Local Communities: The Key to Saving Snow Leopards

Herders, farmers and wildlife rangers living in Asia’s mountainous snow leopard habitat are our most important partners in the fight against poaching and killing of these endangered cats.

A recent report by TRAFFIC estimates that 220 to 450 snow leopards die each year at the hands of people – and the actual number could be even higher! With as few as 4,000 snow leopards possibly left in the wild, stopping the killing is an extremely high conservation priority.

Poaching and killing of snow leopards takes many different forms. In about twenty percent of known cases since 2008, cats were killed for their fur or bones. A similar number died in traps that had been set out for wolves and other species. More than half of all cases, however, involved local herders killing cats in retaliation for livestock attacks. Their motive isn’t greed, or cruelty – it’s desperation.

The snow leopard is facing an uncertain future.
The snow leopard is facing an uncertain future.

Poaching is a big issue, and it can feel overwhelming. But the truth is, it’s not insurmountable–there are things you can do to combat it.

One key approach is to empower embattled frontline wildlife rangers in the five snow leopard range countries we work in. In Kyrgyzstan, rangers had been telling us that they felt unable to do anything about poachers. They had no training, no equipment, and no public support for their work. These rangers faced hunters—and their guns—with nothing but their courage. They were threatened, intimidated, or simply ignored.

Thanks to our supporters, we’ve been able to partner with INTERPOL to build a tailor-made program where rangers and their supervisors receive top-notch law enforcement training. Rangers who apprehend poachers are also publicly recognized and rewarded at a yearly event. These conservation heroes have received lots of media attention thanks to this program, which has raised their standing in society considerably. The spotlight on rangers is also making it that much harder for future cases of poaching to be swept under the rug.

Interpol-led trainings are helping Kyrgyz wildlife rangers combat poaching more effectively.
Interpol-led trainings are helping Kyrgyz wildlife rangers combat poaching more effectively.

Equally important: our network of donors and partners has enabled us to build strong, resilient partnerships with communities in snow leopard habitat. Just last year, a woman from one of our partner villages in the Kyrgyz Tian Shan was asked by a stranger if the local community could provide him with snow leopard pelts and bones. Instead of helping this illegal trader and making a good deal of money in the process, the woman sent him away and immediately contacted Kuban Jumabai uulu, our local program director, to inform him of this threat.

Kuban has since set out a number hidden camera traps around this part of the snow leopard range to keep a proverbial eye out for poachers coming in from the outside. It’s an early warning mechanism that was made possible by the strength of the partnerships you’ve helped us build.

Kuban Jumabai uulu and a Kyrgyz ranger set up a camera trap to monitor snow leopards and their prey - and people who may want to harm them.
Kuban Jumabai uulu and two Kyrgyz rangers are setting up a camera trap to monitor snow leopards and their prey – and people who may want to harm them.

“The recent poaching report once again shows that local people are the key to the snow leopard’s survival”, says Charu Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science & Conservation Director. “They can be a key ally against commercial poachers. But they’re also a potential threat themselves.”

Many local communities in snow leopard habitat are under enormous economic pressure and can ill afford to lose livestock to predation. “The livelihoods of entire communities depend on livestock rearing. So herders who lose animals to these cats often view killing as their only option”, Charu Mishra says.

If left unaddressed, livestock predation by snow leopards can lead to retaliation killings.
If left unaddressed, livestock predation by snow leopards can lead to retaliation killings.

Our community-based conservation programs are designed to prevent such retaliation killings. They offer herders alternatives and provide them with incentives to not harm snow leopards and their prey.

Take the case of Munkhjargal, a herder in Mongolia’s Tost Mountains. For years, he’s considered the snow leopard a threat. Several times each winter, a cat had entered his livestock holding pen, sometimes killing several goats and sheep at once. To protect his animals, Munkhjargal had taken to sleeping outside, among the sheep and goats. That was not only uncomfortable, but also scary. “I barely slept, always fearing a snow leopard might attack”, he recalls. He never killed a cat himself, but says he had begun thinking about it.

Last summer, Munkhjargal’s life changed dramatically. With the support of donors like you, our team in Mongolia helped him construct a corral fence around his holding pen to keep snow leopards and wolves away.

Munkhjargal stands in front of his new predator-proof corral fence, built in partnership with the Snow Leopard Trust
Munkhjargal stands in front of his new predator-proof corral fence, built in partnership with the Snow Leopard Trust

“I no longer fear for my animals or myself. I sleep in my ger, where it’s warm and comfortable. The snow leopard doesn’t bother me anymore” Munkhjargal says.

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