In a major step forward for snow leopard conservation in Pakistan, our local partner, the Snow Leopard Foundation, is expanding its research activities into to the tribal belt (District Diamer) of Gilgit-Baltistan province.
Diamer District is one of the seven districts of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and is bounded by Astore District in the east, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the southwest, Neelum District of Azad Kashmir in the south, the Ghizer District in the north & north-west, and the Gilgit District in the north & northeast.
Diamer is spread across 6500 km² and constitutes mostly arid mountainous area and connects GB to the rest of the country. It has historically been a strongly patriarchal society with prevalent tribal mores and a heavy influence of orthodox clergy. The literacy rate is negligible as compared to other districts. The majority of the people lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle – going to the high altitude pastures during summers and coming to the lower elevations during winters.
A challenge for conservationists
The district encompasses 77% of the total natural forest cover of the Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and is owned by the community. Because of its unique culture, Diamer has historically been a challenge for the Conservation and Development Practitioner.
After many negotiations, the Snow Leopard Foundation (SLF) successfully completed human-carnivore conflict surveys followed by an extensive camera-trapping study in the Diamer district. These were the first-ever of such endeavors in the district in the conservation history of the GB.
a map of Pakistan’s Diamer District, in Gilgit Baltistan
Surveys reveal presence of snow leopards, bears, and wolves
The conflict surveys revealed the occurrence of major large carnivores including snow leopard, wolf, lynx, black bear and brown bear. Wolf and black bear were found to be particularly abundant in the district.
Losses of livestock due to predators are prevailing in the area with 1.1 animals lost per household per year, though the magnitude was found to be much less as compared to the losses of livestock due to diseases (3.8 animals per household per year).
Having evaluated the results of the conflict surveys, our Pakistani team selected Khanbari valley for a research camera survey. The team divided the valley (810km²) into 20 watersheds and set 48 camera stations, each of which was up for 30 days. The cameras captured wolf, lynx, leopard cat, fox, cape hare and stone marten. A pack of four wolves with an alpha male was captured for the first time.
Snow leopard family on film
The rugged mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan are strongholds of several ungulate species. However, little is known about their ecology and abundance because of remoteness and lack of resources to conduct robust scientific studies.
Poaching/hunting, habitat degradation, increasing livestock, and disease transmission by livestock are the major threats. Proper ungulate monitoring is a prerequisite to identify population dynamics for effective conservation.
Khunjerab National Park (KNP), to the north of Diamer, covers 4455km² and supports a diverse array of wildlife species including: Himalayan ibex, snow leopard, blue sheep, brown bear, wolf, fox, stone marten, weasel, golden eagle, snow cock, cape hare and Marco Polo sheep. The Park is also providing forage to approximately 3000 livestock.
During a recent ungulate survey in the park, our team was in for a special treat! They came across a snow leopard family – a mother with three cubs! With their mobile phones and pocket cameras, the team managed to take some footage of the cats, before moving on to count ibex. You can watch the video below!
The surveys yielded 420 ibex counts in the park. Park staff and university students were trained in the ‘Double Observer Survey’ method as well as GPS handling, map reading, data format filling, spotting scope and binocular handling.