Our work

Mountains have always been a refuge for biodiversity including many remarkable animals and plants. Until now, the rugged landscapes, high altitude and inaccessibility of these regions have provided shelter from significant human influence. Yet this situation is changing fast. About 16% of the world’s human population now lives in mountain regions, and human population growth is similar to that of coastal areas.  Mountains are also home to rich natural resources including minerals, and perhaps most importantly, water, all of which are increasingly exploited.

Globally, around 1 million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction, driven by our actions. According to the latest assessment from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), climate change now ranks as the third most important threat to biodiversity.

While the global temperatures have risen by an average of 0.7oC since 1980, many mountain regions have experienced much higher temperature increases. The melting and retreat of mountain glaciers is just the most visible of a series of changes which mountain regions are now undergoing. The accelerated impacts of climate change on mountain biodiversity and terrestrial species was also recently confirmed in the IPCC Special report on Oceans and Cryosphere.

The Vanishing Treasures programme is tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis in three mountain regions home to iconic and endangered species – Central Asia (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan), Bhutan, and the Virungas (Rwanda/Uganda).

In seeking to conserve these iconic species, this acts as an umbrella approach to conserve the wider mountain habitats and landscapes, including the prey species, whilst also strengthening the resilience of the mountain communities living there.

These regions differ significantly in terms of their settings and issues. However, the programme follows a similar approach in order to establishing a solid knowledge base:

  • To increase and generate new knowledge of both the direct and in-direct impacts of climate change on these iconic mountain species, their habitats (including within and beyond protected areas), and related species including their prey;
  • To understand both current and potential risks of climate change to local communities living in close proximity to these species & their habitats;
  • To understand how species’ and human communities’ responses to climate change may interact and possibly lead to an escalation in human-wildlife conflict.

Once this knowledge base is acquired, “Vanishing Treasures” will work hand-in-hand with protected area authorities, local communities and national governments as well as through regional bodies where relevant:

  • To integrate climate-smart measures into conservation planning, including ecological connectivity measures to take into account shifting & changing habitats and other changes as a result of climate change;
  • To pilot ecosystem-based adaptation and other measures to increase communities’ resilience to climate change and to promote alternative livelihoods options that reduce or diversify the dependence on natural resources such as water that species also depend on;
  • To pilot specific measures to reduce human-wildlife conflict.

The Virungas, Central Asia, and Bhutan are pilot regions for the Vanishing Treasures programme, and are intended not only to deliver positive change on the ground, but also serve as test cases and examples for other mountain regions.

Through the experience gained at the national and regional levels, the Vanishing Treasures programme will also seek to raise awareness and knowledge of the linkages between climate change and biodiversity/wildlife at the international level. This includes engaging through the Post-2020 global biodiversity framework process to support further policy change for the benefit of mountain biodiversity globally.

In doing so, the programme is working closely with the scientific community represented through the Mountain Research Initative (MRI), the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA) and others.

The approach in Bhutan is centred around data collection, capacity building and implementing on-the-ground solutions. The programme will inter alia work to identify knowledge gaps through the collection of baseline information on tiger distribution and population; prey abundance and/or occupancy: Habitat suitability modelling for tiger and its prey; Monitor human-tiger conflict rates and perceptions; Vegetation and rangeland use to identify potential patterns of climate driven shifts in habitat quality and productivity to identify potential vulnerabilities under future climate scenarios.

The programme will contribute to the set-up of a training and education center at the Bhutan Tiger Centre to raise awareness about the tiger and its threats. Vanishing Treasures is also expected to equip government officials and local partners with the tools and methods to mainstream EbA and climate smart wildlife conservation into (landscape) planning with a particular focus on tigers. The programme will, in collaboration with local communities, implement ecosystem-based solutions (e.g. water provision) and improve ecological connectivity in 2 designated Vanishing Treasures programme areas. Activities will include the restoration of tiger habitats (mainly grasslands), the installation of small-scale bio-gas digesters to reduce forest destruction, the provision of low-voltage electric fencing for agricultural land and providing improved cattle breeds and feed and fodder varieties to farmers.

Despite being the subject of significant academic research, knowledge gaps remain on the impact of climate change on mountain gorillas and surrounding human communities. While there is no evidence of direct impact of climate change on mountain gorillas as of yet, there are many secondary impacts. A warmer and wetter climate with more erratic rainfall and longer dry spells is already severely impacting the communities living in close vicinity to gorilla habitat. For example, people enter the park in search of drinking water and this causes disturbance and increases the risk of disease transmission. Dwindling natural resources, high human population densities and an increasing number of gorillas (many of whom are habituated to humans) leads to more human – wildlife conflicts.

Vanishing Treasures will work to better understand the diverse impacts of climate change on communities, gorillas and their habitats, as well as current and possible future vulnerabilities and responses. Programme activities will include measures to reduce human-wildlife conflict, as well as sustainable buffer zone and land management. The ultimate objective is to ensure the co-existence of people and wildlife in these times of rapid climate and environmental change.

In the immediate term, a more complete understanding of the current distribution and abundance of snow leopards, prey species as well as habitat productivity and human land use patterns will be achieved through a combination of field surveys and remote sensing. This information will be combined with climate models to understand current and potential future habitat suitability, including potential climate-driven shifts in snow leopard and prey distributions, as well as habitat and pasture quality and their spatial and seasonal use patterns. Studies on human-wildlife conflict rates and perceptions within the pilot areas, along with assessment of communities’ vulnerability to climate change, will also be undertaken.

This new knowledge will then be used to implement pilot solutions on the ground, working hand in hand with local communities and wildlife conservancies, protected area authorities and government, with the aim to reduce human-wildlife conflict, sustainably manage pasture resources, and reduce communities’ vulnerability to climate change.