Course:CONS200/2019/The Impact of Trophy Hunting on Snow Leopards

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Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia) in snow. By Nicolas Goulet via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Snow leopards are one of the many endangered species currently on the watch list of WWF. There are many different efforts and mechanisms used to try and combat the declining snow leopard population. One of the more controversial mechanisms is the employment of trophy hunting to generate income for conservation. A controversial practice which occurs most commonly in Pakistan and Nepal, both of which are underdeveloped countries which have difficulty to generate revenue to support conservation with other methods. This practice is capable of generate large amount of conservation funds within a short period time with little to no investment, it does come with the major downside of putting an already endangered species -snow leopard in this case- under more threat by lowering its population. Aside from trophy hunting potentially having negative impacts on snow leopards, another imminent threat to the survival of snow leopard is climate change. Due to rising temperature in the global climate, delicate habitats such as the Himalayan Mountains are experiencing rapid change. Rising temperature are causing shift in the alpine zone treeline. Consequentially leading to the loss of habitat for a large space-requiring mammal, adding more stress on the already endangered snow leopard population.[1] Even though climate change are part of the issue that have lead to decrease in snow leopard population, there are many other major reasons that have lead to this situation as well. One of them being the tension between snow leopards and humans. Because humans will often graze their animals in or close to snow leopard territories, this has caused conflict between snow leopards and humans. Since snow leopards will often hunt livestock that are within its territory. Thus leading to hunting or snow leopards by farmers to protect their livestock, or as an act of self defense. Not only is the direct conflict between humans and snow leopards have decrease the population, the hunting of snow leopard's prey -such as Siberian Ibex & Marco Polo Sheep- have decreased the available food source for snow leopards as well. To combat all of these incentives that threatens the survival of snow leopards as a species, a considerable amount of resources -such as money and manpower- are needed. There are alternate ways for a government to generate revenue to support conservation efforts, such as tourism, but this requires a considerable amount of investment upfront way before any revenue can be generate; this can or will be difficult for underdeveloped and developing countries. There are also other methods to protect snow leopards as well, such as enforcing laws to prevent illegal poaching. But the key to all conservation efforts starts with information, and information regarding the state of snow leopards are still not entirely clear. Therefore more research must be carried out before possible policy and actions are to be taken. Therefore, as of right now, trophy hunting remains as a necessary evil because it's one of the few ways to generate large sums of revenue quickly to support conservation efforts. Because there are currently no clear methods that can generate the amount of revenue trophy hunting can without potentially causing even more environmental damage.

Background Information

Two snow leopards (Panthera uncia), Spiti Valley. By Ksuryawanshi via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia)

Bharal (Pseudois nayaur) at Hemis National Park. By Fabrice Stoger via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is a solitude apical predator mammal, an adult snow leopard can weigh between 25 to 55 kg (55 to 121 lb), its body size ranging from 120-155 cm, and tail length around 1 m[2]; varying based on male and female snow leopards, and the state of its nourishment. The primary and only habitat of snow leopards are in cold mountains at high altitudes. Due to this highly narrow niche of habitat, there are only a selected few countries. These countries includes China, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia and Mongolia[3], which harbour snow leopards; all of which are regions located within or close to the Himalayas. Due to the innate size of snow leopards, the range of its prey are also limit to other mammals in the mountains, these include blue sheep, Argali wild sheep, ibex, marmots pikas and hares. From time to time when there isn’t enough food, the livestocks of farmers as well (goats, horses, yak calves, etc.) are targeted as prey. [3]

Although snow leopards are highly adept high altitude hunters, changes in climate and rising tension with local human populations have lead to the decrease of snow leopard populations over the last 20 years. The world population of snow leopards are currently estimated to be around 4000 to 7000 alive in the wild[2], and is classified as vulnerable to endangered on its conservation status with its population continuously decreasing as of today. (There are discrepancies in snow leopard’s status because it’s highly difficult to determine its population  accurately due to its scarce, solitude and secretive nature) Multiple reasons lead the decrease of snow leopard population, such as retaliatory killings by local farmers, hunters of snow leopards prey and food source -such as Argali or otherwise known as mountain sheep-, lose of habitat due to human settlements. And the major long term threat of climate change, which can lead to massive lost of habitat.[3]

Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur)

Though there are many different animals that serves as prey for snow leopards, one of its primary prey is blue sheep. Blue sheep is a mammal that resides in mountain ranges, but prefers gentle slopes where it can feed easily and raise their young with relative ease. But a key behavioral habit of blue sheep is remain within around 200 m of an upward cliff face allowing it to escape predators with relative ease. Blue sheep are highly resilient creatures that that withstand most environment extremes. The Blue Sheep may be found in regions ranging from hot and dry to cold, windy, and snowy, and elevations from below 1,200 m to 5,300 m. [4] Due to this high resiliency of blue sheep, it is classified is "Least Concerned" on the Red List as of 2014. [5] This is fortunate for snow leopards, because it is not under threat of starvation since there are plenty of prey available. This also reduces the need for human assistance in keeping snow leopards alive, and vice versa, it eliminates the chance of wild snow leopards becoming reliant on humans to survive and is no longer capable of surviving independently in nature.

Effects of Climate Change on Snow Leopards

Satellite Image of Indo-Gangetic Plain by NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Snow leopards only have one specific habitat where they reside in, the Himalayan Mountains. And due to this highly niche ecological zone, snow leopards are especially vulnerable to climate change because it has no other habitat it can transfer. A recent study have shown that climate change have caused a shift in treeline, consequently shrinking the subalpine zone, it is estimated that about 30% of snow leopard habitat have been lost already. Habitat shrinkage of this magnitude will have a significant effect on the population of any organisms, this impact is enhanced even further for snow leopards because they require a large amount of area to live and hunt in.  Although the remaining Himalayan habitats have shown to be more resilient to climate change, these areas needs to be secured. This is because despise its natural resilience to climate change, it is not sheltered from human influence, such as animal grazing, retaliatory killings, medicinal plant collection… [1]

Climate change also influences the distribution of prey for snow leopards as well, which have a compounding effect on the shrinking habitats of snow leopards. This is because snow leopards not only need a large enough area for it to roam around, it also needs to settle at where its food source –prey- can be located and hunted. A recent study carried out in Nepal have shown that the affected the distribution and population of blue sheep –Bharal-, due to the predation and prey relationship this has also limited areas which snow leopards can reside in. For Nepal specifically, about 11.67% -17,190km2- is of Nepal is suitable for snow leopards. But when its prey, the blue sheep- is taken into account, only 5,435km2 –reduced by 24.02%- is suitable as a snow leopard habitat. And the available habitat is predicted to continually decrease in the future as well as a consequence of climate change. With the combine effect of direct shrinkage of snow leopard habitat and prey habitat, it is evident that snow leopards are under serious threat from climate change. Since loss of habitat can be lethal to a population very rapidly, and can be very difficult to recover from.[6]

Interaction between Local Human Populations in the Indo-Gangetic Plain

Panthera unica has a negative interaction, mainly consisting of predation of livestock, with human populations in the region known as the Indo-Gangetic plain, which comprises of Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

A blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) killed by snow leopard (Panthera uncia) via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Conflicts and Predation of Livestock of Local Farmers in Himalayan Mountain Ranges

