The snow leopard: a forgotten casualty of war?
In the busy modern world we all live in it is sometimes easy to forget the bigger picture. I for one will admit I don’t think about famine, poverty, global warming or war every day. That isn’t because I don’t care, but it is simply easy to forget when comfortably living in the UK. When times are hard in countries experiencing this kind of problem it is also easy to think just of the people affected. But there is a great effect on the animals in these countries too. The official start of the war in Afghanistan was in 2001 and since that time snow leopards have been discovered in the north east of the country.
Snow leopards are the largest of the big cats currently listed as endangered. They are native to south and central Asia as well as Afghanistan. The snow leopards preferred habitat is steep terrain (3000m – 4500m) with cliffs, ridges, gullies and rocky outcrops, but can also be found in grassland, scrubland and open coniferous forest. Over the last 16 years the population numbers of snow leopards has decreased by 20%, with a wild population between 4,500 – 7,500 and an estimated 2,500 mature breeding individuals. A study has recently been released in the International Journal of Environmental Studies describing the work carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to manage snow leopard populations over the last 5 years in Afghanistan.
Saving threatened species in Afghanistan: snow leopards in the Wakhan Corridor.
Wakhan is located to the north west of Afghanistan and the corridor connects it with China. The first aim of the study was to confirm local villagers’ reports that snow leopards are present in the Wakhan corridor. This was achieved by setting up camera traps and then using the photographs to identify individuals and attempt to estimate the population size. The results suggested there was a high population of snow leopards in the area, but more testing was required to eliminate pseudo replicates.
The next step was to identify the threats facing the snow leopards and then create a management plan which not only aids the snow leopards, but also the local villagers. The threats identified were poaching for fur, removal of live specimens for private wildlife collections or zoos, and killing of the snow leopards by shepherds to protect their livestock. All these factors contribute to a possible local extinction if a management plan is not introduced.
As previously mentioned the management plan needs to aid the villagers as well as the snow leopards. The communities that live in the Wakhan Corridor are very poor and disadvantaged, as well as having a very high child mortality rate. Unfortunately this means in times of extreme hardship the villagers see the snow leopards as a source of income. To educate the villagers, the Wakhan Pamir Association (WPA) was formed. The WPA is a group of elected villagers that receive support and training in conservation management and livelihood development. These skills are then implemented to plan ways to sustain and manage the natural resources in the Wakhan Corridor. A group formed by the WPA is the ranger program. This is a group of 54 villagers and 5 experts responsible for monitoring illegal activities as well as patrolling and surveying the local wildlife. Furthermore the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has provided assistance for the villagers in constructing predator proof livestock pens to attempt to stop local shepherds killing the snow leopards.
Another important aspect of the new management plan is educating the villagers. This involves village to village consultations as well as taking villagers to visit neighbouring Pakistan where snow leopard and villager communities live together successfully. Another highly valued aspect of the programme is educating the children on snow leopards. These practices show a gradual cultural change in Wakhan adults towards conservation. The key towards this cultural change is giving the people in the Wakhan corridor facts rather than myths and rumours. For example, it is believed that snow leopards are responsible for the death of many of the livestock found in Wakhan. However, after this study it was found the actual number of livestock mortalities snow leopards were responsible for was 0.5%. It was in fact found that the vast majority of livestock mortalities were a result of wolf predation.
It is clear a significant proportion of the threats facing snow leopards are due to villager misunderstandings. In an animal population which typically has very low densities, such misunderstandings could be detrimental. Furthermore, in a country struggling to cope with the social, economical and political effects of war, a top-down strategy from government to community may not be effective or quick enough. It seems the current bottom-up strategy will have the greatest effect, and hopefully will avoid further population decline. The future of the snow leopard is uncertain but hopefully the WPA and WWF can work with the villagers to rescue population numbers before it is too late.
WWF snow leopard page – http://www.wwf.org.uk/what_we_do/safeguarding_the_natural_world/wildlife/snow_leopard/
Journal paper – Simms, A. Et al, 2011. Saving threatened species in Afghanistan: snow leopards in the Wakhan Corridor. International Journal of Environmental Studies, 68 (3), pages 299-312.