SAVING THE SNOW LEOPARD
The towering majesty of the Gilgit-Baltistan region in northern Pakistan harbours the greatest concentration of mountain peaks on Earth, and serves as a haven to a magnificent yet imperilled wild predator: the snow leopard. Home to a million herders, subsistence farmers and villagers, these mountains are a place where life is a constant struggle for human and wild beast alike.
For environmental anthropologist Shafqat Hussain, the great challenge is to build and maintain the delicate balance that will sustain both humans and leopards; to find a way of ensuring each can survive in a forbidding landscape – and prosper without penalty to the other.
Herding is the region’s chief activity and livestock the main source of food, with leopards preying on the sheep, goats, yaks and cows kept by villagers. The herders, in defence of their livelihoods, used to retaliate by killing the big cats. However, with the help of the Rolex Award for Enterprise he received in 2006, Hussain has negotiated a peaceful compromise. As a result, leopard numbers are stable or recovering and the villagers content.
Gilgit-Baltistan covers 70,000 square kilometres and is thinly populated. Within a circle of 100 kilometres, more than 60 peaks soar above 7,000 metres, including K2, the world’s second tallest mountain.
“This is ecologically a very harsh area so eking out a subsistence is very difficult. Pastoral people have a very special rivalry with predators because they represent a threat to their livelihood,” Hussain explains. “These people are really poor and cannot afford to lose a goat, cow or yak. So it is a natural response for them to go after the snow leopard. Our project tries to resolve this conflict.”
Project Snow Leopard is his inspired solution, offering the villagers compensation for any animal the leopards take, thereby ensuring the sustenance of both. At the same time, he has helped the herders build predator-proof corrals for their livestock, to prevent the leopards striking at night, and launched an environmental stewardship programme for young people, who are the next generation of herders and the hope for the region’s future.
Pastoral people have a very special rivalry with predators because they represent a threat to their livelihood. Our project tries to resolve this conflict.
Hussain describes an 80-year-old widow who had lost all 11 of her goats to a leopard. Compensation enabled her to rebuild her flock, which her grandchildren now care for. “She came and she kissed my hand. It was a very special moment. I felt that maybe we are doing something good. Local farmers say that ‘if you compensate us for our losses, then we will leave the snow leopard alone’.”
Despite the rugged, vertiginous terrain, Hussain has also managed to recover snow leopard numbers, using camera traps and DNA analysis of their droppings as part of the process. When the project started, this area of the Himalayan mountains was thought to harbour 28–40 leopards; recent surveys consistently show 35–45.
“We started in 1999 in one village. We applied for the Rolex Award and with the money that we got we expanded the project in 10 more valleys,” he recalls. Today the scheme extends to 22 villages, embracing 15,000 people scattered across several valleys.
“The Award also opened doors to other donors. Soon after that I was given the National Geographic Emerging Explorer award. It has been really wonderful to partner with Rolex. It gives credibility to our approach, which is based on coexistence.”
Today, across the 12 nations inhabited by the world’s remaining snow leopards – estimated to number between 4,000 and 10,000 – compensation for herders has become a widely adopted policy, and Hussain’s elegant solution to a thorny and sensitive issue has taken fire. “Over the last 10 years or so there has been a lot of awareness among conservation institutions that they should address the problems of local people if they want to make conservation a success.”
We are sure that snow leopard population is doing very well and it is stable. That gives us hope.
“This is one logical reason for us to have faith in humanity. If you take away the negative incentive (to kill wild animals) then people have no wish to go after them. Our numbers and our research actually prove that.”
But Hussain cautions that, today, the biggest menace to snow leopards is global warming, which causes the loss of their snowy habitat. “This is not something caused by the subsistence practices of poor farmers. It is the industrial countries who produce these gases, which ultimately threaten species like snow leopards.”
Additionally, his genetic research suggests there may not be one, but three separate subspecies of snow leopards, which makes conservation more complex.
As part of the Rolex Perpetual Planet initiative, born out of a commitment to protect the natural world, this project is among those with a stated objective to save endangered species.
“The difficulty of studying the snow leopard in its very rugged and harsh habitat is a challenge that drives me,” Hussain says. “We are sure that snow leopard population is doing very well and it is stable and this has been a trend that we have been seeing for the last 10 years. That gives us hope.”