The snow leopard’s habitat is heavily used for livestock grazing, and herds continue to grow. What does this development mean for the endangered cat? Our India team has found some interesting answers: livestock grazing isn’t necessarily a problem per se, but it can quickly become one if herds grow too much.
In many parts of the snow leopard’s range, the cat’s natural prey species – wild goats and sheep – are now outnumbered by their domestic cousins by several orders of magnitude.
With domestic livestock numbers steadily rising, our Indian research team set out to find out what effect this development is having on the endangered snow leopard. Now, they’ve published their findings.
They surveyed 10 separate parts of the Spiti landscapes in the Indian Himalayas – a total of 4000 km2. For each sector, they estimated the number of livestock and wild ungulates as well as the presence of snow leopards.
Using 100 research cameras, lead author Rishi Sharma and his team were able to identify 24 adult snow leopards in the survey area.
Natural Prey Species Under Pressure
“When a predator’s habitat is also used for livestock grazing, it raises two main concerns”, Rishi says.
“One issue is livestock predation and the retaliatory persecution it can potentially lead to. In Spiti, this type of retribution is very rare though, due in part to local Buddhist belief systems, but also thanks to the conservation work that we’ve been able to do here for 15 years.”
The other main concern is what growing numbers of livestock will mean for wild ungulate populations.
“A landscape offers limited resources, and the snow leopard’s wild prey species are competing for these resources with domestic livestock. If there is too much livestock grazing, wild ungulate populations may eventually disappear. The cats would then be deprived of their preferred food source”, Rishi says.
Can Livestock Replace Wild Prey?
Earlier research has shown that the availability of wild prey is one of the most important indicators for an area’s snow leopard population – or, put more simply, the more wild prey, the more cats.
Interestingly, if an area has abundant wild prey, it’s also likely to see relatively high livestock predation – most likely because it will have a relatively high number of snow leopards.
But what if an area is used so extensively for livestock grazing that there is scarcely any wild prey left for snow leopards? Could domestic livestock just replace wild species in the cat’s diet and provide sufficient food to sustain snow leopard populations if herders were willing to accept a certain level of predation?
Or will the growing herds eventually spell doom for the cats if they drive wild prey away?
As this new study makes clear, the answer to the first question is a clear no. Livestock can’t replace wild prey.
No Wild Prey Means No Cats
“The study examined four factors that determine the suitability of an area for snow leopards”, Rishi Sharma says. “Number of wild prey, number of livestock, intensity of human activities, and ruggedness of the terrain. Of those four, the availability of wild prey appears to be the most important.”
The correlation was in fact linear, which confirms previous findings: the more prey, the more cats. “The opposite is just as true”, Rishi says, “no wild prey means no cats”.
But what about livestock numbers? Do they have a direct influence on the presence of snow leopards?
The answer is yes – but the influence isn’t linear.
“The relationship between livestock numbers and the presence of snow leopards seems to be hump-shaped”, Rishi says. “Up to a certain point, growing livestock numbers go hand-in-hand with habitat use by snow leopards. There seem to be areas that are so productive that they can sustain relatively high numbers of both livestock and wild prey.”
But there is a tipping point: “When livestock density becomes too high, the number of cats decreases – probably because there isn’t enough wild prey left for them.”
In fact, there seems to be practically no wild prey at all in the two sampling areas with the highest livestock densities (more than 50 heads per km2). Not surprisingly, the cats avoided these two areas almost entirely.
Livestock And Cats Can Coexist – Up to a Point
Rishi’s results suggest that in the absence of direct persecution of snow leopards, livestock grazing and snow leopard habitat use are potentially compatible – up to a certain threshold of livestock density, beyond which habitat use by the cats declines, presumably due to depressed wild ungulate abundance and associated anthropogenic disturbance.
Please help us fund grassland reserves for wild snow leopard prey species and other programs to protect the cat’s natural food source with a donation.
Primary support for this project came through a grant from Association of Zoos and Aquariums Conservation Endowment Fund. We thank Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, Whitley Fund for Nature, Snow Leopard Network, Department of Science and Technology and Panthera for general support to our programs. We are thankful to the Chief Wildlife Warden, Himachal, Divisional Forest Officer, Kaza and the Range Officer, Kaza, for permissions and logistics. We are also thankful to Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi for help with data analysis and comments on the manuscript. We thank Suhel Qader for help with data analysis. Chandrima Home immensely helped with snow leopard photo identification. Chunnit Kesang, Tenzin Thukten, Rinchen Tobgey, Sushil Dorje, Chudim, Takpa are thanked for immense help in fieldwork.
 R. K. Sharma, Y. Bhatnagar, C. Mishra: Does livestock benefit or harm snow leopards? Biological Conservation 190 (2015), 8-13.
Full article available at http://www.academia.edu/13148983/Does_livestock_benefit_or_harm_snow_leopards