New study: more wild prey for snow leopards may mean more livestock losses, not less!
We’ve all had these evenings, after a long day at work, where we’d just open the fridge and eat whatever we found in there. On a good day, that may have been a pizza. On a bad one, however, all we might find were some leftovers in a somewhat questionable state. But hey, so what, we’d just eat them, for lack of alternatives.
For years, conservationists have assumed that this was pretty much what snow leopards did, too: As wild prey species were disappearing from their habitat, our assumption was that the cats would turn to what was left instead: livestock. Bringing back more wild prey would then equal less livestock depredation and thus fewer conflicts between snow leopards and herders, which looked like a classic win-win situation.
As it turns out, we were wrong.
A new study[i] by Snow Leopard Trust researchers in the Upper Spiti Landscape of northern India, led by Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi, has found that in areas with a relatively high number of wild prey species, there are actually more livestock lost to snow leopards than in areas where natural prey is scarce; not less!
So are we dealing with a particularly insatiable bunch of cats that can’t stay away from the leftovers even after they’ve had their slice of pizza, to stay within the fridge analogy?
No. The most likely answer is a lot simpler – and more complex at the same time: An increase in wild prey, it appears, may support a growing number of snow leopards; and while this growing number of cats may prefer ibex and blue sheep, they will still hunt domesticized yak and horses occasionally, which in turn means more livestock depredation for local herders.
Not necessarily an obvious conclusion, but a simple enough one, right? So what’s complex about this? Here’s what: While a recovery of endangered wild prey species is undoubtedly a good thing, both for the snow leopards and for the entire ecosystem they live in, it was wrong to assume that this recovery would also help solve conflicts between cats and herders. Instead, it might escalate those conflicts, as more cats will be able to survive on a steady but varied diet of wild prey and livestock.
Of course, these findings present us with a conundrum: How are we going to make sure that the desirable recovery of prey species doesn’t create a set of new problems as it solves some old ones? How do we gain herder’s acceptance for bringing back endangered prey species, if that’s going to cost them money as they lose more and more livestock?
Where do we go from here?
Snow leopards lack thumbs, so if pastures were a fridge, we’d just put a lock on it and be done. However, since this approach won’t work here, we’ll have to come up with more ingenious solutions. As a first step, we must make sure that every initiative we start to help wild prey populations grow is accompanied by measures to better protect livestock in the area. In the pastures, snow leopards often kill stragglers, but they prey less on well-herded livestock. Instead, they tend to attack larger, free-ranging species like horses and yaks, which are mostly left to their own devices on their pastures. Measures to protect them could include employing herders, who actually stay with the livestock as it grazes, scaring the cats away.
Another approach could be to expand existing livestock insurance schemes that can offset the financial loss of livestock depredation, and increasing peoples’ tolerance to snow leopards through programs like Snow Leopard Enterprises and conservation education.
As if these challenges weren’t hard enough to face, our study has revealed another dimension of the complex relationship between herders, livestock and snow leopards that has to be taken into account when designing conservation programs: Herder’s perceptions of the threat posed by carnivores like the snow leopard can be at considerable odds with actual livestock depredation patterns[ii]. In simpler terms: Whether a herder feels threatened by snow leopards may not necessarily tell us much about the actual threat to his livestock. Of course, this discrepancy between real and perceived threats makes it more difficult to identify the communities and pastures where the protective measures discussed above are most urgently needed.
While our field staff in India and other range countries continues to work on these complex questions of snow leopard diet and community relations management, we’ll just go and lock our fridge, before it’s raided by a bunch of hungry predators.
The authors thank the Forest Department of Himachal Pradesh for financial support and permissions, and the BBC Wildlife Fund, Whitley Fund for Nature, and Conservation Leadership program for funding.
[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. The paper can be accessed in the journal’s early view section here
[ii] Suryawanshi et al (2013) examined both actual depredation patterns and threat perception by local communities. We’ll discuss their findings about the relationship between perceived threats and actual depredation in more detail in another article.