23 October 2021

Healthy mountain pastures key to snow leopard conservation in Central Asia

Snow leopards will never attack livestock if there is diverse wildlife in the area.There will always be enough food for wild animals if humans do not interfere.

Isa Dotaliev,
Herder in Kochkor District in northern-central Kyrgyzstan

Future-proofing snow leopard habitat is a complex, multi-player task. Snow leopards need prey to survive. Their prey, usually wild grazers, need mountain pastures to thrive. And local people, in turn, depend on the same mountain pastures for their livestock. Overgrazing by livestock, however, degrades pastures, upsetting the ecological balance.

This is a conundrum that the Vanishing Treasures programme – led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and working with partners in Kyrgyzstan (Snow Leopard Trust and Ilbirs Foundation) and Tajikistan (Association of Nature Conservation Organisations of Tajikistan – ANCOT) and local communities – is trying to resolve by creating the conditions for human-snow leopard coexistence.

As with many other mountain ecosystems where the elusive snow leopard lives, the fauna and flora of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too and the Tajik Pamir mountains are threatened by climate change, but also human activities, mainly livestock rearing, as well as poaching, infrastructure development and mining.

Mountain pasture degradation and human-wildlife interactions

When livestock like cattle, goats, and sheep graze high mountain pastures, they compete for food with wild grazers like ibex, argali sheep, and marmots which are an important food source for snow leopards.

Zairbek Kubanychbekov,
Director of  Ilbirs Foundation in the Kyrgyz Republic

Such intense grazing pressure on pastureland can cause pasture degradation and lead to a decline in snow leopard prey populations. Illegal killing of prey species further contributes to this decline. The expected effects of reduced prey availability for snow leopards are twofold: snow leopard populations decline and the risk of snow leopards turning to livestock for food increases. This means that snow leopards are at increased risk of being killed by herders in retaliation.

However, this is a simplified view. The precise causes of human-wildlife conflict are difficult to pinpoint.

Argali sheep in the Tajik Pamir mountains during a field survey of snow leopard prey species in 2021 ANCOT@tajwildlife/UNEP

The interactions between prey, snow leopards, and livestock depredation are really complex. Increasing the prey base can help increase the snow leopard populations, making them more resilient to climate change impacts. However, several studies have shown that an increased presence of snow leopards may result in increased livestock depredation. Hence, to achieve a lasting conservation effect, measures to increase prey populations need to be accompanied by measures to help local communities to reduce the chances of livestock depredation and cope when depredation occurs.

Ranjini Murali,
Conservation scientist at the Snow Leopard Trust

Some local community members agree that successful coexistence of humans and wildlife is partially the responsibility of the community. Livestock keepers should take measures such as strengthening corrals to protect their animals from depredation. Sharob Hotamov, deputy chairman of community-based wildlife conservancy Guldara, in the village of Kudara in Tajikistan, uses an old Tajik proverb to describe it:

“Darvozata makhkam gang khamsoyata duzd nabaror”, which translates to “Strengthen and close your gates and do not accuse your neighbour of stealing.”

Climate change impacts

The threats to mountain species and ecosystems arising from human activities are further complicated by the changing climate. Mountain landscapes are feeling the impacts of a warming planet sooner and with greater intensity than other areas of the world.

Scientists have predicted warmer temperatures in the Vanishing Treasures programme areas.

Projections confirm overall warming. Higher temperature increases are expected in summers and autumns (up to 3°C warmer by 2070 than in 1981-2010) with reduced precipitation especially in the Kyrgyzstan focus area, which could lead to longer and more intense droughts.

The spring melt of winter snow will set in earlier, increasing water availability in spring, but decreasing it in the following months. Winters will warm less and will see increased precipitation, which might lead to higher snowfall.

Increases in intense precipitation events are expected by 2070 as well.

