Factors that Affect the Further Conservation of the Snow Leopards and Future Progress Expected
Malik Atadzhanov, Kingsborough Community College
Abstract: The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is a very vulnerable species that lives mostly in the icy mountainous habitats where they are dominant predators. Snow leopards have spread across a vast area of central and northwestern Asia including the countries: Tajikistan, China, Nepal, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Bhutan, and Mongolia. They have a white-gray coat with dark spots all over the body to merge with the environment. (World Wildlife Fund, 2018) Since snow leopards live in mountainous hard-to-reach places, it creates obstacles to conduct research on them. Yet, modern-day technologies including satellite tracking and molecular genetics techniques allow scientists to analyze their biology, ecology, and population shifts. Their population is estimated to be around 5000 and currently decreasing at a steady rate of 20% over the past 20 years. (Leopard Weebly, 2016) (Figure 2) An adult snow leopard can grow to 1.3 meters long and weigh up to 70 kg. They are carnivores and tend to feed on mountainous wild goats and sheep. They prefer to hunt alone but can hunt in pairs if their prey is too large (Juan Li, 2018). Their extinction is attributed to human expansion into their habitat as well as the effect of climate change on their living environment which are going to be discussed in this paper.
The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is a very vulnerable species that lives mostly in the icy mountainous habitats where they are dominant predators. Snow leopards have spread across a vast area of central and northwestern Asia, including Tajikistan, China, Nepal, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Bhutan, and Mongolia. They have a white-gray coat with dark spots all over the body to merge with the environment. (World Wildlife Fund, 2018) Since snow leopards live in mountainous hard-to-reach places, it creates obstacles to conduct research on them. Yet, modern-day technologies, including satellite tracking and molecular genetics techniques, allow scientists to analyze their biology, ecology, and population shifts. Their population is estimated to be around 5000 and is currently decreasing at a steady rate of 20% over the past 20 years. (Leopard Weebly, 2016) An adult snow leopard can grow to 1.3 meters long and weigh up to 70 kg. They are carnivores and tend to feed on mountainous wild goats and sheep. They prefer to hunt alone, but can hunt in pairs if their prey is too large (Juan Li, 2018). Their extinction is attributed to human expansion into their habitat, as well as the effect of climate change on their living environment (Hoeks, S, 2020). Being one of the largest carnivores in its habitat, snow leopards “play a key role as both top predators and as an indicator of the health of their high-altitude habitat. If snow leopards thrive, so will countless other species” (World Wildlife Fund, 2018).
Humans play a major role in the current extinction rates of snow leopards, for two reasons. The first reason is due to infrastructure growth with factories, hydroelectric power plants, natural resource mines, and the transportation structures that accompany them. Secondly, since snow leopards are a rare species, on the black market, alive, they sell anywhere from five to ten thousand dollars, and their fur is sold for about one thousand dollars each (Dexel, B., 2012).
It ultimately leads us to the illegal poaching and trade of the snow leopards, which greatly reduces their population. Due to the decrease in prey populations, the snow leopards tend to feed on the livestock of the farmers, who in return eliminate them to protect their home and property.
Climate change is another major factor in the current eradication of the snow leopard, because a rapid heat level increase threatens their ecosystem. The most devastating effect of climate change in the lives of snow leopards is the decline of their natural prey, including blue sheep and mountain goats. (Hoeks, S. 2020) Using the maximum entropy algorithm, the Biological Conservation Scientific Team has analyzed the areas of snow leopard habitat expected to persevere through the 21st century. Three sites have been identified as the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) - up to 26,000 BC ,and were later used for the creation of the Landscape Conservation Units,otherwise known as LCUs (Li, J., 2016). To understand where the continuation of snow leopard conservation can occur, the Biological Conservation Scientific Team has analyzed data from two previous independent studies in 2008 and 2014, along with their recent data from 2018. Their data included habitat suitability, landscape prioritization, and landscape connectivity, along with potential threats (Li, J., 2016). By overlapping the maps of all the LCUs, or, as they were previously referred to, Snow Leopard Central Unit (SLCU) and Snow Leopard List (SLL), a new map with all the LCUs was created, which will help tremendously with snow leopard preservation.. Considering all the factors listed above, it is imperative to understand that international trans-boundary cooperation to preserve the snow leopard is necessary. Furthermore, in 2013, the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) was established to achieve that goal. Within its capacity and funding from the United Nations Environment Programme, the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) funded numerous projects, both internal and trans-boundary, in the effort to protect snow leopards and their habitats. Those projects include India: Secure Himalayas, Tajikistan: Pamir Alay and the Tian Shan, and China: Strengthening Protected Areas in Qinghai, etc. For further research, analysis of all current conservation projects must be conducted and discussed in the international GSLEP forum. Furthermore, upon identifying the most effective methods, they should be implemented in other regions where snow leopard habitats exist.
