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Saving the ‘ghosts of the mountains’

IT was International Snow Leopard Day last Monday, designated for celebrating this majestic predator of the Asian high mountains. This day commemorates the adoption of the Bishkek Declaration in 2013 that brought together the global community to secure the future of snow leopards through coordinated action.
Nepal is fortunate to be among the 12 countries that harbour wild populations of snow leopards. Known as the ghosts-of-the-mountains, this wild cat is found in the country’s northern Himalayan region. Nepal could be home to more than 6% of the estimated global population of 3,290 to 6,390 snow leopards.
Habitat degradation, conflicts with people and poaching jeopardise the survival of snow leopards; unplanned infrastructure and man-induced climate change threaten to compound the risks.
Yet, Nepal has achieved significant milestones in snow leopard conservation, giving cause for hope and providing impetus for efforts to save the species.
In this sparse terrain, these livestock are an alternative diet for snow leopards, supplementing wild prey like the blue sheep.
Predominantly Buddhists, the people tolerate these losses to an extent, valuing snow leopards as “God’s pet”.
However, tolerance erodes as circumstances change and conflicts intensify. People retaliate in anger, killing animals that may still hold a special place in our culture.
Nonetheless, many locals in the mountains have been working to save the snow leopard. They are members of Snow Leopard Conservation Sub-Committees or citizen scientists, facilitating research on this elusive cat in extremely difficult terrains; Community-Based Anti-Poaching Units, assisting in preventing illegal killing and trade; or User Groups aiding sustainable management of community forests.
The results of such involvement are seen in the creation of protected areas like the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area that are managed by the local communities.
Nepali researchers and conservationists from both government and non-government sectors assist the mountain communities.
Their research spans over a number of areas with the aim of enhancing ecological understanding of the snow leopard, their prey species and habitat, and to study human dimensions of wildlife conservation.
As a result of their leadership and expertise, the country has contributed to the scientific understanding of the species, aiding in conservation globally.
For instance, Nepal has collared four snow leopards with satellite telemetry devices to track movement and make scientific derivations. This has provided evidence to the snow leopard’s wide-ranging behaviour, making a strong case for landscape management, as well as international trans boundary collaboration.
Other research has helped identify gaps and solutions to improve management of protected areas. There have also been efforts to study the impacts of climate change on snow leopards, their habitat, and eventually on human well-being.
In August, Nepal became the first country to produce a climate-integrated landscape management plan for snow leopard conservation. The Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Management Plan for the Eastern Himalaya Landscape (EHL) of Nepal was unveiled at a global summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
The EHL is one of the three snow leopard conservation landscapes within Nepal. Spread across 11,516sq km from Langtang National Park to Kangchenjunga, the EHL region is among the most climatically-diverse landscapes in the world.
Mobilising a team of global experts, this plan by the government anticipates potential climate changes within this landscape. Annual mean temperature could increase by 0.9°C to 1.3°C by 2040, causing water bodies to shrink, and causing havoc to the natural eco-cycles of snow leopard survival.
Likewise, the plan predicts an increase in monsoon precipitation, leading to greater risks of landslides and flooding downstream.
As with other modern conservation models, this plan focuses not just on saving wildlife, but also on linking economic benefits for local communities to ensure sustainability in conservation.
Preparing the plan is one challenge, but executing it effectively is another ball game altogether.
Evidence of increasing personal wealth and unused or misused revenues generated in various sectors is rife in Nepal. Yet, for conservation and other social issues, we still rely on international aid.
WWF Nepal’s snow leopard conservation interventions are funded by donors like WWF UK and USAID, who in turn are supported by the citizens of these respective countries.
Ghana Shyam Gurung, senior conservation program director, WWF Nepal says: “We have immense responsibility. Our donors include regular individuals – an octogenarian hoping her children may someday see snow leopards in Nepal; a child breaking her piggy bank to support our cause, and the likes. We cannot let them down.”
Nepal’s conservation success stories so far are a result of the combined efforts of many – normal civilians and governments in donor countries to officials and citizens. And rightly so, as Nepal’s snow leopards are also the earth’s heritage.
While the country’s instabilities are challenging, hope remains in the form of officials working overtime to show Nepal in good light, in communities sacrificing their losses and in youth working for a cause.
Still, much remains to be done.
Citizens of Nepal have the right to complain about the state of affairs, but they also have the responsibility to work towards improving it.
Not every one can become a snow leopard conservationist, and not all of them need to. However, they can and must contribute in their own ways to improve survival chances of snow leopards and nature in general.
This could be achieved by travelling to these mountain areas to help livelihoods of local communities; by not littering in pristine environments; by working towards reducing their carbon footprint; and by aspiring for development and improved infrastructure, but not at the cost of the future.
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