Ladakh News

Conserving snow leopards in Ladakh

By Morika Hensley, Stawa 12-18


For an elusive animal, it is difficult to travel or live in Ladakh without being influenced by the near-mythical snow leopard. They appear in photos plastered to shop windows, on the hood of army vehicles, on remote Ladakhi mountain passes, and inside livestock corrals. They are everywhere and yet nowhere. For many foreigners like me, the opportunity to see a snow leopard in the wild, or to even know that they live here, is an unbelievably special feeling. Conversely, for many villagers such sightings can be ordinary and even annoying. Snow leopards attract important tourism revenue but also cause destruction and economic loss when they kill livestock. As the human population in Ladakh continues to grow and change, a "middle ground" is needed to conserve snow leopards.

Fortunately, Ladakh is blessed not only with an abundance of snow leopards but also with innovative and passionate conservation organisations that are helping craft innovative solutions. I had an opportunity to learn about some of these solutions when I collaborated with Snow Leopard Conservancy-India Trust (SLC-IT) in 2015.

Snow leopards are found in 12 Asian countries, primarily China, Mongolia, and India. The entire area is undergoing rapid cultural, ecological and developmental changes that are causing environmental disruption. Though the snow leopard was recently downgraded from 'Endangered' to 'Vulnerable' on the IUCN Red List, its ongoing survival remains tenuous. Population estimates range from 4,000 to 10,000 wild snow leopards. Although snow leopards are difficult to spot, they shape ecosystems as apex predators—influencing behaviour of other species in ways that have a ripple effect. They are also a `flagship species' and charismatic animals that can excite local and international communities to protect landscapes for biodiversity conservation. Unfortunately, snow leopards are not always at the receiving end of human conservation efforts and are famous for 'extreme killing sprees' in which it can kill up to 200 heads of livestock in a single night. In order to prevent such horrifying losses, many herders resort to retaliatory killing of snow leopards. In addition to livestock depredation, snow leopard bones and pelts fetch a high price in the black market. People thus have an incentive to kill snow leopards, which increases the challenge of conserving them.

Fortunately, poaching and retaliatory killing in Ladakh are not very common, thanks in part to the region's culture and in part to the campaigns by governmental agencies and NGOs. One such NGO is SLC-IT, which was started in 2001 by Rinchen Wangchuk. It has pioneered many innovative initiatives such as livestock insurance schemes, predator-proof livestock corrals, homestays, and environmental education in schools and monasteries. SLC-IT also works with non-local students, volunteers, and scholars. This was how I was able to conduct a small study in Ladakh about patterns of livestock depredation by snow leopards. Although Ladakhi society is changing rapidly, many residents still depend on agro-pastoralism. It is therefore extremely detrimental to people and snow leopards when livestock are lost to predators. So the important question was to find a way to reduce livestock depredation and ensure that all Ladakhis benefit from tourism.

Fundamentally, solutions require data. Snow leopard behaviour and ecology remain largely unknown even in Ladakh despite it being a hub for snow leopard research since the 1990s. The big cats remain incredibly difficult to study. Nevertheless, each new research effort provides small pieces to our overall knowledge of snow leopards. Ladakh remains an ideal location for study due to its continuity with the rest of the snow leopard's range, relatively high avalablity of wild prey, ideal habitat conditions, and low rates of poaching. While in some places snow leopards have territories as large as 600 sq kms, in Ladakh they seem to live in smaller spaces though this needs to be verified. This ensures that studies are more efficient and sightings more likely. However, a higher density of snow leopards also makes such studies more urgent due to potential conflict with people. The objective of my research project was to understand patterns of livestock depredation by snow leopards, identify potential socio-ecological correlates of depredation, and contribute to current knowledge of snow leopard distribution in Ladakh.

Over three months in summer 2016, my colleague Jigmet and I visited 12 villages in Sham and Rong valleys. We selected the villages in three "survey blocks" based on a coarse scale of terrain ruggedness, defined as the product of slope and brokenness on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). Since snow leopards are known to occur in very steep, rocky areas, we designed the study to explore if livestock depredation was also related to ruggedness of terrain at two scales. In each village we walked four, one kilometre-transects in areas such as canyons and ridge lines that have the highest probability of snow leopard presence to record any sign (tracks, scat, scrapes, kills) of their presence. We also scanned the area for four hours with a spotting scope (two, one-hour sessions in the morning and two, one-hour sessions at night) for evidence of wildlife presence. Finally, we interviewed five households in each village about livestock losses and husbandry practices in the preceding two years. Before each interview, we explained the study and received verbal consent from our participants to record their data. After 48 days in the field and covering 600 kms on foot, I returned to Leh and then to my university to analyse the data.

Although time and budget constraints limited the size and scope of our study, our data yielded notable results. The 59 household interviews recorded a total live-stock ownership number of 1,170, of which 231 were lost or killed in 2014 and 2015. Of these 231, 88 heads of livestock were killed by snow leopards, which equates to an average depredation rate of 7.5% across all villages (38.1% of total loss) and an estimated 5.2% per capita income loss. Of the livestock killed by snow leopards, 66% were killed inside corrals, and 83% were sheep and goat.

While this seems like a daunting number, depredation of live-stock in corrals can be prevented easily with predator-proof corral ceilings. Already SCL-IT and other Ladakhi NGOs are working to distribute such predator-proof innovations. Interestingly, livestock depredation was neither related to signs of snow leopard presence nor to terrain ruggedness. The most significant socio-ecological factor seems to be the size of the livestock herd. This means that the risk of snow leopard depredation is directly correlated with increased herd size. The presence of a snow leopard, however, does not appear to be directly related to whether livestock are at increased risk of depredation. While the patterns are not clear enough to make definitive conclusions, it will be interesting to explore how these findings relate to rapidly shrinking herd sizes in 'Ladakh. Hopefully, an unintended benefit is fewer losses to snow leopards and an increased capacity for coexistence through land-sharing'.

Ladakh is an incredibly complex socio-ecological system, with several other predators including snow leopards. Ladakhi society is changing quickly, which is also evident in herding and conservation practices too. The main task is to find ways to effectively monitor all relevant factors and stakeholder groups in the region. The snow leopard needs immense swaths of land to survive. Even when the habitat is ideal; it ends up sharing space with other predators and people. Local villagers and herders cannot be forced to bear the burden if they are to coexist with snow leopards.

If we are to promote coexistence, we need to collect consistent and high quality data. Ladakh is a very remote land where data collection and conservation is expensive and difficult, and requires collaboration between various stakeholders including government agencies, NGOs, researchers, managers, and local people. By encouraging and increasing local involvement in data collection and management through "citizen science", more people can feel invested in the conservation process. Also, this is the most efficient way to collect datasets that are large enough to be scientifically and practically significant. Deciding how to care for our natural surroundings — including the snow leopard, the crown jewel of the mountains — is a task we must all share.