Sites where the snow leopards can survive and reproduce.
As previously mentioned, snow leopards are predominantly high mountainous animals that live on the ridgeline of the Tibetan Plateau and in the surrounding ranges. Since the snow leopard population is steadily decreasing annually, their current habitat locations need to be identified, as well as the future potential nesting locations where their conservation would be possible. To determine the precise regions of the snow leopards’ habitat, scientists use satellite tracking, hidden heat sensors, and cameras. By using the maximum enthalpy method, areas of their natural environment were analyzed from 1982 to 2017. The suitable habitat calculation included many variables, including ruggedness, elevation, water, trees, temperature, precipitation, etc. By using the planning tool, Zoonation, and from the logic of one individual snow leopard per 100 km2, locations within the habitable regions that exceeded areas larger than 10,000 km2 were identified as LCUs, and the smaller areas were identified as fragments. The landscape connection between regions was calculated by using both the natural and anthropogenic barriers, including the least cost-paths, borders, impassable sectors, etc. The territories were also analyzed for potential threats, including poaching, climate change, and natural resources mining. Seven LCUs were pinpointed in the following regions: The Tianshan-Pamir-Hindu Kush-Karakorum (TPHK), Hengduan, and Altai (Juan. Li, 2018). By overlapping these LCUs and previously analyzed conservation locations, which were the SLCUs mapped in 2008 and SLLs mapped in 2013, conservation scientists came up with modern conservation map locations. The map overlapping showed similarity, but the LCUs recognized more applicable areas of conservation, including the entire Qilian Mountains and a larger portion of the Tibetan Plateau. The key areas where the passage of snow leopards was the least costly and dangerous were determined, which came down to ten linkages (Juan. Li, 2018). The main linkage locations were identified to be in the Tianshan-Pamir-Hindu, Kush-Karakoram and Altai Mountain areas. The other linkages were relevant, but would need more resources to maintain. What is clear is that the conservation of the snow leopard species is an achievable goal. However, it would require international collaboration and major funding to be successful.
The role that a large carnivore like the snow leopard plays in the environment, and how its extinction could jeopardize its ecosystem.
In a paper published by Wipple, et al in Science , it wasstated that the population of large terrestrial carnivores has been decreasing at a steady rate for the past 45 years. (Ripple, W. 2014) The two major reasons for such declines have been the loss of habitat due to climate change and human expansion, as well as poaching. (Hoeks, S. 2020) The large carnivores (more than 21 kg) play a significant role in the ecosystem they inhabit, as they exert top-down effects in the environment. The snow leopard is a prime example of such an animal, for they are the top predators in their mountainous food web domains and are a keystone species. A recent study published in a British scientific journal, Ecography, performed by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), analyzed the mechanics of the role that the large carnivores play in their ecosystems, and particularly Panthera uncia living in the mountain regions of Mongolia . In their research, they used the Madingley model simulator, which allowed them to construct a virtual future life (500 years) model without the large carnivores.
