Kashif Syed has just joined our Pakistan partner organization, the Snow Leopard Foundation, as Communications Coordinator. In his first report for us, he sheds light on why live snow leopards are once again considered to be valuable by communities in Chitral. Welcome to the team, Kashif!
By Kashif Syed, SLF Pakistan Communications Coordinator
Fareed, an elder from a community participating in snow leopard conservation in the remote area of Chitral located in Khyber Pakhtunkhaw, is committed to saving this elusive cat. He recalls a memory from three years ago when he witnessed this spirited and dignified creature. He explains that it looked at him with fearless and proud eyes and walked gallantly as it vanished in nearby mountains. Fareed declares that their community has always known that a snow leopard is only valuable if it is allowed to live.
The great Chitral, accessed via the Karakorum Highway (KKH, N-45), is home to many wild snow leopards. For those who have not yet travelled to Chitral, it is a grueling journey made better by stunning scenery as you follow the river and valleys. The Snow Leopard Foundation (SLF), with the assistance of local conservancies, government personnel and generous donors, puts its efforts to saving the snow leopard with the community’s support.
It is already in the tales of these mystic valleys that the snow leopard, which is locally called purdum, actually brings wealth and happiness if it tries to harm your animals. Members of the community even call their children names like Purdum Khan in tribute to the species.
This creature brings vaccinations for our animals and allows the opportunity for enterprise, livelihood, mastering of skills and employment for the women. It gives education to our children, enables us to grow food and above all PROSPERITY to the communities.
These realizations encourage the local people to shift their behaviors and attitudes towards snow leopards.
Khurshid Ali, SLF office head in Chitral, said, “One reason for the emergence of leopards and other wild animals from their original habitats, into areas inhabited by people, is the shrinking of the habitats due to the pressure of the increasing human population. This can lead to clearance of forests for farming and timber-cutting. More can be done about this particular problem. A more humane view of the leopards has to be taken as they leave their areas not because they are killers but because they are hungry.”
Our SLF Director in Islamabad, Dr. Ali Nawaz, committed to strive to do our best to protect Pakistan’s estimated 200- 420 endangered snow leopards.
Through a community-based conservation approach, we are helping the women in local families increase their families’ quality of life by training them to make traditional handicrafts, such as beautifully embroidered cotton napkins.
These products are then sold nationally and internationally which increases a family’s household earnings.
Reducing livestock loss to disease helps herders and communities tolerate living with predators.
In a typical year a herder family will lose ten times more livestock to disease than to snow leopard attacks. Successful results from our livestock vaccination programs go a long way to provide an environment that is receptive to our conservation efforts.
As we follow the footprints of the snow leopard, we as conservationists can recognize the basic needs of the communities, and how they are closely associated with the wellbeing of this magnificent endangered creature.
Preparations are underway in Spiti in the Indian Himalayas to equip and track a snow leopard with a GPS collar for the nations’s first comprehensive and long-term radio-collaring project of these endangered felines.
Before this piece of high-tech equipment is fitted onto a pioneering snow leopard, it undergoes rigorous testing! While we have a wealth of experience using GPS collars on snow leopards in Mongolia, there is no such data available for India – and conditions are entirely different.
“Different countries have different regulations about the use of such devices, available frequencies and many more technicalities”, explains the Trust’s Senior Regional Ecologist, Dr. Koustubh Sharma. “Then, we have the issue of satellite coverage, which varies across the area. All of that makes it impossible to simply use the same collaring equipment in India that we’ve been using in Mongolia.”
Finding the right equipment to work in Spiti has proven challenging. Now, our field team is hoping to have found a promising solution: a newly designed Vectronics collar that houses a different satellite phone transmitter than the one we use in Mongolia.
Supported by our Associate of Policy and Research, Ajay Bijoor, the India team is currently putting the collar through a series of rigorous tests to ensure that it can withstand the wear and tear of being on a wild snow leopard.
So far, the collar seems to be performing well. However, we will continue more tests and wait to see the results as a whole before making a decision on the usability of the collar.
The planned GPS collaring study in India, a joint project of the Snow Leopard Trust, NCF India, and the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department, has been approved in 2014. It will allow to compare snow leopard behavior in the high-altitude habitat of the Indian Himalayas to data collected over the last decade in our ongoing long-term study in Mongolia’s South Gobi, a very different ecosystem at a much lower altitude.
GPS location data show a Mongolian snow leopard tracing the paw marks of another male cat that used to live in the same mountain range.
Earlier this year, a new male snow leopard became part of our long-term study into these cats’ behavior in Mongolia as our field team managed to equip him with a GPS collar.
He was named Tsetsen, Mongolian for “ingenious”.
Early analysis of his location data are providing fascinating insights. Tsetsen’s behavior seems to mimic almost exactly that of Ariun, another male cat that was part of our study until December of 2013.
“Their ranging patterns are nearly identical” says Senior Regional Ecologist Dr. Koustubh Sharma. “We’ve seen male snow leopards using home ranges previously occupied by other males before, but never such an exact match.”
While it’s impossible at this stage to tell what might be behind the nearly identical movement patterns of Tsetsen and Ariun, they at least suggest that a snow leopard’s habitat selection may be influenced by some external factors that remain constant, such as topographical features.
Tsetsen is currently the only cat in our long-term study in Mongolia’s Tost- Tosonbumba Mountains wearing a GPS collar, but the 20th snow leopard we’ve been able to track with this technology since the study began in 2008.
