Snow Leopard Trust scientists study how wildlife in India’s Spiti Valley responds to the growth of human development in the area.
Across the globe, wildlife habitats are being changed forever as humans are expanding further and further into wilderness.
Faced with this reality, conservationists are increasingly looking to understand how different species of wildlife cope with the impact of human development. How and why do some species adapt while others perish? And what can be done to ensure that more native species survive?
For the endangered snow leopard, an umbrella species with a very large home range, these questions are critical. Whether we like it or not, this cat will need to coexist with humans, and conservationists need to create conditions where such coexistence will be possible.
In the past two decades, more and more tourists have discovered India’s Spiti Valley as a travel destination. They’ve brought funds and jobs to this remote area in the Indian Himalayas – but they’ve also brought change. The number of hotels and restaurants in the valley has increased tenfold, and the amount of garbage that is generated as a result of that influx may have grown even faster.
This garbage, along with livestock carcasses, is a major food source for Spiti’s growing population of feral dogs. These dogs pose an increasingly important threat to local wildlife such as blue sheep and ibex, and even to the endangered snow leopard.
“Feral dogs compete with wild carnivores for food and space, they chase away and harass native wildlife, and they may carry and transmit diseases. Dogs are undoubtedly emerging as a threat to Spiti’s native species”, Snow Leopard Trust researcher Abhishek Ghoshal says, “and the availability of garbage as food is one of the main reasons behind the growing number of dogs.”
The Red Fox Has Adapted Well
While the growth of villages into townships in Spiti contributes to a major threat to some of the area’s wildlife, certain native species appear to have found a way to benefit from the changing environment. For instance, as Abhishek and his colleagues have found out, Spiti’s garbage has also become a prime resource for the red fox.
He led a study¹ that aimed to understand how the red fox responds to the changes that are occurring in its habitat. With his colleagues, Abhishek analyzed red fox scat samples from 10 villages to analyze its diet and estimate population densities.
Their results are a testament to the red fox’ ability to adapt: “In Spiti, human garbage has become the most common food source for the red fox during winter”, Abhishek says. “The more garbage is available in a particular village, the more red fox will theoretically be found nearby. But the dogs, being superior competitors as well as potential predators of the fox, can change this equation.”
Abhishek’s results show that the red fox may be able to thrive despite the influx of human development and the increasing urbanization in Spiti Valley, at least to a certain extent. “They’re generalists, which means they can use a variety of food resources”, Abhishek explains. “So if we can control the feral dog population, the red fox should be fine.”
Unfortunately, the same does not appear to be true for the snow leopard, Spiti’s top predator.
The snow leopard also faces a rapidly changing environment. Populations of natural prey species such as the ibex have declined over the past decades, leaving the big cat vulnerable. Unlike the red fox, the snow leopard may not be as adaptable. Another recent study by SLT scientists in Spiti, led by Rishi Sharma, found that the use of areas by the endangered cat goes down, for instance, as livestock populations in its habitat increase and wild prey decline.
Snow leopard abundance tends to be highest in those areas where wild prey is abundant, as shown by the Ph.D. work of SLT’s India program director Kulbhushansingh (Kullu) Suryawanshi. If there are no ibex or other wild prey species, there aren’t any cats, either. “The red fox seems to have replaced some of its natural food sources with more easily available human sources such as garbage”, Kullu says. “The snow leopard is much more specialized. It does kill and eat livestock out on the pastures, but it appears livestock can’t replace the cat’s natural prey.”
¹ Ghoshal, A., Bhatnagar, Y. V., Mishra, C., Suryawanshi, K.: Response of the red fox to expansion of human habitation in the Trans-Himalayan mountains. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 2015.
Acknowledgments: We are thankful to the Forest Research Institute University, Dehradun and Himachal Pradesh Forest Department (Wildlife Wing), Shimla, for the permissions and support. The fieldwork was supported by Narendra Babu Ecological Research Initiative Grant. We are also thankful to Foundation Segré / Whitley Fund for Nature for supporting our research and conservation programmes. Chhering Dorje and Takpa provided invaluable help during fieldwork.