Why It Matters What Your Neighbors Think

The future of the snow leopard depends in no small part on how the people who share the cat’s habitat view the predator in their midst. A new study by Snow Leopard Trust researchers reveals previously hidden, collective factors that shape these views.

Humans are imminently social beings; and a person’s values, attitudes – and actions – are shaped by their social environment as much as by any individual factors.  What your neighbors think matters, whether you like it or not.

This is why peer pressure works.

In the best case, this mechanism can stop an individual who may want to retaliate against a snow leopard that took some of his livestock, e.g. because the community would lose a conservation bonus if a cat were harmed.

wild snow leopard in India

the future of the snow leopard is in the hands of the people who share its habitat

In the worst case, the same dynamic can mute those voices in a community that are in favor of conservation and coexistence – for instance if a village loses too many animals.

First Multi-Scale Attitude Study

Previous studies on community attitudes toward predators have focused on individuals only – put simply, a number of people were asked questions, and their answers were analyzed.

Those studies have given us valuable insights, but they didn’t paint a complete picture.

Kullu Suryawanshi in Spiti, India

Kullu Suryawanshi in Spiti, India

Now, Snow Leopard Trust researcher Kulbhushansingh “Kullu” Suryawanshi has chosen a slightly different approach that might help fill in the blanks.

He also asked villagers questions about their views of snow leopards and wolves – but rather than just analyzing individual answers, he looked at aggregate data as well and probed how community-level factors such as village size, number of livestock held in a village or agricultural production can shape people’s attitudes – a multi-scale approach.

We already knew that age, gender, education and economic status are among the most important factors determining an individual’s attitude toward snow leopards.

Those factors were all confirmed by Kullu’s study. However, he also found other – previously hidden – factors that are at play. Many of those factors were revealed only when Kullu analyzed community members’ answers from a new perspective; focusing on collective factors rather than individual ones.

For instance, he found out that two things had a particularly strong influence on a community’s collective attitude toward snow leopards:

The number of large livestock held (such as horses and yaks, which are among the snow leopard’s preferred prey), and the overall agricultural production; a source of additional income.

Access to alternative sources of income such as the sale of handicraft can change a community's attitude towards snow leopards

Access to alternative sources of income such as the sale of handicraft can change a community’s attitude towards snow leopards


New Insights Could Lead To New Solutions

The more yaks and horses a community holds (rather than smaller livestock such as goats and sheep), the more skeptical it is of the cats – most likely because these large-bodied livestock are traditionally left free to roam the pastures around the village, without any protection from predators.

In the future, employing herders who watch over these animals could help improve attitudes.

(Village) size also matters: The larger a community, the more accepting it is of snow leopards and other predators – perhaps because it can more easily absorb livestock losses.

While we can’t influence village size, we can design programs across several villages, allowing communities to pool their resources, eg in a livestock insurance scheme.

Positive Influence of Conservation Programs

Kullu’s study was held across 25 villages across six study sites in India’s Spiti valley. The villages at one site, Kibber, have been participating in Snow Leopard Trust community conservation programs for 15 years.

While the study wasn’t designed to examine the effects of our existing community conservation programs, the results at least suggest that these programs are having a positive influence on people’s attitudes:

A village in Kibber, a community we've partnered with for 15 years in Spiti, India

A village in Kibber, a community we’ve partnered with for 15 years in Spiti, India

The neighboring sites of Kibber and Langza reported the highest rate of livestock depredation among all the communities in the study. Nevertheless, villages in Kibber had the most positive attitudes towards both snow leopards and wolves of all the six study sites.

Nearby Langza, which does not currently participate in conservation programs, had the most negative attitude.

Kullu’s study will help us – and other conservation organizations – to ensure that community conservation programs are designed to address an entire community’s concerns and needs, rather than just those of individuals.

In practice, this means a multi-pronged approach, including the generation of additional sources of income, the offsetting of financial losses due to predation, and education programs for both children and older people.

Cash and Commitments for the Cats

Progress for the endangered snow leopard! Range countries identify key landscapes to be protected, while Global Environmental Facility (GEF) approves a grant of $1 million for trans-boundary conservation projects.

At the Global Snow Leopard Forum, hosted by the President of Kyrgyzstan in October 2013, the snow leopard range countries had set the goal of securing 20 landscapes for the cats by 2020 – but many questions remained.