The main factors averaged in the change of geographical biomass were the Net Primary Productivity (NPP) and seasonality. They implemented their model both on the international and local levels, which included Yosemite (U.S), Bialowieza (Poland), Hustain Nuruu (Mongolia), and Serengeti (Kenya and Tanzania). Both the global and regional scale results showed that the removal of large carnivores leads to a population increase in medium-sized carnivores and herbivores, which in turn leads to a drastic decrease of autotrophs. It is clear that in areas with high seasonality, the removal of large carnivores was more detrimental in terms of biodiversity than in the low seasonality regions. Following this logic, it becomes perceptible that ecosystems change the functioning mechanism due to large carnivore’s removal, with a transformation from top-bottom to the bottom-up regulatory system. The limitation of resources not only alters the autotrophs' population, but also the entire food web structure. The minor scale analysis of the Hustain Nuruu mountainous region of Mongolia, and with it, the snow leopard removal from the environment, showed that the biomass of carnivores and herbivores has increased, and for omnivores and autotrophs it is decreased due to insufficient NPP and high seasonality change. The results of the Madingley model show that the removal of large carnivores, including the snow leopard, brings drastic alteration to the food web structure, which potentially leads to the extinction of thousands of species. Having a huge herbivore biomass density would lead to scarcity of resources, with the decrease in autotrophs and ultimately loss of habitat (Hoeks, S., 2020). It is evident that the stability of the living matter decreases following large carnivores’ extinction, and furthermore proves their necessity in top-down regulating mechanisms as long-term ecological balance.
Climate change effect on the habitat of the snow leopards
The carbon dioxide level has been increasing more than 250 times faster than it did from natural sources after the last Ice Age (NASA, 2020). Since the mid-20th century, due to harming human activities including fossil fuel burning, cutting down of rainforests, and farming livestock, the global temperature has been increasing at a frightening rate. The snow leopard is one of many large carnivores affected as a result of habitat shift. The research performed by the biological conservation team in 2016 assessed the vulnerability of snow leopard habitat in the Asian region. They have identified a total of 2327 occurrences of snow leopards from the previous records of the International Conference on Rangewide Conservation Planning for Snow Leopards, along with more recent satellite tracking data and camera traps located throughout all the main ranges of snow leopard habitat. After identifying the current snow leopard habitat regions, a simulation of the past habitats was performed by using the leopard distribution model and entropy algorithm. Since the last Glacial Maximum was six degrees Celsius colder and 13% dryer than the current environmental conditions, the model suggested the snow leopard loss occurred mainly in the lower latitudes and altitudes of Sayan and Khangai Mountains in the north. Most of the snow leopard habitat change was further supported by the model evidence that was greatly advanced in the LGM (Li, J., 2016). After the identification of the past and current habitat region and their losses, the future projected changes to the snow leopard habitat were modeled to the year 2070 by using the four Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP) models. The RCP 2070 model inputs are predicted to increase by 3-7 degrees Celsius, and annual precipitation is expected to increase by 10%. (Juan Li, 2020)All four of the models predicted that by the year 2070, the habitat of snow leopards in the southern portions of their range (Himalaya and Hengduan Mountains) would be lost, and they would be forced to migrate north and into the high altitudes. Furthermore, the predictions calculate major habitat loss of more than 80% in the Nepal and Myanmar regions, and major habitat gain of 60% in the Mongolia, Russia, and Kazakhstan areas. (Juan Li,2020) The established habitat areas where future conservation of snow leopards would occur came down to the high Asian mountainous ranges, specifically the Altai, Quilian, and Tian Shan-Pamir-Hindu Kush-Karakoram (TPHK). With proportions of 1.7 snow leopards per 100 square kilometers, these areas would support 1500, 1800, and 9600 snow leopards, respectively (Li, J., 2016). The habitat loss considered in the 2070 RCPs shows the inevitable consequences of climate change on the snow leopard population and demands action for their conservation. The rate of global warming at which climate change is occurring currently is an unprecedented high rate, which requires the snow leopard’s migration to also occur at a faster pace. The gained habitat in the Southern regions of snow leopard habitat areas are also going to bring challenges, since the competition for resources with other carnivores and omnivores like tigers, wolves, and bears would occur. The human intrusion factor into snow leopard habitats is not a huge considerable aspect, because most of the areas are in harsh, mountainous, and high altitude environments that are not reachable by humans. However, there exist areas where human activities bring challenges to the connectivity between regions, ultimately decreasing the migration pace, and with it the conservation efforts which will be discussed in the next paragraph.
