Because the main threat is from poaching, the message is: it is worth protecting the rare cats.
Twenty-five years after the first snow leopards were radio collared in Nepal and serious efforts to save this secretive cat began, environmentalists are encouraged by its comeback. There are now as many as 500 snow leopards in the 22,000 sq km of eight protected nature reserves in the Nepal Himalaya-nearly one tenth of the total world population.
Snow leopards are found at elevations of 3,000-5,400 m in the Himalaya and 900-3,000 m in Central Asia, Mongolia and Russia, but it is in Nepal that they have the highest density. "Mugu is the snow leopard capital of the world," declares Rodney Jackson, the world's most famous snow leopard expert.
It was Jackson who, with Nepali researcher Karan Shah between 1983 and 1985, radio-collared five snow leopards (three males and two females) in Dolpo to study their range, feeding and breeding habits. The wealth of data collected helped environmentalists figure out where interventions were needed to save this elusive and exotic cat.
Raising money was easy. Something as cuddly and mysterious as a snow leopard is made to be a mascot for environmental protection-almost as successful as the giant panda. Snow leopard conservation therefore was soon well-endowed with generous grants from foundations like National Geographic Society, and Jackson also got the Rolex Enterprise Award for further work.
Today the Langu Valley of the Shey-Phoksundo National Park in Dolpo has as many as 12 snow leopards per 100 sq km, one of the highest densities in the world. The figure for Manang is about seven per 100 sq km, and other protected areas of Nepal have about one snow leopard for every 200 sq km. Since 1973, snow leopards have been protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and in Nepal also the animal is fully protected under Nepal's National Park and Wildlife Conservation (NPWC) Act.
Despite the conservations successes, people in the high mountain areas of Nepal, Tibet and Central Asia have traditionally looked at the snow leopard as a pest that kills sheep and other livestock. So the first instinct of highland farmers is to kill the animal if they see it. Lately, the astronomical prices that snow leopard pelts command in the international market have given an added incentive to farmers who sell the fur to middlemen who come by. Despite an international campaign against wearing fur of endangered species, the trade is thriving.
A farmer in Mugu sells a complete snow leopard pelt for as little as Rs 800-little knowing what kind of a markup it will have by the time it gets to Hong Kong. If the Mugu farmer can take his pelt across the border into Tibet, he can get $190 for the same item. After cleaning, processing and cutting, the fur of one snow leopard can have a street value of as much as $50,000 in East Asia or North America. Such prices make the trade much more lucrative than even narcotics. Just like for the tiger on Nepal's southern border, there is a demand for just about every part of the snow leopard in traditional Chinese medicine. Snow leopard liver, heart, kidney and bone are supposed to be key ingredients in Chinese traditional aphrodisiac potions. So, besides the fur, the Mugu farmer also barters the bones and dried internal organs of snow leopard with sheep from Tibetan traders.
In Nepal, the fourth amendment of the 1973 NPWC Act has set stiff penalties for buying and selling of snow leopard parts ranging from Rs 50,000-100,000 or 5-15 years in prison, or both. But lax enforcement of this law, corruption and the huge rewards for trafficking have meant that the illicit trade goes on. Though there is no exact figure on the poaching numbers, it is estimated that about six snow leopards are killed in Nepal every year by poachers, mostly in western Nepal. "It's not easy for people who lose their livestock to snow leopards," explained Jackson while presenting a slide show at Indigo Gallery this week.
"Reducing people and wildlife conflict is the best approach," says Jackson, who is also director of the Snow Leopard Stewardship Programme of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, an organisation that aims at protection through tighter community-based action to save the animals.
The Programme chooses sites based on their importance to snow leopards, and alpine biodiversity and where there is a history of livestock depredation. Pilot projects for snow leopard protection with community action are underway in Ladakh and the Annapurna Conservation Area in Nepal. Other sites under consideration include the South Gobi region in Mongolia, the Khunjerab National Park and the Baltistan area in Pakistan and the Qomolungma National Nature Preserve north of Mt Everest in China.
At present there are various organisations focusing on the conservation of the snow leopard in Nepal. In 1999 the Snow Leopard Conservancy in collaboration with the Annapurna Area Conservation Trust organised the first training for park officials in the Dolpo region. "The park people and the park staff are the most important people. They would be the best motivators and conservationists if trained well," says Jackson.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has identified five major threats against snow leopards from human causes: poaching, loss of natural prey, predatory killing, degradation of habitat, and lack of support and awareness among local people. Poaching remains the most common threat as it not only destroys the cat's population but also its food supply: Himalayan blue sheep, Asiatic ibex, marmot, pika, hares, rodents and game birds like Tibetan snowcock.
"A snow leopard attacks livestock only when it can't find anything else to eat. Vilagers don't know that: they kill off wild sheep and other prey, and that causes the conflict with the cats," says Anil Manandhar of WWF in Kathmandu.
Jackson's project aims to help highland villagers to make leopard-proof corrals for livestock and to help with education. "We have to help villagers benefit from protecting the leopards by training them to use their indigenous practices scientifically," he told us. The slogan for saving the snow leopard is similar to the one used to protect whales: "Snow leopards are worth more alive than dead."
Because the snow leopard's range traverses international boundaries, conservation efforts have to plan for conservation without borders. Proposed transboundary nature reserves like the tri-national park planned for the Kangchendzonga area would help in protecting the snow leopard. "The concept of trans-boundary protected areas will enhance the mobility and breeding of the leopards," says Jackson.
(For further information check out: www.south-asia.com/wwfnepal, IUCN Cat Specialist Group www.felidae.org, International Snow Leopard Trust: www.snowleopard.org/islt, HMG Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation www.south-asia.com/dnpwc)