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With climate change, Nepal’s leopards get a bigger range — and more problems

A leopard cub on a tree branch.

A leopard cub on a tree branch. Image by Ali Arsh via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

  • Climate change will make higher-elevation areas of Nepal suitable habitat for leopards, a new study shows.
  • This is expected to push the big cats into increased conflict with humans and more competition with snow leopards.
  • Most of the current and new habitat will fall outside protected areas, and the leopards’ preferred prey may not be available there, which could prompt the predators to hunt livestock.
  • But the finding could also be an opportunity to conserve leopards in their potential new habitat, by educating communities there, ensuring availability of wild prey, and drawing up wildlife management plans.

KATHMANDU — Climate change is likely to expand the habitat of leopards in the Nepal’s high mountain regions, potentially increasing conflict with humans and competition with snow leopards, a new study suggests.

As the planet heats up, the mean winter temperature, the amount of total rainfall and the timing of the rains are likely to change in the region, favoring the northward expansion of habitat that’s suitable for leopards, it says.

“But its preferred prey species such as barking deer and wild boars may not be available in its new habitat,” says study lead author Kedar Baral, from the Pokhara Division Forest Office in Nepal. “This might lead to conflict with the local communities as leopards attack their domestic livestock for food,” he added.

Leopards (Panthera pardus) are a threatened species categorized as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. In Nepal, they often come into conflict with humans in rural communities, especially in the middle hills region. In the district of Tanahun here, 11 children were killed in encounters with leopard in the space of four years leading to fears that retaliatory killings may be taking a toll on their population.

A leopard.
The population of leopards throughout Asia and Africa is declining and becoming increasingly isolated. Image by Srikaanth Sekar via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

It’s a similar picture for the species throughout its range in Asia and Africa, where populations are declining and becoming increasingly isolated. Leopards have disappeared from many areas where they were once common, according to the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority. It attributes this decline to the expansion of human settlements leading to fragmentation of their habitats, along with the illegal wildlife trade, overhunting for ceremonial use of their skins, declines in prey populations, and poorly managed trophy hunting. Between 1975 to 2000, 57% of potential leopard habitat globally was converted to agricultural land.

“In the context of Nepal, that the conflict is centralized in the middle hills also suggests that conditions in the high mountains and hills of Nepal are not suitable for leopards at the moment,” said Baral, whose team visited division forest offices and national parks across the country to collect data on the presence of leopards between 2018 and 2020. They then verified the location of leopard sightings by consulting with local people and recorded 343 locations for the study.

“We can expect to see an increase of around 10% in the area of land in the higher mountains where leopards may survive in the future,” Baral said.

The team used the data to prepare a model to describe the presence of leopards in Nepal and potential change in habitat in 2050 and 2070 based on shared socioeconomic pathways (SSPs), a set of scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that describe different possible futures based on different assumptions about how societies will develop and respond to climate change.

Of the 10 variables used in the model based on the IPCC’s SSP2-4.5 and SSP5-8.5 scenarios, elevation, winter mean temperature, annual rainfall, and rainfall variability were found to have the most effect on the habitat suitability of the big cats.

The model indicated that common leopards prefer a winter mean temperature of around 10-15° Celsius (50-59° Fahrenheit) and yearly rainfall of more than 3,500 millimeters (138 inches) spread evenly across the year. “These conditions are partially met in the higher mountains in a warmer climate,” Baral said.

Terrace cultivation in Nepal.
Most of the current and new habitat will fall outside protected areas, and the leopards’ preferred prey may not be available there, which could prompt the predators to hunt livestock. Image by Bryan_T via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

The study notes that this availability of habitat in higher altitudes could push the leopards into increased competition with snow leopards (Panthera uncia), a species whose own habitat is shifting southward due to climate change.

“As the common leopard can easily adapt to new habitats, they might push the snow leopards to the fringes just as the tigers push leopards to the fringes in Nepal’s lowlands,” says Bikram Shrestha, a snow leopard researcher who wasn’t involved in the leopard study.

The model also indicates that most of the new habitat as well as the current habitat falls outside of the network of protected areas in Nepal: only 13% of highly suitable habitat, 10% of suitable habitat, and 21% of marginally suitable habitat for leopards fall inside protected areas, with the rest overlapping with nonprotected forests and agricultural land. “We see that communities looking after the forests are focused on management of timber alone, and their operational plans don’t include measures to deal with wildlife such as common leopards,” Baral said.

The other side of the story is that leopards have a better chance of survival in Nepal than in most other range countries as climate change expands their habitat range here.

“That gives us an opportunity to save this globally threatened species, if we take the right approach,” Baral said. “First of all, we need to ensure that people in these prospective habitats are aware of the importance of conservation, and then make sure that leopards have enough wild prey to eat so that they don’t attack domestic livestock. We also need to encourage community forests to include wildlife management in their operational plans.”

Shashank Poudel, a fellow Nepali leopard researcher and doctoral candidate at Cornell University in the U.S., said he broadly agrees with the findings of the study led by Baral, in which he was not involved. Poudel, who is studying leopards in the Chitwan-Annapurna landscape in Nepal with the help of camera traps, said various studies point to the habitats of several species being altered due to climate change, with leopards no exception.

“The study provides a trailer for what’s going on,” Poudel told Mongabay.

“However, to reach definite conclusions, I would like to see more rigorous studies in terms of data collection and methodology,” he added. “The study would have yielded better results if systematic surveys were used rather than relying on data from secondary sources.”

Banner image: A leopard cub on a tree branch. Image by Ali Arsh via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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Baral, K., Adhikari, B., Bhandari, S., Kunwar, R. M., Sharma, H. P., Aryal, A., & Ji, W. (2023). Impact of climate change on distribution of common leopard (Panthera pardus) and its implication on conservation and conflict in Nepal. Heliyon, 9(1). doi:10.1016/j.heliyon.2023.e12807

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