Panthera unica, commonly known as the snow leopard, is widely spread in the mountainous region of the Indo-Gangetic plain[7]. In the Himalayan mountain ranges, local farmers face hardship as they try to prevent their livestock from being preyed upon by the snow leopard population. In Pakistan, there have been reports of multiple sightings of snow leopards and signs of disturbance, such as remnants of tracks and scat, near villages in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, previously known as the Northern Frontier Province. In addition, snow leopards prey upon the domestic livestock holdings that are available at villages in this approximate region. With large livestock populations, there were considerable increase for high levels of livestock predation by snow leopards[8]. In Nepal, a survey conducted from 1988 to 1990, villages in the Manang area experienced significant losses of livestock comprising of 60 and 72 animals in their respective years which represented 2.6% of the total livestock. The primary losses were comprised of goats, but included yaks, horses and sheep. Other villages experienced higher losses of 5.1% of total livestock.[9] Predation of livestock were based on seasonal conditions where the majority of livestock loss was in the winter. In these regions, human population density within the snow leopard habitat is overall low, and as such the traditional livestock production system in place are an important form of land use and means of livelihood[8].

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a trophy hunting program was introduced, where community members are given an incentive to eliminate snow leopards. These incentives are primarily comprised with the goal of protecting livestock, with secondary goal of protecting wild ungulates hence promoting ungulate conservation. Villages will receive up to $4000 USD for ungulate conservation[7].

Trophy Hunting of Prey in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan legally allows the trophy hunting of two ungulate species, the Siberian ibex (Capris sabrica) and the Marco Polo Sheep (Ovis ammon), that are both snow leopard prey.[10] Because the Snow leopard relies on the ungulate species for prey, the increased trophy hunting of these animals has affected leopard populations. According to Dr. Emil Shukurov, ecologist and Professor at the International University of Central Asia, "The hunting of ibex and argali sheep has had a knock-on [effect] on the snow leopard – the situation is so bad we only have three breeding populations of snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan,”[11] Trophy hunting in Kyrgyzstan also faces issues with inadequate governmental oversight and problems with the setting of quotas.[12]

Ecological Benefit to the Conservation of Snow Leopards

Snow leopards are classified as a endangered species by the IUCN Red List with a global population numbering in only the thousands as it continuously declines[13]. An effort to prevent the extinction of this species and to stabilize the ecosystem was implemented. The idea of trophy hunting was created in the mid 1970's by Major Amanullah Khan[14]. The concept trophy hunting allowed hunters to hunt for rare species by paying a large sum of money. This sum of money is 20/80 split in favor of the community according to The National Council for the Conservation of Wildlife in the summer of 2000[14]. By limiting the number of allowed snow leopard hunting on protected sites, we can keep the population of the prey species in check. Furthermore, the main purpose of allowing trophy hunting is to raise funds for the community to improve on their conservation program. Funds are typically used to support research on wildlife, buying land for the refuge system, wildlife management programs, purchasing lands open to hunters, and hunter education programs[15]. The opportunity cost in the form of ecological benefit greatly outweigh any negatives that come with hunting the snow leopard.

Options for remedial action for Conservation of Snow Leopards

Ecotourism

Himalayan settlements located on high mountains. By Pawan Chaudhary via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
Himalayan Homestays

Ecotourism is one way for local communities to generate money, and fund conservation efforts for the snow leopard. One such ecotourism effort known as the Himalayan Homestays program was launched by Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT)[16]. The program involves pairing visitors seeking to see snow leopards with local hosts at various Himalayan villages. In a 2019 study on the snow leopard's perceptions amongst Himalayan communities, University of Kent researcher Kate Vanneli found that the Himalayan Homestays program was successful in improving local perception of snow leopards, and lead to greater importance being placed on the animals' conservation by local communities.[17]

Global Snow Leopard Forum

Occurring in 2013, the Global Snow Leopard Forum (GSLF) has been the largest meeting to date on the subject of Snow Leopard conservation, with over 12 countries in attendance[18]. Countries present at the GSLF included those whom the Snow Leopard's natural amplitude spans, including: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Bishkek Declaration

Signed at the GSLF was the Bishkek Declaration, an agreement amongst the countries present to acknowledge, recognize, and support the necessity of Snow Leopard conservation.[19]

