Human – Snow Leopard Conflict and Conservation Education

by Suraj Upadhaya

The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) found in central Asia is listed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN. High altitude grasslands in the Himalayan valleys are important components of the habitat of snow leopards and their main natural prey species, blue sheep. But in Nepal and elsewhere, most landscapes where snow leopards roam are inhabited by people who utilize them for multiple purposes, including agriculture and livestock grazing. Generally, people in this region are practicing agro-pastoral systems as their main source of livelihood. They have coexisted with snow leopards in the Trans-Himalaya for centuries; however, there are conflicts between these two due to livestock depredation by snow leopards.

Dolpo, Nepal

Every year, a significant number of livestock are killed by snow leopards in the Himalayas, leading to economic loss to local communities and making human-snow leopard conflict a major threat to snow leopard conservation. For instance, in late March 2021, there was the mass killing of livestock by snow leopard in the Upper Dolpa region of Shey Phoksundo National Park, Dolpa. In a single incidence, a farmer lost more than 50 goats and sheep resulting in a heavy financial loss. Incidences like this of mass depredation by snow leopards have resulted in retaliatory killings.

Blue sheep also known as bharal (Pseudois nayaur) – the main prey species of the snow leopard

The occasional killing of livestock by predators like the snow leopard is almost inevitable when they are brought into close contact in this way. In many areas, though, this gives rise to significant conflict between conservation objectives and the livelihoods of local communities. In those with a subsistence economy, even small losses can be of economic importance and can generate negative attitudes towards wildlife and conservation in general. Community engagement has been shown to be an efficient means of achieving the conservation goal of protecting the snow leopard species and mitigating human-predator conflict across the snow leopard landscape and in areas such as the Dolpa district where they are roaming.

Traditional non-predator-proofed corrals for domestic sheep and goats

When community people are given the power and responsibility to solve the problem, it challenges them to become better stewards of snow leopard habitat and livestock. Several range countries have identified “mitigating human-snow leopard conflict through community engagement” as one of the main actions in their plan. According to the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP), local communities need to be empowered and fully informed about snow leopards’ socio-ecological and economic worth to strengthen the coexistence between people and snow leopard in the Trans-Himalayan region and ensure its conservation.” Engaging local communities can be challenging however. Yet, this can be achieved when they are fully aware and informed about the importance of snow leopards and their associated habitat.

Trap for catching blue sheep

Conservation education is one approach that can encourage the active engagement of local community members. Environmental education programs for children and youth help to strengthen conservation efforts and inspire future conservationists. The Snow Leopard Conservancy’s Junior Ranger program is one that was developed in a way where students could learn and be informed about our environment, our relationship with nature, and how to contribute towards maintaining the proper balance. The Junior Ranger’s curriculum primarily focuses on informing students about flora and fauna found in the ecosystem where students are from. Students involved in this program get information about how important these species, such as snow leopard, Tibetan wolf, and blue sheep, are in maintaining balance of fragile high altitude ecosystems. This type of conservation education program not only informs students but creates ripple effects within the society, and not just for today but also for the future. The students become a source of information for their parents and the communities they are from. Informing families and the other local community members about the importance of flora and fauna with which they have been sharing the landscape for a long time helps to create stewards of the environment to look over and protect it. And as adults, former junior rangers are now taking on leadership roles in conserving snow leopards and biodiversity in their area.

Reflecting on my own life experience, participating as the first junior ranger from Dolpa changed my life. It allowed me to experience nature in a safe way and embrace my curiosity. Through the regular bird watching and flora and fauna identification activities around my hometown, I quickly became hooked on and eventually fell in love with nature. There was no internet or television during my childhood; these circumstances allowed me to study and appreciate nature in the place where my ancestors grew up, where I was growing, and where future generations will thrive. It also helped me understand how vulnerable nature is and how desperately it needs us (humans) for its conservation. Participating in the Junior Ranger program allowed me to understand the conflict between humans and wildlife in the Dolpa region. Seeing how musk deer were hunted for musk glands, how Himalayan black bears were killed, and how blue sheep and goral were hunted forced me to realize how vulnerable nature is. Exposure to these activities made me realize how our human society, communities, economy, policies, wildlife, and ecosystems are all intertwined. As a result of my experience, I pivoted from a classical dream of becoming a doctor, engineer, or pilot to instead pursuing a career in conservation science. Exploring how nature is so crucial for human survival and how important it is for our generation to save nature for upcoming generations inspired me to develop my career. Following the compassion fueled by the Junior Ranger program, I completed my doctoral studies in integrative conservation of nature and forestry, which trained me to explore human dimensions and socio-ecological perspectives of nature conservation.

Suraj Upadhaya, PhD
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, Iowa State University
Director, Himalayan Conservation and Research Institute, Dolpa, Nepal

All photos courtesy of Suraj Upadhaya