The plight of the endangered snow leopard on World Environment Day

World

Snow leopards face a fight for survival as climate change puts them in direct competition with humans for habitable land. But the United Nations Environment Program has launched a project in Kyrgyzstan to monitor the species and help reduce conflict with local herders.

A curious cat. At the NABU rehabilitation center in Kyrgyzstan, a snow leopard investigates this camera trap – an exploratory bite confirms it’s not edible. Such an up-close-and-personal encounter with this animal is exciting – the elusive creature is often called the ‘ghost of the mountain’. And that’s not just because of its ability to hide in the wild – snow leopards are also one of the most endangered species in the world. The species faces challenges from all sides.

“Snow leopards face a multitude of threats. They range from conventional threats such as conflict, poaching, and illegal wildlife trade, to emerging threats such as poorly planned infrastructure, mining, destruction of habitat,” explains Koustubh Sharma of the Snow Leopard Trust.

“Climate change can be called as the mother of all threats because it interacts with all other threats and amplifies each of them by a factor that’s probably unknown to us as of now.”

Only 15 adult snow leopards live in the mountain range of Kyrgyz Republic, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). Climate change has been named the main problem. It forces farmers and herders to acquire new lands which interfere with the snow leopards’ natural habitat. If the trend continues, by 2070 their habitats globally will be reduced by two thirds, experts predict. And that means they will have increased contact with human populations – which is very bad news for their survival.

“Conflicts between human beings, livestock and snow leopards are therefore more likely to happen. Greater interaction between human beings and wildlife also mean that transfer of zoonotic diseases, like COVID-19, are more likely to happen than ever before,” says Bruno Pozzi, UN Environment Programme’s Director for Europe.

The United Nations has launched a project called Vanishing Treasures to help people in Kyrgyzstan diversify their livelihoods and find alternative income that will assist a peaceful co-existence with wildlife. The program tries to map livestock losses and retaliatory killings of snow leopards. The data will help to find ways to diminish conflict between local farmers and snow leopards.  

The solution varies from location to location – in some cases livestock insurance schemes will be introduced, while other locations will build predator-proof corrals to separate snow leopards and livestock. The program also investigates cases of potential transfer of diseases between wildlife and humans.

Emilbek Dzhaparov, a ranger in the Shamshy-Tuyuk reserve, has experienced snow leopard attacks on his cattle. “It was such a pity to lose the livestock this way. I took care of them whole winter, but I didn’t react against the snow leopard,” he says.

Instead, he tries to herd vigilantly to reduce the risk of any further attacks. “If you look after the livestock very carefully, no predator can attack it. It’s good to regulate the time when you need to shift the livestock from the mountains to the plain.”

World Environment Day, is celebrated on June 5. It focuses on biodiversity and calls to combat the acceleration of species extinction.

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