Climate Change Is Defeating Pakistan’s Ghost Of The Mountain

Climate Change Is Defeating Pakistan’s Ghost Of The Mountain
Wildlife experts have declared the shrinking habitat of snow leopards in Pakistan as an indicator of climate change. The habitat and population of the ‘Ghost of Mountains’ in Northern Pakistan has significantly shrunk.

Dr Hussain Ali the regional manager of Snow Leopards Foundation - Gilgit Baltistan told The Friday Times that due to a lack of research no one knows the exact number of snow leopards in Pakistan.

He said research has never been a priority in Pakistan. Issues such as a lack of scientific research equipment, funds and trained researchers have prevented scientists from finding this number.

“However, it is obvious that the habitat of snow leopards in Pakistan has declined and it is a climate change indicator in Pakistan,” he said. He added that with the degradation of their habitat, snow leopards will migrate further north and will soon vanish from Pakistan.

Until a few decades ago, snow leopards used to inhabit Swat and Dir districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “But the population of this rare animal is now confined to a few districts including Ghizar, Hunza, Astore and Ghanche district of Gilgit Baltistan due to the shrinking habitat,” said Dr Hussain.

Dr Hussain stated that the snow leopard’s prey has also been facing the effects of climate change, and cannot find food in their already confined habitat on top of the mountains.

Conducted Research

Pakistan has an estimated 80,000 sq km of habitat, and 4.5 per cent of global snow leopard range. However, since 1947 we have conducted only 11 research studies regarding the snow leopard habitat. This makes up only six per cent of the studies conducted by South Asian and Central Asian countries.

According to a report published by World Wild Fund (WWF) in 2020, titled Over 100 Years of Snow Leopard Research, Pakistan has covered only 11 per cent of the range area in the country, hence the wildlife department, conservationists and other concerned authorities have failed to disclose the accurate number of Snow Leopards.

The WWF’s recent report also highlights that all the research conducted by the countries has covered only 23 per cent of the snow leopard habitat. Most of their vast range possibly over 1.7 million km of rugged mountain terrain has never been explored.

The report elaborates that less than 3 per cent of all the conducted studies across the region have used robust scientific methods to estimate snow leopard populations. These methods include camera traps and genetic studies.

An Estimated Number

In the 1970s and 2000s, many studies were conducted by foreigners, to reach an estimated number, said Dr Hussain Ali. The estimate they arrived at was 400. “But as far as I know, currently, the number is not more than 150,” he said.

Inzimam a student of forestry and wildlife activist in Chitral agreed with most of what Dr Hussain said. According to local conservationists and volunteers in his area, he also said there are fewer than 150 snow leopards in Pakistan currently.

Ijlal Ahmed, a senior wildlife conservator in Gilgit Baltistan said that as per the recent survey conducted by the government there are 250 snow leopards in Gilgit Baltistan. But he agreed that the population of snow leopards is affected by the climate change. He said that the government has already spent over Rs10 million to save this unique animal.

This money was spent for the construction of Corrals at high altitudes for the livestock and also compensated those who had lost their livestock due to the attack of snow leopards.

Another senior conservator of the wildlife department in Hunza valley told The Friday Times that the total number of snow leopards in Pakistan is about 400. He said that so far 80 advanced corrals were built by the government in different areas and the campaign is expected to build some 50 more corrals to avoid loss of livestock in snow leopard attacks.

Views of the Local Community  

Local elders in Chitral and Gilgit Baltistan believe that due to deforestation and illegal logging in Hindu Kush, Himalaya, and Karakorum mountains, the prey of snow leopards has declined which forces the animals to descend to lower altitudes for food.

Additionally, local elders believe that due to irregular floods and rainfalls, people have begun migrating in search of better pastures for livestock. “These new areas may be snow leopard habitats and this can lead to conflict,” they said.

86-year-old Sultan Wali Shah hailing from Upper Chitral Ghoru village of Tehsil Mastuj situated at alleviation of over 5,000 feet from the sea level told The Friday Times that six decades ago, Chitral and Gilgit Baltistan were safe pockets for this unique and rare animal.

“However, the irregular pattern of rains, increase of temperature, declining prey, and human activities in snow leopard habitats have compelled this rare animal to hunt the prey in lower altitudes and this has pushed snow leopard into the unending conflict with humans,’’ said Wali.

Wali stated that after 2008, snow leopard sightings in Chitral are very rare.

Conflict with Local People

The latest report of the World Wild Life Fund (WWF) suggests that between 221 to 450 snow leopards are killed every year globally, and 55 per cent of these killings are in retaliation to snow leopard preying on livestock.

Shah claimed that every year, around 15 to 20 snow leopards are killed by the local community. The local community considers snow leopards as enemies because they can render them bankrupt by eating their livestock.

Talking to The Friday Times, Shah Khan a shepherd boy, from Ghizer, said that since 2012 more than eight Snow Leopards attacks have taken place in his village. In retaliation, villagers have killed many snow leopards.

Shah Khan recalled that in 2018, 21 of his sheep and lambs were killed by tsnow leopards. “Due to that attack of snow leopards I was rendered bankrupt and it took me several months to recover,” he said.

Syed Shafiq a local wildlife activist from Mastuj village of upper Chitral, said that many people have lost their lives in fights with snow leopards.

Deforestation and Snow Leopards

Syed Shafiq said that people all over Chitral and Gilgit Baltistan use wood for fuel for cooking and heating, and thus, they threaten forests, and the lives of Snow Leopards.

He stated that recent surveys conducted by different organizations including German kfW showed that the consumption of firewood by every household in Chitral was 20kg daily in the winter season and 10kg in the summer season. The total consumption by 57,000 households came to 50,400 tons a year.

Raising Awareness

Shafiq said that the snow leopards cannot survive without immediate conservation interventions, the government should be focused on raising awareness among the local community about how to tackle the threat of snow leopards without killing them. Shafiq claimed that due to climate change, one-third of the total habitat may become unfit for snow leopards.

Dr Hussain Ali also emphasized awareness among the masses and local community regarding the vanishing inhabitant. He said that many NGOs and government-concerned departments are working hard to spread awareness.

The locals need to understand that shouldn’t leave their herds alone in the mountains, since mountains are snow leopards’ homes and they will attack if someone enters their home, he added.

Dr Hussain suggested the local community keep monitoring their herds and build properly fenced Corrals to avoid any attacks.

What do Snow Leopards eat?

Dr Hussain said that the main prey of snow leopards are Markhoor, Blue Sheep, and Himalayan Ibex. Snow Leopards also eat ‘Tamarix aphylla’ a plant growing in their habitat. “However, due to climate change all these preys of snow leopards have been vanishing,” said Dr Hussain.

On the other hand, a senior official of WWF Pakistan told The Friday Times that mining in the high mountains of Gilgit Baltistan has also affected snow leopard habitat.

Conservation Efforts

WWF Pakistan has been working to restore and conserve endangered wildlife species in the country with the help of NGOs, volunteers, local communities, and the management of national parks. Many organizations are trying to reduce conflict between snow leopards and communities, boosting rural development and mitigating illegal wildlife trade.