A new study[i] by the Snow Leopard Trust and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) reveals a disturbing link between the cashmere trade and the decay of ecosystems that support snow leopards and their natural prey.
The cashmere trade has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry in the last decades. To support global demand for the luxurious lightweight goat hair, local herders across Mongolia, India and China’s Tibetan Plateau have significantly increased livestock production. In Mongolia alone, numbers of domestic goats have grown consistently, from 5 million heads in 1990 to close to 14 million in 2010.
Goats from this region produce high-quality fibers that, when processed into cashmere, are highly sought by western consumers. With 90 percent of the world’s cashmere emanating from China and Mongolia, the vast highlands and open spaces that once were populated by wild ungulates and snow leopards are increasingly dominated by domestic goats and other livestock.
This growth in livestock is increasing the threats to endangered mammals in Central Asia such as the saiga (Saiga tartarica), chiru (Pantholops hodgsoni), native wild horses (Equus ferus przewalskii), ibex (Capra sibirica), argali (Ovis ammon) and bharal (Pseudois nayaur). Domestic goats compete with these native herbivores for the same plant food source. Ultimately, the population of wild sheep and goats determines the population of the snow leopard. As the wild prey of the snow leopard is outcompeted by livestock, the snow leopard loses ground.
The wild mammals are also suffering from a reduction in their range and displacement to marginal habitats and risk being killed by feral and domestic dogs that accompany the herders. Human-animal conflict is also on the increase as livestock and large carnivores such as the endangered snow leopard interact more, leading to retaliatory killings by herders.
“Cashmere production is a complicated human issue. Understandably, indigenous herders are trying to improve their livelihoods, but the short-term economic gain is harming the local ecosystem”, explains Charu Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science and Conservation Director and a co-author of the study.
“The consequences are dramatic and negative for iconic species that governments have signed legislation to protect, yet the wildlife is continually being squeezed into a no-win situation,” says lead author Joel Berger, a biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society and professor at University of Montana. “Herders are doing what we would do – just trying to improve their livelihoods, and who can blame them?”
Rather than blaming herders (or anyone else), the authors of the study recommend involving Western consumers, the garment industry and local communities in conservation efforts. “I care about the snow leopard but I also genuinely care about those people and their livelihoods. The solution is about empowering them”, Charu Mishra, the 2005 recipient of the prestigious international ‘green Oscar’ for conservation, the Whitley Award, told British newspaper “the Guardian” in an interview. “You don’t have to preach, people inherently see the value.”
The purpose of the study is to raise awareness among western consumers about the origins of cashmere and its growing impact on wildlife. The authors suggest that the study should serve as the beginning of a dialogue among the garment industry, cashmere herders, and conservationists to address and mitigate these impacts.
“By improving our understanding of the relationship between indigenous herders, local ecology and global markets, we can implement policies at the national and international level which are better designed to protect biodiversity while supporting the livelihoods of local communities”, Charu Mishra explains.
The alternative scenario is rather dire: “In the absence of commitment across global and local scales, the iconic wildlife of the world’s highest mountains and great steppes will cease to persist as they have for millennia. Rather than serving as symbols of success, these species will become victims of fashion,” says Peter Zahler, WCS Deputy Director for Asia Programs.
[i]Joel Berger, Bayarbaatar Buuveibaatar and Charudutt Mishra: Globalization of the Cashmere Market and the Decline of Large Mammals in Central Asia. Conservation Biology, Volume 27, Issue 4 Pages 643 – 894, i – i, August 2013.
This study was supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Snow Leopard Trust, Trust for Mutual Understanding, National Geographic Society, Whitley Fund for Nature, and the British Broadcasting Company Wildlife Fund.