The snow leopard: a forgotten casualty of war?

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.

General Information

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.


Further Reading

WWF snow leopard page –

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.


Invertebrates telling water’s dirtiest secrets – L’Esteron River, Saint-Auban, France.

Invertebrates telling water’s dirtiest secrets – L’Esteron River, Saint-Auban, France.

As promised, here is a brief overview of the work I did in Saint-Auban, France on L’Esteron River. I decided to study the possibility of pollution from a water treatment works (WTW) that has recently been built entering the river.



Pollution – At its worst is a global killer. As our population increases so does pollution, potentially resulting in major disease and catastrophic environmental issues. This is not just an issue in cities, but also in the countryside as people look to less built up areas to live. In some cases this leads to pollution disturbing the environment we would otherwise describe as clean and natural.

So what part do invertebrates play in pollution? Each family of invertebrates differs in their ability to tolerate different types and different levels of pollution. This coupled with their high prevalence and ease of capture makes the invertebrates an ideal indicator of pollution. To quantify the water quality in a river system the Biological Monitoring Working Party (BMWP) score is used. This takes pollution tolerant families such as the worms and gives them a score of 1, and pollution intolerant families such as the mayflies and gives them a score of 10. The assumption made is that pollution intolerant families are found in non-polluted water, and that pollution tolerant families are found in polluted water. Every family present at a sampled site is given a score from 1-10, and the sum of those scores is used to relate to the BMWP to give an indication of water quality.

Hypothesis 1: The water quality is poorer downstream of the Water Treatment Works relative to upstream of the Water Treatment Works

Hypothesis 2: The water will be of better quality the further downstream of the Water Treatment Works is sampled.


Methodology & Results

Three sites were sampled, one upstream of the WTW two downstream and six kick samples taken

Figure 1

at each site (See Figure 1 – adjacent). The kick sample collects any sediment and invertebrates within that sediment into a net. Once each sample was transferred from the net to a

box, it was taken back to the lab for identification. The kick samples showed

which invertebrate families were present at each site. Each family was then given a score, and the scores combined to give the BMWP score.

From Figure 2 (bottom of post) it is clear two dominant families were found at sites 1 and 3 – the Freshwater Shrimp (Gammaridae) and the Mayfly nymphs (Ephemeridae). Both these families are indicative of non-polluted water. At site 2 the most dominant family is the worms (Oligochaeta).The worms are particularly indicative to polluted water. This would comply with hypothesis 1 in that the invertebrates found at sites 1 and 3 differ dramatically to those at site 2. Furthermore the invertebrates found at site 2 indicate more polluted waters compared to the water at site 1.

Site 3 also seems to have a mixture of the diversity found at sites 1 and 2. The BMWP score for site 1 was moderate water quality, site 2 was poor water quality and site 3 was moderate water quality. The mixture of diversity at 3 insinuates the water can support both pollution tolerant and intolerant invertebrates, and therefore there is a relative water quality recovery from site 2 to site 3.

A general observation made from the samples was that the size of freshwater shrimps, as well as the total number of pregnant females was much greater at site 1 compared to site 3. It could be hypothesised that this is because there are more appropriate nutrients at site 1 compared to site 3. For example there could be more calcium at site 1, which is required for the crustaceans’ exoskeleton. At site 3 it could then be speculated that this free calcium has combined with any nitrate or phosphate pollution from the WTW, making calcium nitrate or calcium phosphate, which is inaccessible to the crustaceans in this state.

A chi square statistical test was used to test the data obtained for significance. For a degree of freedom of 22, the critical value in the chi square table at the 1% level is 48.27, and the chi square value from the data obtained here is 125. Therefore the data obtained is significant at the 1% level, or the probability of the data being obtained randomly is less than 0.01.



It is important to note that while these results do show that there is more pollution in the river at site 2 compared to site 1, there is no evidence as to where this pollution has entered the river. It is true that the only human activity between site 1 and 2 is the WTW but there could be other unknown contributions to the poor water quality such as surface run-off, or dumping of rubbish and other human waste. Therefore the results from this report can justify claiming there is pollution entering the L’Esteron River between sites 1 and 2. The source of that pollution can be speculated to be the WTW, but ultimately there is no evidence to directly prove or disprove that claim.

