Why the Snow Leopard is in peril

Hanniah Tariq on how wildlife in northern Pakistan is trapped in a fatal web: receding glaciers, human activity and changing habitats

Why the Snow Leopard is in peril
Glaciers all over the world have been receding at alarming rates and Pakistan is no exception. According to the Head of Department for the National Centre for Remote Sensing and Geo Informatics, Badar Munir Khan Ghauri, glaciers in the Gilgit region have been receding at varied rates – with the lowest at Yazghil at 5% and the highest rate at Jutmau, 28%, between 1992 and 2007. The negative effects of this are being felt in many ways, including decreasing fresh water supplies for consumption and irrigation, increased glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) as well as rising sea-levels and coastal erosion. Naturally this phenomenon poses many threats to the eco-system. However its complicated connection to domesticated animals, wildlife and human livelihoods is not often discussed.

For a start, the reduction of water available as glaciers recede is being felt by pastures and consequently by the livestock dependent on them. High altitude pastures once used to get abundant irrigation from the glaciers. However due to the glaciers retreating, this supply is dwindling. As the glacier melts from below and recedes, less water is available – with pastures drying up as a result. This is causing the quality and amount of vegetation and grass to decrease. In other words, it is unable to support the number of animals that it did in the past. The carry-on effect of this livestock reduction severely affects the locals in northern Pakistan where herding and livestock rearing remain the only source of income for many.
As the natural prey is no longer easily available, the predators resort to attacking livestock. In response, locals that depend on herding are forced to carry out retaliatory killings

Conversely, receding glaciers are also affecting wildlife by causing habitat fragmentation and creating barriers and corridors. So, while the drying up of the pasture land is affecting livestock, indigenous wildlife is also feeling the pinch as it is more susceptible to change and unprecedented events in the natural ecosystem. For instance, the population of snow leopards, categorised as an endangered species on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, has been steadily dwindling in northern Pakistan – with a mere 200 reported in 2016. When there is unusual movement in the glaciers their habitat is fragmented and areas are created that lie between natural systems. This causes great difficulty for these predators to hunt and sustain themselves. They must also migrate to other areas due to this habitat fragmentation, seeking better breeding areas – which similarly impacts their population.

Additionally, ibex and markhor populations (two of the snow leopard’s natural prey) are reducing due to human activity. The species are facing poaching and illegal hunting, in addition to legally issued hunting licenses. In September of this year alone four Astor markhors and 95 ibex hunting licenses were auctioned by the Gilgit-Baltistan wildlife department. One can argue that legal hunting helps support local communities as they receive 80% of the fees collected but the combination of legal and illegal activity is significantly reducing the population of these animals. Consequently, as the natural prey is decreasing and is no longer easily available, the predators resort to attacking livestock to sustain their needs. In response to this and to prevent further losses, locals that depend on herding are forced to carry out retaliatory killings. Subsequently snow leopards, an endangered species, are poisoned or shot as human livelihoods and food security comes under threat. This complicated web of cause and effect is upsetting for the entire natural ecosystem.

The Snow Leopards of the Karakoram are threatened as Pakistan's glaciers recede

A break in the chain?

To help mitigate this crisis the Central Karakorum National Park (CKNP) has started working on livestock insurance schemes with concerned communities. The schemes are initiated by carrying out baseline surveys and predation assessments evaluating which areas have a higher population of snow leopards and predation cases. Through DNA analysis and camera traps set up with the assistance of the Snow Leopard Foundation Pakistan they estimate about 35-40 individual snow leopards in the park.

To begin the scheme in their area a community must send a request stating that snow leopards and other carnivores are affecting their livestock. When this willingness is expressed an extensive process is initiated starting with dialogues carried out with these communities. The President of the Valley Conservation Committee (VCC) and a few other members of the VCC are appointed as the Livestock insurance management committee. The CKNP then provides Rs. 250,000 per community and the community’s share is Rs. 50,000. This total sum of Rs. 300,000 is then deposited for the year in a bank where suitable profit can be earned. The profit on the principle amount covers any compensations awarded for the cases of livestock loss in the year.

The process of verification of a claim entails a representative of CKNP personally travelling to the area, taking pictures and accessing if the predation occurred due to a snow leopard attack or if the animal died of an unrelated cause like disease or a fall. Indirect signs of the presence of predators are also established. The village committee verification is also necessary in this process. A data sheet is then filled and sent along with GPS coordinates of where it occurred and pictorial evidence to the Directorate of the CKNP, after which a claim form is sent. Once a year a meeting is carried and according to how many claims there are, the profit from the principal amount from the year is divided amongst the applicants.

Similarly, the Baltistan Wildlife Conservation and Development Organisation (BWCDO) is also working with 17 villages by providing insurance schemes, financial compensation, predator-proof fencing and vaccination campaigns. They also work in partnership with the communities by setting up Village Insurance Committees.

These schemes not only aid the community in case of a loss of livestock but also play an important part in increasing awareness. They initiate dialogue with local communities highlighting the snow leopard as a rare species that must be protected. It helps them understand not to carry out retaliatory killings as they are able to access aid for any losses. If nothing were to be received, like in the past, they would understandably be more inclined to see the snow leopard as merely a threat to their livestock and livelihoods.

Melting glaciers affect local populations of herders, their livestock and local wildlife all together

Further needs

While receding glaciers are a function of many things that cannot be controlled on a local level, schemes like livestock insurance can help stem the ripple effect threatening both endangered wildlife and local livelihoods. However further work must be carried out. Better irrigation channels must be built to help bring dwindling water supplies more efficiently to the pastures. Attempts also need to be made towards controlling the decline in the population of natural prey for endangered predators whose habitats are being affected. Rigorously protecting the ibex and markhor from illegal hunting and poaching is therefore of paramount importance.

Receding glaciers, deteriorating pastures and the fragmentation of habitats is a problem affecting many actors. The stability of the natural eco-system is connected to us all and must be dealt with effectively to preserve the biodiversity which is crucial to our future wellbeing.

The author would like to thank Mr. Yasir Abbas, Ecologist at the Directorate of the Central Karakoram National Park (CKNP) Gilgit-Baltistan for providing invaluable information on livestock insurance for this article