The human intrusion into the habitat of the snow leopard
Throughout history, humans and animals have learned to live by avoiding each. Most of the time people tend to bring a negative impact upon the environment and its biodiversity, which hugely impacts their conservation; the snow leopard is an excellent example of that. As it was previously mentioned, the snow leopard is a keystone species in the mountainous areas of central and northwestern Asia, and currently, they are facing extinction due to the “retaliatory killings, poaching, a decline of prey species, and habitat degradation” (Karnausov. A. 2020). The snow leopards usually don't tend to attack people upon encounter, but can get confrontational while attacking the livestock. Moreover, the main confrontations between the two are mainly due to livestock plundering and poaching. (S.L.T., 2020) The research completed by Peking University at Beijing in 2013 has analyzed the conflict relationships between the humans and snow leopards in the Tibetan Plateau, which could lead to the extinction of the later. They have conducted 144 household interviews across the given region and have analyzed the various aspects of the conflict to come up with a solution to the matter. The processing of the data allowed them to understand why the problem of retaliatory killing was indeed taking place. The consensus among the interviewees was that for the industrial expansion, the natural habitat in which many wild animals, including the mountain goats, yaks, and sheep lives were being ruined, thus leading to their migration and population decline, which ultimately led to the scarcity of the food resources for the snow leopards, wolves, etc. (Juan. Li, 2013). The 144 households owned a reported average of 98 yaks per household, 74 sheep/goats per household, and 3 horses per household. The economic loss attributed to the snow leopard depredation was estimated to be around one hundred thousand dollars per year. Interestingly, depredation caused by the activity of wolves was four times that amount (Juan. Li, 2013).
Upon further research, to understand the cultural image and the attitude that herders have towards the snow leopards, they were asked to describe some folklore about them. It turned out that only 13 percent of responders had a negative image about the snow leopard, with the rest being neutral about them. However, when asked about the financial value of the animals, most of the interviewees were informed of them, starting from the bones being used for medical purposes and finishing with the leopard fur used to make coats, hats, decorations, etc. In the end, the scientists were able to find out that in the period of the past three years, only 6 snow leopards were killed due to retaliatory killing. This ultimately brings us to the conclusion that snow leopard and human conflict in that region was minimal, mainly due to the larger presence of wolves, which terrorize the herders far more often. The more serious issue was the determination of the illegal snow leopard poaching from all across their region of habitat. (Juan. Li, 2013)
With the help of the Global Leopard Ecosystem Protection Program and the United Nations, the monitoring of the snow leopard poaching was completed by both the media and literature analysis, and inside people present at black markets where the trading would occur. According to the Traffic publication on Wildlife Trading, in 2018 between 300-400 snow leopards have been continuously poached yearly since 2008. (Compton, 2016) The territories that are most known for snow leopard poaching to occur are China, Mongolia, Pakistan, India, and Tajikistan. Unfortunately, these numbers are considered lowered because most of the time the poaching remains undetected through the complex informatory logistics (Trust, Snow Leopard,2018). It is evident that the future conservation of Pancera uncia species is highly dependent on international aid and cooperation. The Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme, with the sponsorship of the United Nations Development Programme, along with the Snow Leopard Trust, has put forward projects for all the participating countries, which are going to be discussed in the next paragraph.
The international trans-boundary collaboration and future areas of focus.