Would we really see 20 landscapes identified? When? Where would they be located? How big might they be? 

a wild snow leopard roaming the Himalayas

a wild snow leopard roaming the Himalayas

This June, the countries met again at a workshop in the Kyrgyz Republic to take the next steps and answer these questions.

“At the workshop, the countries put all those question to rest by identifying 20 large landscapes to be secured – a total of more than 500,000 square kilometers” reports Brad Rutherford, Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Trust.

“It was clear from the beginning of the workshop that the countries were sincere in their commitment. The number and size of the identified landscapes is great. When it is all said and done I think we’ll see more than 20 landscapes identified, which really demonstrates their commitment to snow leopard conservation.”

More details on the landscapes will be made available soon.

The range countries also drafted 2 year action plans that specify the steps to be taken to define the landscapes and understand the current on the ground situation in each of the 20 landscapes.

The good news keep on coming – in the form of $1 million
Shortly after the Workshop concluded, the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) approved a $1 million project to support initiatives at the Trans boundary landscape level.

They include knowledge generation and sharing among range countries, developing a monitoring framework for snow leopard ecosystems, and promoting financial sustainability and partnership across the range, particularly in the Central Asia region.

A wild snow leopard caught on camera in Kyrgyzstan in November 2013

A wild snow leopard caught on camera in Kyrgyzstan in November 2013

Building on the Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection Program, which is a collaborative work of all, the project concept was put together by UNDP as the GEF Agency in a very short time frame, utilizing the GEF-5 resources for global and regional projects.

All involved hope this investment of GEF funds will leverage further resources to implement the important actions to conserve the snow leopard and the mountain ecosystem, and also help coordinate the country level initiatives that are planned with GEF and other funding.

The infusion of $1 million in GEF funds for snow leopard conservation gives everyone involved even more incentive to be successful.

“The development and implementation of the Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection Program has been a challenge, but to date the results have exceeded expectations“, says Brad Rutherford. “The Program is definitely making progress towards its ultimate goal of Securing 20 or more landscapes by 2020.”

Signs of hope for the Ghost of the Mountain

Signs of hope for the Ghost of the Mountain

The Mystery of the Missing Men

Newly published study on snow leopard population in Mongolia reveals stable numbers – and a puzzling shift in the cats’  gender ratio.

By Dr. Koustubh Sharma, Senior Regional Ecologist

In 2013,  we began looking into the mystery of Tost’s missing male snow leopards.

Lasya, one of the female snow leopards we've been tracking

Lasya, one of the female snow leopards we’ve been tracking in Tost

We have been studying snow leopards in the Tost Mountains of Mongolia for over five years. There is no other snow leopard population in the wild that has been monitored for such a long period of time, which gives us the unique ability to look at population changes over time.

While preliminary data showed an adult population of 10-14 cats in our study site, in 2013 we started to see some vigorous underlying dynamics about how this population functions.

On the good side, the population has remained relatively stable over the past four years; indicating that the rate of immigration of new cats into the area, along with births, continues to offset the rates of mortality and snow leopard emigration out of our study site.

But digging deeper, there is something else brewing.

Over the last few years, the adult sex ratio appears to have changed considerably in favor of females. That means our big strong male snow leopards have been disappearing.

Is that normal or natural? Can this population survive with fewer males than females? Where do all the males go—and will they come back?

We had a tantalizing clue in fall 2013. Thanks to the support of our members, we were able to expand our study outwards and set out cameras in neighboring mountains to the north.

elusive Aylagch

Aylagch, “the Traveller”

Who did we see but Agylach, a young male snow leopard that we had previously seen in Tost. Apparently, he felt the need to relocate, at least temporarily. Could these northern mountains be a piece of the ‘lost male’ puzzle?

It could be that males just don’t live as long as females due to high rates of competition and fighting. Or, like males of other big carnivores, they could be naturally more inclined to move and wander than females.

It could also be the case that males are more likely to attack livestock, making them more of a target for retribution killing by herders.

Right now these are all conjecture, but finding answers is paramount.

There could be threats facing males in particular, or wandering males could need greater protection of connected habitats. What’s certain is that we need to continue to monitor these snow leopards closely—and right now, we’re exploring even more nearby mountain chains.

Considering that throughout most of snow leopard range, even basic population estimates are still lacking, we have to admit we feel a little giddy (and spoiled) being able to learn so much, delve so deep, and make such truly incredible progress towards better understanding Mongolia’s cats.

