In Conflict with the Cloud Cat

By Divya Kilikar

East of the Caspian Sea, across the landmass that is Central and Northern Asia, lies a unique ecosystem, encompassing stretches of mountains, some the highest in the world. The lack of maritime air makes for an extremely testing climate that moves from parched to freezing as the seasons shift. The terrain is sparse, rugged and unforgiving, characteristics that have protected the undulating desert from much of the reaches of urbanisation. This largely untouched, wild landscape, traversed by few, and sufficiently explored by none, is home to the snow leopard Panthera uncia.

The Capture at Gue

Most elusive of all the big cats, a grave threat looms over Panthera uncia’s future – glaciers are rapidly melting as the treeline creeps higher up its montane habitat. Unpredictable drought and rainfall patterns are throwing its delicate ecosystem off balance. Mercifully, snow leopards are hardy animals capable of tolerating a range of temperatures, but in the shadow of this larger, global crisis falls another little recognised complication.

On May 3, 2020, the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department captured an eight-month-old snow leopard cub that had been driven into a corral. The team had been tracking an adult (later presumed to be the cub’s mother) that had allegedly killed 40 head of livestock in Gue village in the Spiti district and mistakenly caught the cub. The following day, the adult that had been the target was allegedly spotted with a calf kill.

The cub stayed in captivity for the next 16 days. Each day, the likelihood of reuniting it with the mother diminished. “As per government guidelines issued in 2010, we are to carry out a medical examination of rescued wildlife before release,” Dr. Savita, Chief Wildlife Warden of the state said at the time, assuring me that the cub was placed in quarantine with minimal to no human contact.

Fortunately, the story ended well – upon its release, the cub was confirmed to have reunited with its mother. Little damage was done.

Camera traps placed around the spot of the capture of the snow leopard cub at Gue, caught images of the mother, who awaited its return.

Conflict Across Central Asia

Few human settlements dot the cat’s vast range, which is why there is a lack of existing protocol to manage encounters. With help from Koustubh Sharma, Regional Ecologist at the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) in Kyrgyzstan, I attempted to paint a bird’s eye view of human-snow leopard conflict because of livestock depredation across the world.

HIMACHAL PRADESH: “Capturing wild snow leopards is not a common activity in this region,” says Ajay Bijoor, Assistant Programme Head of the Nature Conservation Foundation High Altitudes programme. He suggests that the Gue case was a one-off incident and that captures are an unwelcome challenge for the Forest Department. There’s the trouble of reaching the usually remote location, followed by the cumbersome task of moving the animal safely. The exercise is impractical – even locals are aware that with its territory up for grabs, another individual will simply replace the one that was removed. “That being said, it is not difficult to see where angry herders are coming from. Imagine you wake up one day and find that your source of livelihood has been compromised overnight.”

LADAKH: Nearly all cases of livestock depredation occur in the winter months, when prey is scarce. Between December 2019 and April 2020, the frontline staff of the Department of Wildlife Protection carried out 11 rescue operations of snow leopards that had entered corrals. Siddharth Nair, Landscape Associate of the SECURE Himalaya Project, run by the United Nations Development Programme, narrates one such rescue – on April 25, herders alerted the department of a cat that had entered a corral. The staff arrived at the scene promptly, tranquilised the animal, checked for injury and released it safely at an appropriate location. “I think the situation in Ladakh has improved thanks to measures like the construction of predator-proof corral pens, an activity that should be upscaled significantly across the landscape. Fast-tracking of compensation and community-based livestock insurance programmes may be necessary in mitigating conflict as well,” says Siddharth.

KYRGYZSTAN: The country recorded three illegal captures this year. In January, a wild snow leopard in Talas was shot in the face and caged. The concussed subadult was rescued and taken to a veterinarian in Bishkek, who discovered 70 pellets in its eyes. Another male that was spotted feeding on a calf kill in Emgek Talaa village in Naryn was chased by dogs into a barn, and still remains in captivity, allegedly because of its “old age”. Benazir Kabaeva who works as a Project Assistant at the SLT notes that while captures and retaliatory killing are not widespread in the country, chances of human-wildlife conflict are high when people and snow leopards do interact, and therefore, there is a need for policy changes.

