By PETER ZAHLER and GEORGE SCHALLERFEB. 1, 2014
The cold and rugged mountains of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and China seem an unlikely place to find a flourishing combination of new community institutions and international diplomacy. Few people live there. Those who do are mostly desperately impoverished livestock herders. They have been largely isolated from the rest of humanity on these enormous mountains where the Indian subcontinent once crashed into Asia, buckling the earth’s crust and raising peaks over 20,000 feet.
However, despite its isolation — or perhaps because of it — something fascinating has been happening in this cold mountain landscape. Communities are coming together to manage this fragile and unforgiving place, where people scrape a living from sparse alpine pastures. At the same time, neighboring countries are finding ways to cooperate across borders that in recent history have become almost as hostile as the rugged terrain. As odd as it may seem, a big cat is helping to lead the way.
Once largely ignored because of its nearly inaccessible habitat and secretive behavior, the snow leopard has slowly gained notice as studies have found that it is increasingly threatened, with likely fewer than 7,000 animals left across its enormous range in Asia. In turn, this interest in the cats has drawn attention to the human communities of these mountains and the fragility of their ecosystem, particularly their watersheds, which are crucial to the livelihood of hundreds of millions of people in the lowlands.
Elusive Cats and Their Endangered Prey
Threats to leopards’ prey vary widely over remote areas, where research is difficult at best. Here are three prey species known to be in decline.
In this wilderness above the tree line — where Marco Polo sheep with horns six feet from tip to tip crash heads and the magnificent ibex scales cliffs as if they were stairs — the smoke-colored snow leopard glides silently and nearly invisibly as the top predator. The cat is what biologists call an “indicator species” of the health of the overall ecosystem. Efforts by scientists and local and national governments to save the snow leopard are rooted in the idea that, like the big cat, environmental threats are not confined to political boundaries.
It was not until the 1970s that wildlife biologists began to roam the mountains in search of clues about the snow leopard’s mysterious existence. Sometimes going months without a sighting, biologists used indirect evidence — tracks, droppings, stories from local herders — to deduce details of the cat’s life.
It turns out that snow leopards face several major threats: poaching, both for their skins and body parts, sought after by the traditional medicine trade; the decline of prey such as wild sheep and goats; retaliatory killings by shepherds and villagers for livestock lost to snow leopards; and shrinking wild habitat.
As these threats grew in both clarity and immediacy — with snow leopards having been exterminated in some mountain ranges and decimated in others — it became clear that this iconic big cat could disappear entirely if immediate action was not taken. Conservation organizations turned from research to focusing on helping local villagers manage their land and wildlife.
Protecting ecosystems can be a complicated undertaking. In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, disease is a serious threat to livestock. Vaccinations have reduced livestock losses and made villagers less inclined to retaliate against the cats for the few sheep and goats they kill. The problem is that vaccinations can result in a rapid increase in livestock numbers — and to overgrazing, habitat destruction, the disappearance of wild prey and, perversely, an increase in the number of domestic animals killed by snow leopards. So villagers must agree to limit their livestock numbers in return for vaccinations.
However, after years and in some cases decades of hard work and trial and error, real successes are being seen. For example, 55 communities in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and 65 in northern Pakistan (where the Himalayas, Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Pamir mountains come together) have recently formed committees to safeguard their resources. These committees now deploy almost 200 volunteer community rangers to monitor snow leopards and their prey and enforce anti-poaching regulations. In northern Afghanistan, community rangers have helped capture four snow leopards and fit them with GPS tracking collars to better understand their ecology.
Governments have been supportive of these efforts and are working to strengthen local groups. For example, in Afghanistan, two new protected areas — the second and third in the country’s history — are being developed in tandem by communities and the national government, with the expectation that they will be co-managed by both to protect snow leopards, Marco Polo sheep and ibex.
In Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau, considered the “water tower of China” because the headwaters of the great rivers — the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong — are there, the Chinese government has initiated a major bottom-up community-based conservation program to train local people to monitor the health of the habitat and create an “ecological civilization,” as they call it. Certain communities have been given rights by the government to protect and manage their own land, and some areas have even set up their own conservation organizations, as have some Buddhist monasteries.
Recent meetings among Asian nations have led to proposals for sharing data, coordinating research and creating a large protected area for snow leopards across China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. China and Pakistan are working cooperatively to manage the adjoining Taxkorgan Natural Reserve in China and Khunjerab National Park in Pakistan. And government officials from all 12 snow leopard range countries met in Kyrgyzstan last fall to join in a declaration to better protect the snow leopard.
Even so, huge challenges still exist. The region will always be physically isolated and difficult to reach. Local poverty remains a significant problem that can slow or even impede change. In some areas security is a real concern, and events at the regional or international level can threaten to derail progress.
But one thing is clear: Changes are afoot in the high mountains of Asia. And a mysterious, secretive and snow-colored cat appears to be leading them.
Peter Zahler is deputy director for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia Program. George Schaller is a senior conservationist at the society and vice president of Panthera, a conservation group focused on saving the world’s wild cats.