Snow Leopards – An Endangered Species
Snow Leopards live in arid mountain areas and are found in only Central Asia, however due to human interference, today only an estimated 3,920 to 6,390 exist. They are highly intelligent and unique creatures with a non-aggressive behavior towards human-beings but are quite mysterious as well. Pakistan is one of the five countries where 75% of the snow leopards live. There are about 200 – 440 snow leopards, which are found in the Hindu-Kush and Karakoram Mountains in Azad Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and KPK.
They have been classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is the world’s biggest environmental organization as Endangered.
Causes of Decline of the Snow Leopards
There are four major reasons why these cats are becoming extinct:
- They are killed for their furs and also for medicinal purposes.
- More and more people are migrating to these areas, which is leading to a loss of their natural habitat.
- Loss of their natural prey due to illegal poaching leads to their attacking the local livestock being the only available substitute food source. In turn herders and villagers killing them in reciprocation and even as a precautionary measure.
- There is lack of awareness at all levels regarding the snow leopard and its ecological importance.
Efforts to Save the Snow Leopards of Pakistan
However for the past nearly two decades, there are certain organizations and individuals who are trying their utmost to create awareness and protect these cats. Some of them are:
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Gilgit-Baltistan
The WCS has been working in Pakistan since 1997, and has helped 65 communities, comprising of an estimated 400,000 villagers across the region to effectively manage natural resources and promote ecological development. It has trained local government personnel and more than 100 community rangers to look after wildlife and forests. The result has been very uplifting and specifically it has been very successful in safeguarding Pakistan’s national animal ‘Markhor’ whose population was decreasing very rapidly and has now been restored by 70%. This has been done by the many specially established community based conservancies. The Markhor has great environmental and economic value, and is the major kill of the Snow Leopard; thereby its conservation is very beneficial for these cats.
Dr. Shafqat Hussain: Founder of Project Snow Leopard, Pakistan
Shafqat Hussain is currently an Associate Professor at the Trinity College, Connecticut, USA since 2009, and holds a PhD degree in Anthropology and Environmental Studies from the University of Yale. In 1998 he created Project Snow Leopard to protect these animals. It has been implemented in Skoyo Valley in Baltistan. Around 12000 thousand people across 16 villages have become involved. The key areas are
- Studies/surveys conducted in order to understand the behavior and characteristics of snow leopards
- Creating awareness among the local people
- Introduction of a livestock insurances scheme which would give farmers considerable provision for loss of their animals (this has been applied in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India & Nepal as well)
- Protection for their livestock
The project was a runner up at the Whitley Awards 1999. In the same year it received funds from The Royal Geographical Society, London to start the project. In 2006 it received the Rolex Associate Laureate Award, due to which it gained worldwide recognition and has been continuously getting monetary assistance for its expansion.
This project is also a part of ‘Full Moon Trekking’ which provides people with the opportunity to experience one of the most scenic areas in the world as well as learn about the snow leopards.
Dr. Muhammad Ali Nawaz: Program Director of Snow Leopard Foundation, Pakistan
Dr. Muhammad Ali Nawaz is currently an Assistant Professor at the Department of Animal Sciences, Quaid-e-Azam University since 2011, and holds a Ph.D. in Ecology and Natural Resource Management from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.
Dr. Nawaz Wins the Whitley Award 2016
He has won the prestigious Whitley Award, UK which is also known as the ‘Green Oscar’ and is given by the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN). It was initiated in 1994, and specifically acknowledge those individuals who are making great contributions to the conservation of Wildlife, in lesser developed countries. His achievement will now make it possible to implement the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme (GSLEP). This would be the first scheme for creating landscapes that would be dedicated for conservation of the snow leopard and would serve as prototype for future planning.
The Snow Leopard Foundation (SLF)
At an international level the Snow Leopard Foundation is one of the 5 country partners of the ‘Snow Leopard Trust’ (an organization that has been working for the animals since 1998) and ‘Panthera’ (the only institute in the world that is working since 2006 solely for all wild cat species that exist). At a national level it partners with provincial wildlife divisions, local communities and the Ministry of Climate Change. The foundation was established in 2006 and is operating in Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan. At present it is led by Dr. Nawaz and fulfills the following objectives:
- Comprehensive investigations are continuously being conducted in order to collect important information required to effectively conserve wildlife. SLF has been successful in initiating ecological research practices in Pakistan.
- Providing the community with opportunities to increase their livelihood. For e.g. 65 trained females have made 8370 products under the auspices of the Snow Leopard Enterprise (SLE) program which have been sold nationally and internationally.
- To spread awareness and gather the support of the masses regarding the importance of conserving the snow leopards and other carnivores residing in the mountains. This is done through campaigns, field trainings for wild life assessment, workshops, reading material, supervising research work of university students and encouraging investors.
International Snow Leopard Day Celebrated
The 3rd International Snow Leopard Day was celebrated on 23rd October 2016, by Snow Leopard Foundation at Naltar Valley, (Gilgit-Baltistan) with the local community; specifically engaging school children. On this day in 2013, the groundbreaking Bishkek Declaration was signed at the first ever Global Forum on the Conservation of the Snow Leopard held at Kyrgyzstan. Pakistan also endorsed it, acknowledging the role of native people in helping conserve the animal and the high mountain eco-system. While 2015, was designated the International Year of the Snow Leopard.
WWF–Pakistan: Community-based Monitoring of Snow leopard and Improved Watershed Management (Asia High Mountains project)
This is a five year project which started in October 2012 and will end in September 2017. It is has been implemented in all the areas where snow leopards are found in Pakistan i.e. Chitral, District Hunza-Nagar, Gilgit-Baltistan, Hoper Valley, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Kalash valley and Laspur valley. It has been quite successful in achieving most of its goals; such as:
- Village conservation committees have been set up for proper management of natural resources
- Illegal hunting of snow leopards and its prey has been banned under a community managed system
- More than 100,000 cattle have been vaccinated to date
- Fodder and Plant cultivation has been introduced
- A pasture management plan has been developed
- Wildlife officials have been given regular training
- The grazing system has been upgraded
- Has created many means of income for women like poultry rearing, kitchen gardening and working at vocational centers
So commendable work being done by our people for their own people, wildlife and environment!