TAJIKISTAN: According to Tatjana Rosen, who had previously worked with Panthera in Central Asia, Tajikistan recorded eight instances of captures by the government due to complaints of livestock depredation between 2019 and 2020! None of the cats have been released back into the wild yet. “This is a disturbing, new trend in the country. Until 2018, there was some emphasis on releasing captured cats. Three years ago, we were able to negotiate the release of a snow leopard that had been captured by a herder, whom we promised the construction of stronger corrals. But now we see the government resorting to captures more often.” Tatjana currently works as a consultant with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

PAKISTAN: Dr. Ali Nawaz, Director of SLT in Pakistan, suggests that in most cases, herders tend to secretly kill the leopards themselves, and these numbers are hard to guess. He estimates four known illegal captures in the last year – one where a snow leopard was killed by herders. He recommends adoption of effective policy changes by the provincial and federal government to manage conflict, and community education on immediate responses. “In one incident, a snow leopard cub was captured by a local community to save the animal because it was young and alone. The cat remains in captivity, now unfit for the wild. However, the media portrays such incidents wrongly, encouraging people to “save” snow leopards they may come across.” he added.

NEPAL: “To the best of our knowledge, retaliatory killings and captures attributed to livestock depredation are not frequent,” says Gopal Khanal, Assistant Conservation Officer at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation in Nepal. Compensation for large livestock losses are offered by the government and several grassroots community conservation committees. These informal committees provide funds for awareness building programmes that have promoted a conservation-friendly attitude. “Generally, herders are supportive of the conservation morale. If snow leopards and people are to coexist, livestock depredation is inevitable. But different measures of mitigation can reduce mass killings. Strategy needs to be employed both at the preventive and corrective levels. And above all, communities need to be encouraged to feel an ownership of their landscape and its ecosystem. In this regard, I feel Nepal is headed in the right direction.”

AFGHANISTAN: Only one capture has been reported in the past one year, according to Wali Modaqiq, Deputy Director General of the National Environment Protection Agency and GSLEP National Focal Point in the country. “The general attitude of the locals toward wildlife conservation is still not entirely supportive, but efforts made by the government and NGOs are slowly beginning to pay off,” he says. On October 25, locals captured a snow leopard that had killed 23 sheep. However, awareness building programmes and follow up processes that have been implemented over recent years proved effective – they released the snow leopard the same day, making it the first such case of release in Badakhshan! While compensation is not provided currently, construction of stronger corrals is offered to herders affected by livestock depredation.

Livestock depredation is the root cause of conflict between snow leopards and humans. In Kyrgyzstan (top right), a subadult was shot in the face and caged. But persistent, sensitive awareness programmes have greatly improved the relationship between locals and the wild species whose habitat they share. In April 2020, when a snow leopard killed their livestock in Ladakh (left), herders called in the authorities, who released the cat into the wild. At one time, the carcass might have been poisoned. In Tajikistan, the release of a captured leopard (above right) was sensitively negotiated, but capture trends are nevertheless on the rise.

A Breach of Ethics

The confinement of a “problem” snow leopard is seen as a quick fix, but results in stress or even injuries to the animal as well as people involved. According to the SLT, captures only fuel conflict. Since wild snow leopards prey on animals much larger than themselves, they are likely to kill livestock when presented the opportunity. If one is removed from the wild every time it kills livestock, populations are sure to be severely affected. Such responses go against conservation ethics, set a harmful precedent among locals who then push for more captures – creating a vicious cycle – and are against the law. Additionally, an individual that has been removed from the wild cannot genetically contribute to its population anymore, points out Koustubh.

A captured cat increasingly becomes unfit for the wild the longer it stays in captivity. It loses its fear of humans, a characteristic vital to preventing contact, and thus conflict. In the case of impressionable cubs that are yet to learn the ways of the wild, the damage a capture can do is tenfold. Wildlife biologist Vidya Athreya who has been working to mitigate human-leopard conflict since 2003 emphasises that hunting and survival skills aside, a mother also teaches her cubs to avoid humans.

All this is not to say that snow leopard-range countries do not understand the ecological value of the species and its associated biodiversity. Cases have been noted where citizens who found themselves in an encounter have wisely avoided direct contact and immediately contacted the appropriate authorities to arrange its release back into the wild.

Evolving a Better System

Leaders and frontline officers in 12 countries where snow leopards roam have requested global conservationists to aid them in allowing the cat to thrive peacefully next to humans. In 2013, they met, forming the Steering Committee, formulated the Bishkek Declaration, and launched the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection (GSLEP) Programme (see box below).

The GSLEP Programme has recommended several immediate responses and policy changes that can encourage a healthier relationship between people and cats. Many records of captures often mention that snow leopards found in corrals were “weak” or “old”, and thus deemed unfit for the wild and taken into captivity. In reality, the cat may simply be exhausted, or even injured, after its multiple kills and attempts to escape. In such cases, they need only time to recover. Moreover, all wildlife is resilient. The best way to help an injured wild animal is to leave it alone and walk away!