Thank you for not only making this long-term study a reality, but enabling it to grow. In science, ‘surprises’ are usually the start of great achievement, and we are excited to see what answers we unlock next.

A manuscript of these findings has recently been published in PLoS One journal. Read the full scientific article here.

New Anti-Poaching Award Helps Rangers and Citizens Save Wildlife

Press Release, July 16, 2014

In collaboration with the Kyrgyz government, the Snow Leopard Trust launches the Citizen Ranger Wildlife Protection Program, awarding rangers and community members who successfully stop illegal hunting. The first conservation awards have recently been handed out.

Charu Mishra, Brad Rutherford and Kuban Jumabai congratulate the Award winner

Charu Mishra, Brad Rutherford and Kuban Jumabai congratulate the Award winner

Illegal hunting continues to be a threat to snow leopards and their equally endangered prey species in large parts of Central Asia. Through conservation agreements with communities the Trust has managed to minimize hunting instances by locals in many important snow leopard habitats.

However, many of the poachers, in countries like Kyrgyzstan, are resourceful businessmen, political figures or other influential outsiders, who aren’t part of these conservation agreements and are difficult for local people, and even park rangers to deal with.

a snow leopard in Sarychat Ertash Reserve

a snow leopard in Sarychat Ertash Reserve

“Despite their limited resources, park rangers in protected areas as well as our partner communities work hard to stop these outside poachers – but their efforts too often go unrecognized”, says Charu Mishra, the Trust’s Science and Conservation Director.

In a move to inspire and better appreciate the work of official rangers, and to encourage local people to collaborate with rangers to reduce illegal hunting, the Snow Leopard Trust and the Kyrgyz government have now launched the Citizen Ranger Wildlife Protection Program.

It honors and financially rewards rangers and local community members who successfully apprehend poachers, and whose actions result in arrest or official fines being imposed on poachers. Over time, we also hope to better equip rangers, and liaise with law enforcement agencies to impart more training.

First Awards Were Handed Out
Last month, Toktosun uulu Urmat, a ranger in Sarychat-Ertash nature reserve, and Asanakunov Akil, a community member, jointly received the first award and citation under this initiative. They had apprehended hunters in Sarychat-Ertash; confiscated their guns and reported them to the authorities. They both received an official certificate and a shared cash bonus of 10,000 Kyrgyz soms.

Kuban and Sabir Atjadinov, the Director of the Forestry Agency of the Kyrgyz Republic, hand over the award

Kuban and Sabir Atjadinov, the Director of the Forestry Agency of the Kyrgyz Republic, hand over the award

“The two awardees were very proud and happy to see their work recognized in this way”, says Kuban.

In June, the Snow Leopard Trust signed a three-way Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation in the area of wildlife conservation with the Government of Kyrgyz Republic and Snow Leopard Foundation in Kyrgyzstan (our Kyrgyz NGO partner Kyrgyzstan). This MoU will be active for 10 years and will strengthen our relationship with the Forestry Agency and other state organizations towards reaching our shared conservation goals.

The Citizen Ranger Wildlife Protection Program was launched during an international snow leopard conservation workshop within the Global Snow Leopard Forum framework. A cross-section of the Kyrgyz Government, official delegates from 10 of the 12 snow leopard range countries, and a host of international organisations such as UNDP, GEF, USAID, Interpol, WWF, and snow leopard conservation organizations were present.

A perfect setting to celebrate conservation champions, says Charu Mishra: “Although it involves a cash reward, recognizing the rangers’  and community members’ effort is an even more important aspect of the program. This follow-up workshop to the Global Snow Leopard Forum was a fitting occasion to announce our partnership with the Government and for the hardworking rangers to be felicitated. People present just loved the idea and the initiative. It was really gratifying to receive the feedback, and for us, a fantastic bonus over and above a highly productive workshop.

This significant progress for snow leopards, a result of our long-term work in the Kyrgyz Republic, is made possible through the Partnership Funding by Fondation Segré, managed by Whitley Fund for Nature, as well as the support and guidance of the Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle.

Summer Success in India — Thank you!

We asked and you responded!

Throughout the spring, we asked you to help fund important projects in India. We are thrilled to report that over 426 people made donations or adoptions –sending over $35,000 for projects this summer!

This means that the team in India can move forward with their ambitious plans to send over 300 kids to nature camp, build stronger corrals for over 30 families, and conduct vital research on the snow leopards.

Thank you to everyone who made this possible!

a snow leopard roaming India's Himalayas