How real are people’s perceptions of threats snow leopards and wolves pose to livestock?
Conflicts between snow leopards and herders are one of the major threats the cats are facing. But how do herding communities who live with snow leopards perceive the threat these cats and other predators like wolves pose to their livestock? And how closely do these perceptions reflect actual livestock losses? As our research team has discovered, these two sides of the same coin can sometimes be at considerable odds – with wolves getting the brunt of negative prejudice.
In Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, a young boy repeatedly gives false alarm, tricking villagers into thinking his flock was attacked by wolves. Of course, when a wolf actually does attack, no one believes him – and his herd is lost. People’s perception of reality, we learn, is not always as accurate as they think it is (and lying is a bad idea).
As they did in ancient Greece, conflicts between herders and wild carnivores persist to this day. Many herders have experienced considerable livestock losses at the hands (or paws, rather) of carnivores like wolves and snow leopards – and this experience has taught some of them to retaliate and kill the predators before they can do any more damage. However, as the fable teaches us, sometimes people will cry wolf even if there isn’t that much of a real threat – and sometimes, they may cry in vain although the threat is all too real (and hungry).
The complex dynamic between perceived threat and real impact can put both livestock and predators in jeopardy. Snow leopards or wolves may be killed by a herder even though they don’t actually pose a major threat to their livestock. On the other hand, livestock may be lost because it lacked appropriate protection from predators.
In order to better understand these phenomena – and ultimately better protect cats and livestock – our research team conducted interviews and then recorded subsequent livestock losses in 25 villages in Northern India to analyze how closely herder’s perceptions of threats reflect actual livestock depredation by snow leopards and wolves.
In 13 villages, communities had not perceived either snow leopards or wolves to be a major problem when they were interviewed; while 5 villages had considered both predators as a significant threat. 3 villages had mentioned only snow leopards as a source of trouble; the remaining 4 had only feared wolves.
When our researchers returned to these villages to record actual livestock losses after two years, they were confronted with interesting numbers: Although people in only 8 of the villages had perceived snow leopards to be a threat to livestock at the beginning of the study, 14 villages recorded instances of livestock depredation by snow leopards over the following two years. In contrast, although people in 9 villages had perceived wolves to be a threat, only 8 villages actually recorded depredation by the wolf.
In short, compared to snow leopards, threat perceptions are disproportionately biased against the wolf. So while some people may indeed sometimes be crying wolf when it comes to wolves, they seem to be pretty accurate in their assessment of the threat snow leopards pose to their livestock.
For snow leopard conservation, the results of our study are encouraging[i]: They indicate that if we manage to further reduce or adequately compensate livestock losses, perceptions of the cats will continue to improve at a comparable rate; ultimately reducing the risk of retaliatory killings.
Wolves, on the other hand, are facing a more difficult battle. Not only does there seem to be a bias against them, but the ongoing socio-economic developments in much of Central Asia could further add to existing conflicts. Unlike snow leopards, which prefer to prey on larger, free-ranging livestock such as yaks and horses, wolves are more likely to kill smaller livestock such as goats and sheep. Studies are showing that the global demand for cashmere is leading to an increase in livestock population, and replacement of larger bodied livestock with smaller bodied, cashmere-producing goats. If these developments continue, they will likely intensify human conflicts with wolves much more compared to snow leopards.
We are dedicated to ensuring a future for snow leopards, but we care for wolves too! It is here that our education and awareness programs that aim to improve peoples’ tolerance towards these predators are so critical. Snow leopards need them, and it seems wolves need them even more.
[i] Kulbhushansingh R Surywanshi, Yash Veer Bhatnagar, Stephen Redpath, and Charudutt Mishra, 2013: People, predators and perceptions: patterns of livestock depredation by snow leopards and wolves.’ This study, led by Snow Leopard Trust scientists in partnership with India’s Nature Conservation Foundation and the UK’s Aberdeen University, has just been published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
Read about the paper’s other important findings here