Crespi and Tatiana Klisho,
Eurac Research

Rangers of the Tajik National Park – a UNESCO world heritage site – interviewing herders about land use patterns during a snow leopard survey expedition in the Balandkiik valley in eastern Tajikistan. Photo: ANCOT@tajwildlife/UNEP

How will this impact snow leopards, snow leopard habitat and the communities that live there? The impacts on ecosystems and livelihoods are difficult to predict. The Vanishing Treasures team fears that areas where mountain pastures are overgrazed by livestock are more prone to desertification and being washed away by floods and mudslides caused, for example, by glacial lake outbursts.

Also, with rising temperatures, mountain pastures may creep up the slopes, sometimes prompting herders to drive their livestock higher up the mountains in search of fodder. Not only may this increase grazing competition between livestock and wildlife, but it could also bring livestock closer to snow leopards, increasing the risk of predation and retaliatory killing of snow leopards.

We cannot counteract all potential impacts of climate change on the distribution and quality of pastures. Grazing areas may shift, but in every scenario, a restored, healthy mountain pasture will be more likely to withstand climate change impacts for longer. The resilience of societies to climate change impacts is inherently linked to the resilience of the ecosystems that these societies depend on. Ecosystem-based adaptation solutions simultaneously increase the resilience of ecosystems and societies.

Maarten Hofman,
Wildlife expert with UNEP

Pasture management and diversification of livelihoods

The Vanishing Treasures programme is working to restore mountain pastures in line with the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030. Restoring mountain pastures not only increases their resilience for livestock grazing through higher forage quality and longer persistence of grazing areas, it also reduces the risk of landslides impacting communities. Improving pasture management is thus one key element of a potential response but is challenging.

The exact number of livestock that villagers take to the pastures is often unknown and coordinating pasture management requires collaboration between pasture committees, statistics committees, and veterinarians.

Snow leopard photographed by a camera trap during a systematic population survey in the Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountains. Photo: Ilbirs Foundation/UNEP

We strongly believe that with an accurate livestock survey, it will be easier to plan pastures during summer and winter grazing seasons.

Kenzhebek Shamshiev,
Pasture committee member from Suusamyr district in Kyrgyzstan

Second, diversification of local communities’ livelihoods may reduce dependence on livestock and help significantly with the restoration of mountain pastures. The higher biodiversity achieved through restoration may indeed provide better chances for ecosystem-based livelihoods. For example, the presence of wild animals in their native habitat can boost local economies through ecotourism – this was certainly the case with mountain gorillas in Africa, in the Virunga mountains, until COVID-19 struck. Ecotourism, beekeeping, long-term cash crops (e.g. berries or nuts), or the sustainable harvesting of wild resources including medicinal plants or fruits (e.g. for sea buckthorn juice and oil) can all contribute to people’s livelihoods, and reduce dependency on livestock in mountain communities.

In 2020 and 2021, Vanishing Treasures partners in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have been working with several households in more than 10 communities in both countries to identify their herding practices and gather ideas and opinions on potential options to diversify livelihoods through ecosystem-based adaptation and climate-smart wildlife management. Practical restoration activities are set to begin by the end of 2021.

If we help people to start more profitable types of business, they would give up livestock breeding. Beekeeping and tourism would be the best options in our area.

Bolot Bagymbaev,
from Toktogul District in western Kyrgyzstan

Conserving snow leopards and their habitat is about restoring and/or maintaining the ecological balance in mountain ecosystems.

To achieve this, we need ideas for measures to accomplish this on the ground such as the ones above, but we also need policies and regulations to guide the implementation of these measures. For example, regulations are needed to determine water use for agriculture, set harvest quotas for wild resources, and control the extent of tourism infrastructure developments.

Maarten Hofman,
Wildlife Expert with UNEP

In the end, ecosystem-based adaptation must benefit local communities for it to be effective in helping to preserve mountain ecosystems.

International Snow Leopard Day

International Snow Leopard Day on 23 October is an opportunity to raise awareness of the symbiotic relationship between the snow leopard, wild grazers, pastureland, and human livelihoods.

In seeking to contribute to this endeavour, the Vanishing Treasures programme has also produced an immersive VR experience that takes the viewer on an expedition to the snow leopards and their habitat in Central Asia. The full-length film will be released soon. Watch the teaser now:

Vanishing Treasures is funded by the Government of Luxembourg.