Farming and livestock herding are the main land uses and sources of human livelihoods in the high mountains of Central Asia. Communities depend on their sheep and goats for meat, dairy products and wool. Seven range countries have over 25% of their land area under permanent pasture, more than 50% of their human population involved in agro-pastoralism, more than 40% living below national poverty levels, and average per capita annual incomes of US$250-400. Although relatively few people live in snow leopard habitat, their use of the land is pervasive, resulting in ever-increasing human-wildlife conflict even within protected areas.
Livestock depredation is thus a significant problem. When a snow leopard enters a corral full of panicked sheep and goats, its kill instinct is triggered, and it will keep attacking until all movement stops. Herders will retaliate if possible by killing the snow leopard. Ironically, such loss of livestock can be avoided by making the corral predator-proof, improving animal husbandry techniques and educating herders on the importance of wildlife as a resource for generating sustained income.
Habitat loss and fragmentation, and poaching of the natural prey base also threaten the snow leopard’s survival. Prey densities are usually lower outside national parks and reserves. These areas also support higher numbers of people and their livestock – which snow leopards quickly learn are not as wary as their wild cousins. They may then become habitual depredators. Breeding females trying to feed hungry cubs are especially vulnerable, and herders will also take cubs from the maternal den.
Livestock losses can exceed 10% of the herd in depredation “hotspots,” a significant economic impact where the annual household income is so low. Like their counterparts in the U.S., herders in the Himalaya tend to blame predators without adequately accounting for other mortality such as disease and accidents. Many herders have abandoned proven traditional shepherding practices, and where more children are in school, sheep and goats roam freely during the daytime. Indeed, it has been argued that pastoralists are supporting snow leopards by providing them with a ready supply of food! Yet Central Asia’s alpine pastures have long been used by resident and nomadic herders, so eliminating livestock is not an option in most areas.
Our task is to help local communities keep depredation at a manageable level while increasing incomes and strengthening stewardship of alpine ecosystems. We will know we have done our job when Central Asia’s herders recognize and act upon the greater worth of having a live snow leopard rather than a pelt of one that took their livestock.