunt its prey on the world’s highest peaks.” With these words, Charudutt Mishra, Executive Director of the International Snow Leopard Trust, defines this majestic predator, which sits at the top of the food chain in its habitat and, as such, is considered key to preserving the health of the whole mountain ecosystem of the Himalayas and other great Asian ranges.
The snow leopard’s range sums two million square kilometers and extends across the territory of 12 Asian countries (Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). “The species is not just amazing in itself,” says Mishra, “but when you protect it you are also helping protect a whole ecosystem and its associated biodiversity.”
This region, often referred to as the Earth’s Third Pole, is home to fourteen of the world’s highest peaks and almost 100,000 square kilometers of glaciers. It is also an ecosystem that provides absolutely vital services, starting from the supply of water to a third of the world’s human population, who depend for drinking water and irrigation on the rivers that descend from these mountains.
In this supremely valuable environment, the snow leopard is beset by multiple threats. In the first place, as Mishra explains, it may be the victim of “revenge killings” by herders who have seen their sheep or goats devoured by the feline: “Leopards quite often attack at night and can wipe out a whole flock. Such incidents may cause the families affected severe financial hardship, so we have had to put a lot of effort into improving relations of coexistence between the animal and local communities.”
The leopard also faces the twin threats of poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking. But to make matters worse, in recent decades its habitat has become increasingly fragmented as a result of large infrastructure development, particularly the construction of highways, mines and dams. “This was once a fairly isolated region, but there is now more and more industrial development, meaning more demand for freight and passenger transport. And all that is having a major impact.”
Finally, to all these risks must be added climate change, which has heightened the dangers confronting the species and indeed the whole Asian mountain ecosystem, due to the frequency and intensity of extreme climate events and natural disasters. “This part of the planet,” Mishra observes, “is warming nearly two times faster than the Northern Hemisphere average.”
It was this fragile situation that led to the creation of the International Snow Leopard Trust over forty years ago, in 1981. In the past ten years, the organization has helped put together an “intergovernmental alliance” promoting cooperation between NGOs and governments in the 12 countries where the snow leopard lives, in an effort to protect the species and its ecosystem. In 2013, conservationists and political leaders arrived at a common conservation strategy enshrined in the Bishkek Declaration, in which the governments of the 12 range countries agreed to cooperate in the conservation of the cat and its habitat, and, to this end, formed the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program.
“This pledge testifies to the power of nature conservation to foster international cooperation, even among countries engaged in disputes,” says Mishra. “With the snow leopard’s habitat taking in so many territories, its conservation would not be possible without this kind of cross-border collaboration.”
The trust’s Executive Director admits that getting the 12 stakeholder governments to reach an agreement was a daunting task that called for “lots of groundwork, numerous trips and multiple meetings in each of the countries involved,” to convince the authorities about the importance of protecting the leopard and its ecosystem: “One has to remember that the impacts of poaching, wildlife trafficking and climate change across this region far exceed what any conservationist organization could possibly tackle on its own. That’s why the creation of this international alliance between governments was such an essential step.”
The project has identified 24 protection areas (some 500,000 km2) covering 25 percent of the species’ habitat. And conservation measures are already being rolled out in a good part of this terrain (140,000 km2) with the involvement of the authorities in each participating country, along with the scientific community, non-governmental organizations, companies and local communities. Of their initiatives to date, Mishra highlights the anti-poaching patrols trained under this effort, made up of more than 400 forest rangers, and a collaborative venture between the region’s authorities and Interpol to set up a database on illegal wildlife trafficking and thus deal more effectively with this threat.
The awardee organization has also supported the construction of fencing systems to prevent attacks on livestock, and the creation of an insurance program to reimburse herders who have lost animals to snow leopard predation, as a means to avoid clashes with local communities. In a parallel initiative, they have launched environmental education programs to raise public awareness of the value of conserving the species. “Our goal is to achieve a peaceful coexistence between people and leopards, without driving anyone off their lands,” he insists. “To this end, we have trained a total of almost 1,000 individuals who are already participating in conservation campaigns across the 12 alliance countries.” Another of the organization’s strategies has been to collaborate with local industries in the production of cashmere wool and dairy products that carry the label “snow leopard friendly,” and with sustainable tourism projects offering visitors tours where they can observe the endangered feline.
“Our ultimate goal is to promote a green, sustainable economy that can help conserve biodiversity throughout the region,” says the Executive Director of the International Snow Leopard Trust. “After all, one of the most serious problems we face is the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, which is ultimately the root cause of mass species extinction.”
Mishra is convinced that “this paradigm has to change,” especially in the few world regions still blessed with a rich biodiversity, like the lands where the snow leopard roams: “We cannot allow these mountains to be subjected to the same destructive process that has already ravaged most of our planet.”
According to some estimates, as few as 4,000 individuals of the snow leopard survive. Mishra insists however that this is “a preliminary approximation,” adding that the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program is facilitating the first scientifically robust, large-scale study to determine the size and range of the species’ current population.
This is a highly complex enterprise, which involves taking samples over a vast expanse of land with many hard-to-reach areas. To ensure that it is scientifically sound, an expert committee has drawn up a standard protocol for the collection of data. More than fifty organizations in the 12 alliance countries will take part in the survey, and it is hoped results will be out within approximately one year.
“What we have to understand,” Mishra explains, “is that conserving nature is never just a local matter. It is a global challenge that concerns us all, governments, firms and civil society. As the pandemic has shown, we live in an interconnected world, so what is happening with biodiversity in a remote mountainous region of Asia can impact directly on the other side of the planet.”
MORESnow Leopard Trust