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‘Protecting snow leopards benefits other species’: Q&A with Rinzin Phunjok Lama

Snow leopard at ease in its high-mountain habitat. Image courtesy of Madhu Chetri.

Snow leopard at ease in its high-mountain habitat. Image courtesy of Madhu Chetri.

  • Rinzin Phunjok Lama is an award-winning conservation biologist who studies one of the most elusive big cats in the world: the snow leopard.
  • Based in Nepal’s Trans-Himalayan region, he puts his conservation learnings to practical use, working with local communities to minimize human-wildlife conflict, the main threat to the snow leopard.
  • An evolving threat is climate change, which is pushing other top predators, including leopards and Himalayan black bears, into snow leopard territory, putting them in direct competition for prey. Lama says that while the climate threat is largely out of conservationists’ control, there’s still room to work on the human threat, including helping communities build alternative livelihoods that don’t put them in conflict with snow leopards.

KATHMANDU — Think of big cats in Nepal, and you’ll probably picture a Bengal tiger. And while the country is famous for the Panthera tigris that prowl its southern plains — and for its efforts in doubling their population over the past decade — there’s another, lesser-known, big cat in the country’s north, lurking high in the craggy Trans-Himalayan mountains.

Ask Rinzin Phunjok Lama, and he’ll tell you everything there is to know about the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). Based in Humla, a district on Nepal’s border with Tibet, Lama is a conservation biologist who’s been working in the field since 2014. He’s studied snow leopards for years, and today trains others on how to study them: how to use surveys and camera traps to better their odds of catching a glimpse of this elusive predator at nose-bleeding altitudes.

There are an estimated 300-400 snow leopards in Nepal, out of a global population that’s thought to range from roughly 4,700-8,700. That’s more than the country’s tiger population, at about 250, but you wouldn’t know it going by numbers of live sightings alone.

“Even people working on their conservation see them only once or twice in their careers,” Lama says.

He adds the snow leopard is considered an indicator of a healthy environment: where the apex predator thrives, other species all the way down the food chain also do well. But it faces mounting threats, largely from conflict with humans and climate change. The former stems from the snow leopards preying on livestock, which triggers retaliatory killings. The government maintains a policy of compensating livestock owners for any animals that they lose to snow leopards and tigers.

Lama’s trying to address that human threat vector. In his conservation work, he places the community right up front with the snow leopard; he and his colleagues work with locals to tackle retaliatory killings, poaching, forest fires and illegal logging, and also provide them with training in sustainable livelihoods: gathering honey, making traditional clothes, and running ecotourism businesses.

Lama’s multipronged approach to encourage the community to help conserve the vulnerable snow leopard and build more resilient mountain communities earned him a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2021 and WWF Nepal Conservation Award in 2020.

Rinzin Phunjok Lama. Image courtesy Tashi R. Ghale/ The Third Pole Conservancy

Mongabay’s Abhaya Raj Joshi spoke by phone with Lama about his work, including new research showing that having more wild prey doesn’t stop snow leopards from feeding on livestock, and how climate change is putting the big cat in direct competition with other apex predators. The following interview has been translated from Nepali and edited for clarity.

Mongabay: Could you please describe the findings of your latest study?

Rinzin Phunjok Lama: The main question we wanted to seek answers for was whether the availability of domestic livestock and wild prey [blue sheep, Pseudois nayaur] affected the snow leopard’s abundance and its predation patterns.  We also wanted to assess the effectiveness of different intervention measures in reducing livestock loss to snow leopards.

Mongabay: What were some of the findings of the study?

Rinzin Phunjok Lama: We found that the number of blue sheep and livestock in a given area don’t significantly affect the behavior of snow leopards. This is because in Nepal, the population density of livestock is much higher than wild ungulates in the snow leopard range areas. So, this means that an increase in the number of wild prey doesn’t necessarily lead to a decline in attacks on domestic livestock.

Mongabay: So, based on your research, what are some concrete steps that can be taken right away to minimize snow leopard attacks on domestic livestock?

Rinzin Phunjok Lama: Although we may not be able to totally stop snow leopards from killing domestic livestock, we can definitely minimize the number of animals they kill.

To protect our livestock from snow leopards, we need to take different approaches for different types of livestock. We have found that it’s easier for snow leopards to kill animals such as goats and sheep compared to adult horses or yaks. This means that we need to pay special attention to goats and similar livestock. We have recommended that herders pay close attention to these animals when they are out grazing, and that they avoid places close to broken terrain and cliffs, which are known to be hiding areas for snow leopards. Similarly, people rearing livestock need to build predator-proof corrals to prevent snow leopards from killing animals such as goats and sheep.

Snow leopards are elusive cats roaming the mountains of central and south Asia. Image courtesy of Jampa Phunchok Gurung/ The Third Pole Conservancy

The other step we need to take is to maintain proper and similar habitat for prey animals such as the blue sheep. For example, if we have a lot of blue sheep and a lot of domestic livestock concentrated in one valley, there’s a very high chance that the snow leopards will be attracted to the area. But if their distribution is spatial and wide, there’s less chance of multiple attacks, or it’s less likely to suffer from high predation. For that, we need to work on creating and maintaining suitable habitats for the prey population so that their population is balanced.

Mongabay: In your study, you also state that marmots [Marmota Himalayana] could be possible prey for snow leopards.

Rinzin Phunjok Lama: Marmots usually hibernate during winter. They come out only during the late spring and are available until late autumn. In areas with high marmot density, it has become an important secondary diet for snow leopards in the period between the late spring and late autumn.

Mongabay: Communities living at high altitudes have been rearing livestock for a long time. Do they have any Indigenous knowledge on how to deal with snow leopards? Is it the loss of such knowledge that is resulting in more cases of conflict with humans than before?

