Snow Leopards with an Ecosystems Focus

Ranjini Murali has just completed her PhD. She worked on how local communities in snow leopard landscapes used, valued, and governed ecosystem services. Here she shares with us the main findings of her work and what drives her to support snow leopard conservation.

We’re happy to introduce you to Dr. Ranjini Murali! She just graduated with a PhD from Manipal University, working with the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Snow Leopard Trust’s India Partner. Now that she has a bit more time, we sat down with her to get an idea of her experience and learnings from working in snow leopard landscapes.

Ranjini Murali carrying out her PhD fieldwork. Photo: Ranjini Murali.
What kindled your interest in snow leopards?

Honestly, it was luck and chance. After I finished my masters degree in environmental biology from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, I came back to India and was looking for a job. Someone told me about the Nature Conservation Foundation. I went onto their website to look at the kind of work they do. I was immediately attracted by the snow leopard project, because snow leopards are cool, for a lack of a better word. One day I saw an advertisement for a position with the snow leopard programme. I applied immediately. I was lucky and I got the job. There was no looking back after that. I fell in love with the landscape, the people, and the programme’s inclusive approaches to conservation.

What are the main findings of your PhD research?

For my PhD, I worked on how local communities in snow leopard landscapes used, valued, and governed ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are essentially all the benefits that we receive from nature, like food, water, the air we breathe, timber, carbon sequestration – basically anything we use in our everyday lives that has links to the natural world.

I studied all the different ways that snow leopard landscapes contributed to the well-being of local communities living there. I then tried to put a monetary value on these benefits. Unsurprisingly I found that local communities in these landscapes were heavily reliant on the natural environment and this dependence ranged from 3.6 times to 40 times the annual household income! This shows how reliant local communities are on ecosystem services from these landscapes. Large-scale infrastructure projects and other projects that change the ecosystem are going to impact both wildlife and local communities. Ecosystem service values need to be explicitly accounted for during the cost-benefit of these projects.

There are broadly two kinds of communities who live in snow leopard landscapes. Communities who depend on livestock for their livelihoods and communities who depend on both crop-production and livestock. The communities who rely solely on livestock are often nomadic and they rear livestock such as sheep, goat, yak, and camel. Their main livelihood comes from the sale of cashmere, which is the soft underwool of the pashmina goat. Crop-producing communities are largely sedentary, and they grow crops such as green pea, barley, and sometimes apple. They also have livestock which they graze in the pastures surrounding their villages. I found that for the ecosystem services that I had measured, livestock-producing communities were more reliant on ecosystem services than crop-producing communities. This indicates that livestock-producing communities are likely to be more vulnerable to land-degradation and fragmentation than crop-producing communities.

A typical crop-production system in Spiti Valley with the agricultural lands in the foreground. The pastures used for grazing livestock extend for kilometers around the village. In the extreme left, the small white structure is a “Chorten”, a religious structure symbolizing Buddha’s presence. Photo: Ranjini Murali.

Urbanization is one of the biggest causes of land-use change in the world, and this is also occurring in snow leopard landscapes. When I looked at the impact of urbanization in Spiti valley, in India, I found that in more urbanized spaces, people relied less on ecosystem services from their immediate surroundings, such as forage, animal dung, water, wild plants, and fertilizers while they imported more ecosystem services such as firewood and fodder for livestock. Further, households with higher incomes imported more ecosystem services. These changes in ecosystem service use are expected with urbanization, but what my study showed was that how little urbanization is needed for these changes to become visible.

I measured ecosystem services using monetary values. However, monetary values do not capture all the values that people have for nature, such as cultural, religious and nutritional. Non-monetary valuation is used to understand these different values that people have for nature. I used non-monetary valuation to understand the ecosystem services valued by local communities in Spiti Valley, India. The most valued services were water, climate regulation, cultural heritage, and animal dung while the least valued services were wild animals, pollination, and wild plants for food. Communities in these landscapes are currently experiencing the impacts of climate change, therefore unsurprisingly climate regulation was valued  highly. We need to explicitly factor in community values for nature in our conservation approaches and perhaps use highly valued services such as water to incentivize the conservation of lower-valued services such as wildlife.

My study brings to light the high, unseen and often disregarded value of ecosystem services for local people living across Asia’s high mountain habitats. Developmental projects need to account for this value, and conservation and management strategies need to better recognize and strengthen local governance systems that have been in place to manage them.

Small-bodied livestock are brought back to the village in the evening after a whole day of grazing. Photo: Ranjini Murali.
What is innovative about your research?

I think my research just scratched the surface of this fascinating socio-ecological system. From the perspective of our program, this was the first time that we were using the concept of ecosystem services to understand how people use these landscapes.

From the perspective of larger research, most ecosystem service studies are conducted in high productivity landscapes. My study focused on low productivity landscapes and highlighted that local communities here as well are heavily reliant on local ecosystem services.

What was the most memorable moment from your research experience?

It’s hard to pick just one! My most memorable animal-related experience of course involves the snow leopard. I had worked in snow leopard landscapes for almost eight years and I was yet to see a snow leopard. I’m one of the unlucky ones. I was in Tost in the South Gobi, Mongolia, for field work and lucky for me the Snow Leopard Trust was also GPS-collaring the snow leopard during this time. Every night I’d go to sleep thinking this was the night we’d catch a snow leopard to collar it. But nothing happened. I was almost at the end of the trip and told myself that it didn’t matter so much if I got to see the snow leopard. One night, I was fast asleep when the words “Snow leopard! Let’s go!”, cut through my sleep. I jumped out of bed, put on my clothes – jacket, scarves, gloves, the works (this was the Gobi after all) – and jammed my feet into my shoes. I was ready in under ten seconds.

When we got to the place where the snow leopard was, I could hear him growling just behind a ridge. We walked up slowly, lay down and watched him from behind a bush. My first snow leopard! That’s an experience I  will never forget. 

Snow Leopard Trust’s team collaring in the South Gobi, Mongolia. Photo: Snow Leopard Trust.
How can your work so far contribute to snow leopard conservation?

I think my work highlights that we need to explicitly factor in people in snow leopard landscapes into our conservation approaches. Communities here rely heavily on these landscapes for their survival and well-being, and any changes to the ecosystem impacts them as well. Secondly, in conservation, we can factor in people’s relationship to nature, and factor what they value in the landscape to aid conservation approaches. At the end of the day people protect what they value. As they continue to use these landscapes, they will value them. 

Finally, local communities have been managing these landscapes for millennia and they have an intimate knowledge of the landscape. I think it’s important that we work with local management systems and strengthen existing linkages.

What do you see yourself doing in ten years’ time?

This is a tough one! I’m not sure exactly what I will be doing, but I know the aspects of this work that I love to do. I love research, I love conservation education or some form of outreach, and I love working in the science-policy interface. I hope that in ten year’s time I will be in a job that incorporates all these different dimensions.

Ranjini Murali discussing her research in Spiti, India. Photo: Ranjini Murali.

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