It is evident that the conservation of snow leopards, like many other vulnerable species on our planet, requires cross-boundary cooperation and interconnected strategic planning. As a major effort for the preservation of snow leopards, the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) was established in 2013 with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Global Environmental Facility (GEF). (Secretariat, G., 2020) The first-ever International Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Forum was held in October 2013, where the 12 representing Central and South Asian countries proposed and endorsed to “protect and conserve critical ecosystems in high-mountain landscapes inhabited by the iconic but endangered snow leopard” (Sectarian. G) (2018). Since then, the GSLEP holds a Steering Committee meeting where they discuss the progress that was made and establish further areas of focus. The ongoing significant scale goal that the GSLEP is trying to achieve is securing at least 20 healthy populations of snow leopards across the diversity of their habitat by the end of 2020, healthy being at least 100 adult breeding Panthera uncia living in an environment abundant with prey population and has proper connection routes to other snow leopard populations. There are 13 current projects being completed all across the participating countries, which include engagement of the local communities, fight against poaching and illegal trade, climate-spirited management, research, and monitoring, etc. (Secretariat, G., 2020) The most prominent projects that are taking place are in China: (Strengthening Protected Areas in Qinghai, 25 million dollars allocated), Tajikistan (Pamir Alay and the Tian Shan ,23 million dollars allocated), and India Secure Himalayas (41 million dollars allocated): These countries combined are estimated to have 75% percent of all snow leopard habitat areas (Sectarian. G),2018). In China’s Qinghai Province, the main focus of the project revolves around working with local Cuochi and another 17 nearby villages, to protect the area from potential threats, as well as the implementation of traps and satellite tracking of the snow leopards. The villages were provided with the monitoring equipment and were also given contracts which state that if conservation goals in the area are met, the people would be rewarded with financial support. The local herders help by engaging in patrolling and observation of the region, as well as taking surveys on conservation developments four times a year. In Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains, the main focus of the project is scientific monitoring and reporting of the snow leopards, since the Pamir Mountains are their largest habitat with over 92 thousand square kilometers of men-inaccessible mountain ranges. The establishment of the data collection equipment is of vital importance throughout the areas of snow leopard habitat, thus offering much occupation with appropriate training to the local contingent. Another huge focus of the Tajik project is the fight against poaching and illegal trading, which unfortunately still occurs to this day. The local Tajik herders are going to be trained to patrol and monitor the area, and report any suspicious activities to the authorities in return for a financial reward (Karnausov, A,2020). In India’s Changthang region, the focus of the project is the retaliatory killing recession, which also includes support of existing livelihoods and provisions of various technological diversification into Changpa's people. Access to technical services is beneficial to the farmers, for it enhances their productivity with agri-biodiversity, pest, and seed management, ultimately leading to more vegetation. New agricultural innovations, including the introduction of new fruits and vegetables, as well as jam production and bee-keeping, provide more jobs in local communities. Also, the people of Changpas acquire new skills in the non-farming jobs that have to do with tourism and leisure. These are just a few of the projects currently performed by the GSLEP, The 7th GSLEP Steering Committee Meeting was supposed to take place in 2020, but it has been postponed to a yet unidentified date in 2021. Without a doubt, within the last decade, there have been tremendous advances made in snow leopard conservation progress. However, much work still must be done to achieve the final objective to preserve the beautiful species.
To conclude, the snow leopards remain a vulnerable species in the mountainous environments of Central and South Asia. They are of vital importance to their ecosystem, because they remain the keystone species in their top-bottom biological network by contributing to the regulation of the herbivore and smaller carnivore populations. Their population decrease is associated with climate change and its habitat shift, as well as poaching and illegal trade on the black market. The poaching and the illegal trade emergency is recognized by the GSLEP, and all the ongoing snow leopard conservation projects involve resolution plans. To assess the current locations of the snow leopard survival and reproduction, ten linkages called LCUs were identified, with the major ones being Tianshan-Pamir-Hindu, Kush-Karakoram and Altai Mountain areas. To assess the future locations of the snow leopard survival and reproduction, an RCP 2070 model was run, which identified the future repopulation habitat areas in the Altai, Quilian, and Tian Shan-Pamir-Hindu Kush-Karakoram regions. The international collaboration of the GSLEP countries, the UNEP, and the GEF is proving to be promising with its local and cross-boundary projects involving various domains of influence concerning the protection of snow leopards. I think the work done and currently being completed is going to be beneficial
in the long-term goal of saving Panthera uncia species. It is imperative that the multinational partnership continues and that progress continues. Unfortunately, most of the countries that are hosting conservation projects are highly corrupt, and there is a high possibility of improper management of allocated funds. Therefore, I think it would be productive to keep a unified publicly traceable database of the snow leopard conservation efforts. The organization should require monthly/quarterly reports on top of the annual conference that takes place. Moreover, independent observers should be present in the partaking countries to inspect the legitimacy of the financial settlements and quality of the work completed. I think we can accomplish this goal. I hope that decades from now, our children and grandchildren could look back at our triumph and be proud and motivated to make a difference in their era.
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