Remaining threat

The snow leopard, listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, inhabits the alpine zone of Central Asia, with its main habitat in the Altai, Tian Shan, Kun Lun, Pamir, Hindu Kush, Karakorum, and Himalayan ranges. There are about 2 million square kilometers (770,000 square miles) of suitable snow leopard habitat.

Researchers estimate the total snow leopard population throughout its 13-country range at between 4,000 and 6,600 animals. About 60 percent of the population lives in China, particularly in the heart of the Tibetan Plateau and on the northern slope of the Himalayas.

However, snow leopard expert George Schaller of the New-York based NGOs Panthera and Wildlife Conservation Society writes in his 2016 book Snow Leopards, “such nebulous estimates are not surprising because many mountain ranges have been sampled at only a site or two, and no long-term monitoring of populations, lasting a decade or more, has been done to measure such dynamics as their birth and death rates.”

Between the 1950s and the 1980s, snow leopards suffered from severe poaching for their skin and bones. In 1989, China enacted its first ever Wildlife Protection Law, which categorized the snow leopard as a first class national level protected animal. Under the new law, local governments across the country began confiscating rifles, which contained the illegal poaching of the snow leopard and other wildlife.

Around the same time the government began establishing protected areas that include parts of the snow leopard’s range, such as Xinjiang Tumur Peak National Natural Reserve (established in 1985), Gansu Qilianshan National Natural Reserve (1987), Chang Tang National Natural Reserve in Tibet (1993), and Qinghai Sanjiangyuan National Natural Reserve (2000).

According to an October 2016 report titled An Ounce of Prevention: Snow leopard crime revisited from the UK-based NGO TRAFFIC, despite the fact that “hundreds of the endangered big cats are being killed illegally each year across their range in Asia’s high mountains,” the protection of the species in China is improving, and “the number of snow leopard skins seen openly for sale in markets by researchers has fallen markedly, particularly in China.”

Song Dazhao from the NGO Chinese Felid Conversation Alliance told Mongabay that compared with the other three wild big cat species in China — Amur tiger (Panthera tigris ssp. altaica), leopard, and clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), the snow leopard is the most abundant and enjoys the best living conditions with the fewest human and natural threats.

Over the past 60 years habitat loss and poaching have pushed the other three cat species toward extirpation in China. Snow leopards, on the other hand, have avoided these threats due to their unique habitat in the country’s sparsely populated hinterlands.

Schaller writes of snow leopards “the cat needs landscapes, parts of which consist of protected core areas for all species, and the rest devoted to achieving a measure of ecological harmony between habitat, wildlife, and communities with their livestock.”

The Sanjiangyuan region is a strong example of this landscape approach. However, with climate change, considerable snow leopard habitat may be lost because of an upward shift in the tree line and concomitant loss of the alpine zone.

In addition, illegal poaching, particularly retaliatory and non-targeted poaching, continues to threaten local snow leopard populations in China. According to domestic public media reports, in January 2017 alone, three snow leopards were found in hunters’ traps in Qinghai. A 2014 article in the journal Biological Conservation found via household interviews that 11 snow leopards were killed each year in the Sanjiangyuan region alone, a number equivalent to about 1.2 percent of the estimated snow leopard population there.

Wang Peng, a wildlife film director who recently showed a cut of his new film Saving Snow Leopards at the New York WILD Film Festival in Shanghai, told the Chinese news outlet The Paper that on several occasions he witnessed snow leopards being trapped by Tibetan nomads in retaliation for killing livestock. According to Wang, he has spent over 14,000 Yuan ($20,300) to save five snow leopards from Tibetan nomads in the Sanjiangyuan region and elsewhere.

The number of livestock in the region is increasing, and people have begun herding them in even the most remote areas on the plateau. This has encroached on habitat for wild ungulates, resulting in a shortage of prey for snow leopards. “The biggest challenge facing snow leopards currently is its shrinking territory and reduced food resources caused by overgrazing,” Wang told The Paper.

Conflict resolution

A snow leopard attacks a yak in March 2016. Photo courtesy of Shanshui Conservation Center.
A snow leopard preys on a yak in March 2016. Photo courtesy of Shanshui Conservation Center.

Herders in Sanjiangyuan National Park whom Mongabay interviewed last August all said they had lost livestock to snow leopards and other large carnivores.

Carnivores can indeed impose significant costs on residents of Sanjiangyuan National Park, where pastoralism is the dominant livelihood. One study indicated that wolves (Canis lupus), lynx (Lynx lynx), and snow leopards are the major livestock predators in most parts of the region. However, only sporadic studies on human-snow leopard conflicts have been conducted inside China, so not much is known about how many livestock the cats kill.

Even so it was clear the government needed to step in to ease tensions for the sake of both people and snow leopards in the new park. In 2016, the local government of Zaduo, a county in the upper reaches of the Mekong River, and SCC, the conservation organization, jointly set up a human-carnivore conflict insurance fund. They chose Niandu village inside Sanjiangyuan National Park as a pilot project for the fund.

According to Zhao Xiang from SCC, herders, the local government, and SCC jointly invest in the fund. Each household can choose to pay an annual insurance fee of three Yuan ($0.43) per yak, which amounts to an annual contribution of 25,652 Yuan ($3,719) from the village as a whole. The village elected representatives to serve as auditors for evaluating claims of livestock losses to carnivores. Zhao told Mongabay that the self-governed compensation fund effectively avoids herders making false allegations.

He also said the fund is helping herders avoid losses to carnivores. “According to our study, the period from December to April is normally the peak time for snow leopards preying on livestock. So we recommend that all herders enhance their supervision of their cattle during this particular time of the year,” Zhao said, adding, “positive changes are evident so far.”

Statistics indicate that while Niandu village lost 300 yaks in 2015 and more than 100 yaks in 2016, from January to April of this year only 17 compensation claims were made. At the same time, long-term infrared cameras monitoring wildlife in a roughly 2,000-square-kilometer (770-square-mile) area surrounding Niandu showed that during the past three years the local snow leopard population has held steady at 13 or more individuals.

The success of the human-carnivore conflict insurance fund in Niandu led Sanjiangyuan National Park’s management bureau to expand the program to other communities inside the park. The bureau recently distributed 300,000 Yuan ($43,500) to start insurance funds in other areas.

“The significance of the pilot program of the human carnivore conflict fund in Niandu, in my eyes, is more than pure compensation,” Zhao said. “It is rather an achievement by local indigenous people’s participation and the extension of their own traditional culture.”

“From this, we as researchers can also draw inspiration on how to help humans and wildlife peacefully coexist,” he said.

A snow leopard in the Sanjiangyuan region of China's Qinghai province. Photo courtesy of Shanshui Nature Center.
A snow leopard in the Sanjiangyuan region of China’s Qinghai province, captured by camera trap. Photo courtesy of Shanshui Nature Center.

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Article published by Rebecca Kessler
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