Prevention of Illegal Poaching

Citizen Ranger Wildlife Protection Program

Illegal hunting poses a large threat to snow leopard populations and can often be especially difficult to address as many of those poaching are often outsiders who are hard for local enforcement to stop.[20] One potential solution to the issue has been implemented in Kyrgyzstan, through a collaboration with the Kyrgyz government and the NGO, Snow Leopard Trust. The two came together in 2014 to launch the Citizen Ranger Wildlife Protection Program.[20] The program provides local park rangers and citizens with both specialized training from INTERPOL wildlife crime experts, and valuable equipment such as binoculars and crime scene investigation kits. Incentivizing each apprehension financially, the program has been shown to be successful thus far: it has been implemented in all 22 State Nature Reserves, with over a dozen instances of poachers being brought to justice since its start.[20]

Future Recovery and Outlooks to Combat Declining Population

Young Snow Leopard. By kuhnmi via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

In order to successfully assist snow leopards in recovering their endangered population, adequate research, experimenting, critical/creative thinking, and conservation efforts will be necessary. One of the natural ways to incentivize snow leopards to repopulate is to increase the population of their prey[21]. With the recovery of prey coming into their habitat, the snow leopards will have an abundance of food to use as survive, henceforth increasing the probability of the young leopards of maturing and reproducing. Prey such as the himalayan tahr and musk deer are irreplaceable prey for the snow leopard and they greatly contribute to the growth of young leopards because of their high nutritional value[21]. We can try and add more policies and Acts to protect the snow leopard's habitat/population. A good example of this is the 1972 Wildlife (Protection) Act that have the snow leopard fully protected as an endangered species, as well as the 1973 convention on International trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)[22]. India has enacted these two policies because they recognize the importance of the snow leopard as a tertiary species. If we lose the snow leopard, it can create a huge chain reaction that disturbs the ecosystem. It is imperative that conservation measures be taken in regions outside of India as well as withing national parks[22]. Furthermore, we can include incentive programs to motivate people/communities to protect snow leopards. We can take advantage of communities that hunt the snow leopards and incentivize them to protect them by offering them a favorable reward[23]. Snow leopards are usually hunted because some herders use their livestock as their main source of income, and snow leopards prey on those livestock sometimes. The snow leopard enterprise has a program that guarantees that they will purchase a certain number of specially designed handicrafts from herders[23]. The herders are given the incentive to sign the contract because it guarantees selling their items in return to committing to a specific conservation action, such as a complete ban on poaching of snow leopards and their prey[23]. In addition to that the incentive program can potentially strengthen conservation efforts and change the people's attitude towards wildlife and also reduce the interface between people and wildlife[23]. Lastly, we can have the government or authorities to put a ban on hunting snow leopards and their prey in a given area. This will give a safe protected area for the snow leopard to feed and reproduce without the danger from poachers.

Conclusion

Snow leopards are in a dire situation right now with their declining population throughout the decades. The snow leopards are in a critical situation right now as global warming and climate change are destroying their habitats. Humans have noticed this problem and creating conservation efforts to help the snow leopards. We need to look at the bigger picture and not only focus on snow leopards, because to protect a species, we must protect their habitat and ecosystems as well. We need to begin thinking about protecting the snow leopard's prey and the habitat that they thrive best in. Finding a suitable habitat can serve as a challenge because global warming is reducing the amount of places the snow leopard can thrive in. The practice of trophy hunting is critical in underdeveloped countries. This practice may not be the most ethical solution to the declining population of snow leopards; however, the concept of sacrificing few to save many more plays a big role for the future of this species. In order to ensure the survival of the species, various countries have created Acts, policies, and bans to protect the snow leopards. In addition to that, the snow leopard enterprise has a incentive program to encourage people to leave the snow leopards alone. Furthermore, the government has created multiple protected areas for the species to thrive in. All in all, the practice of trophy hunting may not be ethical compared to other conservation efforts; however, it is most definitely effective.

References

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