Did you know that you can symbolically adopt Tsetsen to help fund this crucial snow leopard research? Click here to find out more!
Meet the newest member of our small, but dedicated Kyrgyz team – Salavat Baktybek kyzy.
Our wonderful team in Kyrgyzstan just got a little more robust. We are happy to introduce Salavat Baktybek kyzy who as of July 1st, will be coordinating our eco-education program at the Snow Leopard Foundation (SLF) Kyrgyzstan. This is a new position made possible by support from The Christensen Fund.
Salavat got her degree in International and Business Law from the American University of Central Asia. Apart from speaking fluent Russian and English, she speaks Kyrgyz as well as Spanish.
She has been working as a marketing manager and sustainable tourism coordinator with the ITC Asia Mountains organization since 2014. She has worked with children from orphanages and other institutions and organized charity events, hiking, climbing trips, right to education and property, and time and money management.
Salavat is also a trained mountaineer and has scaled several peaks within Kyrgyzstan. Currently she is training to climb the Korona peak in the month of August.
One of Salavat’s first projects will be visiting villages in the countryside to collect local folklore on wildlife. We are planning to start an eco-camp program in Kyrgyzstan in the near future and to gain experience from our existing program, she will visit India’s eco-camp around September of this year.
Reducing the losses suffered by farmers due to predation on livestock by snow leopards is a key to protecting the endangered cat. New research now shows that small changes in the way livestock are herded could make a big difference.
This post has also appeared on National Geographic’s Cat Watch blog
Snow leopard habitat is used extensively for livestock grazing and snow leopards sometimes prey on domestic livestock. Even though these events are not frequent, they cause significant economic hardship for herders and lead to retaliatory killings.
Now, new research suggests there may be ways to avoid most of those livestock losses. In a recently published paper[i], a team of scientists led by Snow Leopard Trust researcher Örjan Johansson pinpoints how snow leopard predation on domestic livestock tends to occur, and suggests specific improvements to herding practices that could help prevent it.
Asking all the right questions
“We knew that snow leopards like to eat ungulates, meaning both wild and domestic sheep and goats,” says Snow Leopard Trust researcher Örjan Johansson. “But beyond that, there are many open questions: How much of a snow leopard’s diet is made up of domestic species? How do the cats choose prey, and how much do they need? Are there diet differences between individual cats, or between males and females?”
“These questions are crucial for conservation,” explains Charu Mishra, the Trust’s Science and Conservation Director. “If we understand how snow leopards choose their prey and what factors influence these choices, we can do a much better job of helping local communities coexist with the cats. For instance, if we can predict where and when predation is likely to occur, we can focus our efforts there, which gives us a much better chance to prevent it.”
To get the answers they were after, Johansson and Mishra worked with colleagues from Panthera, the Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation and Grimsö Wildlife Research Station. Over a span of 5 years, they followed a total of 19 snow leopards fitted with GPS tracking-collars in Mongolia’s Tost Mountains – an unprecedented effort.
“Thanks to data from the collars, we could determine when and where a snow leopard made a kill,” Örjan Johansson explains.
With the help of numerous volunteers, the team was able to find more than 250 kill sites and identify the prey taken at each.
Previous studies have relied on scat analysis to get information about snow leopard diets. But “scats are anonymous,” Johansson says, “They give you an overview of what’s going on in a population, but they don’t tell you which cat left them, or when they were left, so you have no way of analyzing and comparing the predation patterns of individual cats. From scats, it is also not possible to separate instances of hunting from scavenging.”
With data on the eating habits of individual cats, the researchers were able to paint a much more detailed picture in this new study.
Snow leopards like it wild
“The first thing that jumps out is that 73% of all ungulates killed by snow leopards were wild. Only 27% were livestock,” Charu Mishra says. “This is a landscape in which livestock are at least ten times more abundant than wild prey. And yet, the cats mainly prey on wild species.”
This suggests that snow leopards kill livestock opportunistically, but prefer wild ungulates.
Snow leopards can sometimes get inside poorly constructed corrals and cause extensive livestock losses, and the Snow Leopard Trust has been working with herders in several countries to improve corrals.
However, a significant portion of snow leopard attacks on livestock takes place in the pastures, especially on stragglers that have inadvertently been left behind by herders.
“Many of these livestock kills happened at nighttime, when the rest of the herd was safely back at the corral,” Örjan Johansson explains.
Livestock lost in the pastures during the day were usually killed in rugged areas, where herders could easily lose sight of them.
A former recipient of the Whitley Award, known as the “Conservation Oscar”, Charu Mishra knows from years of experience how complex wildlife conservation issues tend to be.
This new research, however, suggests fairly straightforward measures that could make a big difference: “A significant part of livestock losses out in the pastures could perhaps be prevented if very rugged areas of the pastures could be avoided while grazing livestock, and if fewer stragglers were left behind at night,” he says.
If these small changes to herding practices are made and corrals are further improved to prevent cats from entering, livestock predation by snow leopards could be reduced significantly – to the benefit of cats and people alike.
This study was supported by the Ministry for Environment and Green Development, Government of Mongolia, and the Mongolia Academy of Sciences. Financial support came from Cat Life Foundation, Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Kolmarden Zoo, Nysether Family Foundation, Twycross Zoo, Fondation Segré – Whitley Fund for Nature, and Woodland Park Zoo.