Herders must prioritise prevention and keep corrals well-maintained and guarded – keeping the area well-lit, ringing metal bells and placing guard dogs are a few steps recommended by GSLEP. In the case that one does sneak in, herders must act quick and let the animal out, and move the livestock carcass, if any, far away from the corral as the cat may come back to find it. If attacks occur at pastures, herders are advised to stay away from the carcass and switch to a different grazing area for a week or so, as the cats tend to linger close to their kill for several days. In situations where people have trapped a leopard already, it is imperative that its release be prioritised. Community members concerned must be involved on the side-line as professionals manage the release, rather than have the snow leopard simply taken away from them. This is to discourage captures by invoking a sense of responsibility for the animal.

Experts stress that it is vital to ensure the involvement of community leaders in the plan of action. They must be made aware of the dangers of trapping the cats and be present when dealing with such situations to avoid mistrust and build understanding of the morale. Leaders must be eased into the mindset that the entrapment of snow leopards is inappropriate on several levels; not only does it oppose conservation goals, but also threatens the well-being of their people and compromises public health.

Frontline officers and conservationists must keep in mind that every case needs to be treated with the utmost patience, care and sensitivity. Livestock depredation lands a severe blow on the livelihoods of herders, who are likely to be distraught. Government compensation must be fastprocessed, an important factor to promote positive responses and lower cases of retaliatory killing. Spotlighting good behaviour through formal recognition and local media may benefit conservation goals enormously as well.

The assessment of each case must carry the context of promoting conservation-friendly behaviour, well-grounded ethics and research-based action. Humans and snow leopards, wherever their territories may overlap, have been sharing – albeit with little chance of interaction – a landscape for millennia, and are not unaware of one another. In any given case, neither have intentions of disturbing the other. A peaceful coexistence is favourable to both, and certainly achievable, with effort and time.

Spurred into action by the need to mitigate conflict situations and ensure the protection of the species, the Bishkek Declaration on the Conservation of the Snow Leopard was signed by leaders of 12 countries – Mongolia, China, Russia, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan – in 2013. Acknowledging that the snow leopard is an irreplaceable symbol of each nation’s cultural heritage, the Declaration is a set of principles for long-term conservation, emphasising the involvement of human communities to create a sustainable economy.

The Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection (GSLEP) Programme brings together experts from across the world to strategise towards achieving the goals of the Bishkek Declaration. The Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are key partners of GSLEP, which has tasked itself with: engaging local communities in conservation; combating poaching and the illegal trade; helping people and wildlife build climate resilience; engaging industries to ensure that rural development programmes are mindful of conservation; improving coordination between countries; evaluating and mapping populations and habitat through the Population Assessment of the World’s Snow Leopards (PAWS) project; and building capacity and enhancing conservation policies through knowledge exchange.

GSLEP recognises the importance of infrastructure development and natural resource management that can help build climate resilience for local economies. The Programme currently works to create guidelines to empower governments, businesses and communities, drawing inspiration from principles developed by the Green Economy Coalition and the Smart Green Infrastructure in Tiger Conservation Landscapes plan developed by Bhutan.

As human communities move to higher elevations than before on account of climate change, research efforts to understand snow leopard ecology and prey have increased. Susceptibility to disease and genetic makeup is being paid close attention to, given that under a changing climate, exposure to disease may rise. 

 

Sanctuary readers who would like to go beyond this article and keep updated on snow leopard conservation can turn to the following resources:

- Watch 'Gyamo – Queen of the Mountains', a riveting documentary by Riverbank Studios, which follows a snow leopard and her cubs in Ladakh through camera traps.

- Watch a short film by the same father-son duo that created Gyamo, revealing a heartbreaking threat to the cat’s habitat in Ladakh, owing to uncontrolled, irresponsible tourism: 'Ladakh Tourism’s Dirty Secret'. 

- Learn more about GSLEP and its various projects and tasks on their website.

- Read about an inspiring community conservation programme, SHEN.

- Read Koustubh Sharma’s interview in Sanctuary’s June 2017 issue.

- On Instagram, follow @snowleopardtrust and @snowleopardconservancy for conservation news, invites to engaging webinars, and more. 

 


Divya Kilikar is a writer, editor and wildlife enthusiast who focuses on communicating the rationale behind conservation. She is Assistant Editor at Sanctuary Asia.

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