Rinzin Phunjok Lama: I don’t think that’s the case. I think that more cases of conflict are now getting attention because of access to information, the proliferation of government offices in every nook and corner of the country. We have always had conflict with snow leopards and there was a lot of revenge killing as there was no punishment for killing the animal in the old days, or people were not aware of the conservation laws and punishment. But as people understand the value of conserving snow leopards, they have developed more positive attitudes toward them compared to other species such as wolves and bears. But mitigating human-wildlife conflict, through a multipronged approach including financial relief and livelihood diversification enterprises, is still important.

In Nepal, it has been difficult to assess the extent of retributive killing, because high mountainous areas are uninhabited, and people, let alone snow leopards, could be killed and no one would know about it for a long time.

Although snow leopards are elusive and even people working on their conservation see them only once or twice in their careers, they are easy to kill after they have eaten. When they feed on prey and get sated, they become incredibly slow and can be killed even by striking with a cane.

Mongabay: How have the communities benefited so far from the government’s compensation scheme?

Rinzin Phunjok Lama: I haven’t seen or heard of anyone in Humla who has claimed compensation for livestock losses caused by snow leopards, as the process is cumbersome and takes a lot of time. The protected area office is responsible for providing compensation for residents living in their vicinity. However, Humla doesn’t fall under a protected area and the division forest office looks after such matters.

A livestock coral in Humla. Image courtesy of Jampa Phunchok Gurung/ The Third Pole Conservancy

Mongabay: You said that the communities, especially those that don’t rear livestock, are positive about protecting snow leopards. Is that because they benefit directly from conservation?

Rinzin Phunjok Lama: We are trying to promote tourism by providing the “snow leopard” experience to tourists. It’s not possible to show them the snow leopards, but we could organize trips where we show them how to follow their trails and set up camera traps. This could bring in much-needed revenue to the local communities. Local experts and conservationists in areas such as Manang and Dolpa have been doing some work in this regard.

Mongabay: In the grassland ecosystem in Nepal’s plains, tigers are considered the umbrella species and conservation activities are focused on them. Our current grassland practices are based on the assumption that if tigers are protected, other species are also protected. Is that also the case with snow leopards in the alpine ecosystem?

Rinzin Phunjok Lama: The main challenge in the developing world is that government funding in conservation is not enough. We need to rely on other sources for such funds. It’s easier to raise funds for iconic and charismatic species such as tigers in the grasslands and snow leopards in the alpine ecosystems. When the snow leopard is protected, it has spillover benefit to other animals in the ecosystem.

Mongabay: Is poaching a challenge for their conservation?

Rinzin Phunjok Lama: In the context of Nepal, I don’t say there is no risk of poaching, but it’s less likely to happen. Human-snow leopard conflict and retribution actions are a more direct threat to snow leopard conservation. Species such as musk deer [Moschus leucogaster] and Himalayan black bears [Ursus thibetanus laniger] are more directly threatened by poaching and illegal trade of body parts. But for snow leopards, the decline in wild prey, habitat loss and fragmentation remain important conservation issues.

Mongabay: It’s been said that the habitat of the common leopard [Panthera pardus], the big cat of the hills, and the snow leopard, the big cat of the mountains, is overlapping due to climate change.

Rinzin Phunjok Lama: Various studies have shown that climate change is having an impact on snow leopards. Forest species such as common leopards and Himalayan bears are competing with snow leopards for food and habitat. As the tree lines shift higher and the glaciers melt due to climate change, the snow leopard’s habitat will further shrink and their food will grow scarcer due to competition with other carnivores being in the same area.

The other threat is that of zoonotic disease. We don’t have studies on how this will impact their population or the population of their prey species such as the blue sheep.

Mongabay: What role do feral dogs play in the transmission of disease?

Rinzin Phunjok Lama: People have reared guard dogs in the mountains for a long time. But as people have moved out in numbers, these dogs turn feral. A study in the Annapurna region of Nepal found that the dogs are infected with canine distemper virus. Although the dogs may not attack snow leopards, they may attack blue sheep and transmit the disease to them, and from there to the snow leopards. Also, dogs attacking prey meant for snow leopards could create disturbances for snow leopards trying to hunt.

Mongabay: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Rinzin Phunjok Lama: Although climate change and its impacts are not under our control, we could adopt animal husbandry practices that minimize the risk of predation. This can be done by becoming aware of the risk and taking measures to mitigate the risk as I outlined earlier. And the other important aspect is educating and raising awareness about the importance of mountain ecosystems and improving people’s understanding, aiming at increasing their tolerance to the snow leopard and promoting coexistence.

Banner Image: Snow leopard at ease in its high-mountain habitat. Image courtesy of Madhu Chetri.

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Filla, M., Lama, R. P., Ghale, T. R., Filla, T., Heurich, M., Waltert, M., & Khorozyan, I. (2022). Blue sheep strongly affect snow leopard relative abundance but not livestock depredation in the Annapurna Conservation Area, Nepal. Global Ecology and Conservation37, e02153. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2022.e02153

‌Li, X., Ma, L., Hu, D., Ma, D., Li, R., Sun, Y., & Gao, E. (2022). Potential range shift of snow leopard in future climate change scenarios. Sustainability14(3), 1115. doi:10.3390/su14031115

Home, C., Bijoor, A., Bhatnagar, Y. V., & Vanak, A. T. (2022). Serosurvey of viral pathogens in free-ranging dog populations in the high altitude Trans-Himalayan region. Journal of Threatened Taxa14(5), 21025-21031. doi:10.11609/jott.7203.14.5.21025-21031

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