It is of vital importance that the pollution entering the river is monitored at least annually to ensure the pollution does not get any worse. If it does worsen the findings from this report and the findings from future reports should be forwarded to the WTW and the local governing body to try and solve the problem.



Artisteer (2008). “Crustacean: A class of Artropods.” Retrieved 05/07/2011, from

Croft, P. S. (1986). “A key to the major groups of the British Freshwater Invertebrates.” Aids to identification in difficult groups of animals and plants 6: 531-579.

Dos Santos, D. A., C. Molineri, et al. (2011). “Which index is the best to assess stream health?” Ecological Indicators 11(2): 582-589.

Greenhalgh, M. and D. Ovenden (2007). Freshwater life. London, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Martin, R. (2004). “Information on Distribution Maps and Histograms.”   Retrieved 05/07/2011, from

NIEA. (2009). “The Biological General Quality Assessment Scheme.”   Retrieved 05/07/2011, from

Sigee, D., C. (2005). Freshwater Microbiology. Sussex, John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Smith, J. G., C. C. Brandt, et al. (2011). “Long-Term Benthic Macroinvertebrate Community Monitoring to Assess Pollution Abatement Effectiveness.” Environmental Management 47(6): 1077-1095.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Giant Panda Poo: Telling the story of unfortunate circumstances


An article caught my eye a couple of days ago stating two quite interesting things. Firstly the Chinese population after census in 2010 has reached an astonishing 1.34 billion people, and secondly (and a little less of a bomb shell) the Chinese are now embarking on a once-every-10-year census of the Giant Panda population.

Conservation is a subject I hold close to my heart. I have had an active part in conservation since I can remember; whether it is at home in the Lake District or planting trees in the heart of the Borneo rainforest. I have little doubt in my mind that it will have some dictation over my future. Something else that is no stranger to conservation, and is in fact often used as a symbol for conservation itself, is the Giant Panda.

General Information

The Giant Panda is an endangered mammal found in Central Western and South Western China, distinctive for its black and white patterning. The vast majority of the Giant Panda’s diet is bamboo, but they sometimes eat small birds and rodents. Unfortunately for the Pandas their carnivorous digestive system means they get very little nutrition from bamboo, this means raising their offspring on milk leaves little nutrition for themselves. This lack of nutrients majorly limits their behaviour, such as limited social interactions and limiting energy expenditure from locomoting.

Another unfortunate issue facing the Giant Panda is not the loss of habitat due to deforestation as the Chinese population expands, but the subsequent migration to new habitats at higher altitude. At these higher altitudes very few bamboo species are able to grow. Therefore the Pandas have two options: live on the limited bamboo at higher altitudes, or travel down the mountain daily where bamboo is plentiful, but energetically expensive to obtain.


As well as loss of habitat and a nutrient poor food source the Giant Panda also has a very low birth rate. All these reasons meant it was obvious the Giant Panda populations needed to be monitored and conserved. I think it would be fair to say that the techniques used, particularly in early Panda conservation were quite “hit and miss”. It was first thought that caging was the only answer, which resulted in the Pandas suffering terrible conditions and further reducing reproduction rates. However a ruling in the late 90’s meant conservation could occur in the wild and population numbers began to increase.

To go about estimating Panda populations, trackers collect droppings and use them for DNA analysis to accurately identify the number of Pandas in an area. By identifying individual Pandas by their DNA, any pseudo replications can be removed from the sample to give an accurate estimate. 10 years ago population numbers of wild Giant Pandas were estimated at 1596 and the census is hoped to show a further increase after the preliminary survey ending this month.

Final thoughts

It seems the Giant Panda is a victim of unfortunate circumstances; decreasing habitat, nutrient poor food, and sharing a country with the highest human population in the world. The cynical amongst us may even suggest that the Giant Panda is a lost cause. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do believe it is going to take a huge effort to get population numbers up to a level whereby they will no longer be threatened. Crucially, I believe effort will not be the deciding factor, but instead space. I fear that once again we are faced with a species that is on the brink of extinction because of ever expanding human populations. As a result this iconic species may well have ever more challenging times ahead.

Further Reading

Original Article –

Article claiming some experts are calling for less care for Pandas –