Friday June 02, 2023

The ghost of the mountains

By our correspondents
December 02, 2015
Changing climatic patterns across the world are not only affecting human populations but have drastically threatened wildlife species as well. Flash floods, widespread rains, cyclones, sea level rise, glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), heatwaves and weather-induced incidents have resulted in large-scale human migrations, depletion of natural resources and decline in endangered wildlife species.
Climate change, coupled with human-led activities, are leading to the deterioration of species habitats, exposing them to vulnerabilities. One such species is the snow leopard. The snow leopard is listed as endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
A recent study titled ‘Fragile Connections’ by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) states that warmer temperatures are resulting in the shrinking of the snow leopard’s habitat thus increasing their vulnerability to extinction. The report further confirms that there could be as few as 4,000 remaining snow leopards in the wild and just 2,500 breeding adults. The snow leopard range countries include Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Mongolia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Although the snow leopard is believed to be resilient to climate change impacts associated with increased greenhouse emissions, the small size of its population is making it vulnerable to changing climatic patterns in different areas. Increase in temperature as a result of climate change is causing glaciers to melt at a relatively fast speed, thus contributing to loss of habitat for snow leopards. Poaching, human encroachment and disappearance of prey species also have a negative impact on the big cat’s population.
Climate change is exacerbating these threats for the snow leopard, which has evolved over time to survive on some of the harshest and highest mountains in the world. These animals prowl the rocky regions of

Central Asia where vast areas of permanent frozen ground can be found. For the last few years, though, climate change has posed a serious threat to the population of the snow leopard as warmer temperatures are leading to the melting of glaciers and increasing aridity.
On the other hand, wildlife trafficking has become a serious issue as many endangered wildlife species are poached and smuggled. In some cases, snow leopard poaching has been reported from Pakistan. People kill this majestic species for its skin and sell its cubs; obviously this is against national and international law.
Deforestation and human encroachments are also escalating the habitat degradation of the snow leopard. The construction of roads as well as mining activities is affecting the snow leopard population and has driven them to other areas.
The conflict between humans and wildlife is the biggest issue the species faces across the world, including in Pakistan. Communities kill the animal in retaliation to loss of livestock, which the snow leopard kills as prey. According to WWF, around 70 snow leopards have been killed during the last 10 years in the Gilgit-Baltistan region.
In addition to this, transmission of livestock diseases in snow leopards is a cause of concern for conservationists. Outbreak of the foot and mouth disease in snow leopards has been reported in Pakistan and India. Further, feral dogs are also said to be affecting snow leopards.
Although snow leopards are facing multiple threats, local communities are sensitised about the importance of the species as they continue to take steps for its conservation. On an icy-cold day in December 2012 a snow leopard cub was found along the banks of Khunjerab River, Gilgit-Baltistan and rescued by the Khunjerab Villagers Organisation (KVO) with the assistance of the Wildlife Department, Gilgit-Baltistan. The cub was named Lolly (which means ‘sweet younger brother’ in the Wakhi language) and kept in a cage for four months. Fed two kilograms of meat every day, it was also taken on regular exercise walks.
Such rescue operations are helping conserve endangered wildlife species in Pakistan. Saeed Abbas, conservation officer at WWF-Pakistan says that “proper mechanism is required to release them [rescued wildlife] into their habitat”. On Lolly, he says: “During the past three years Lolly has grown up in captivity, yet no one knows the fate of this animal. Therefore a proper policy mechanism needs to be devised to keep rescued snow leopards in captivity and later release them into their natural habitat.”
Snow leopards cannot survive without immediate human action. Therefore, WWF is campaigning to raise awareness among people, world leaders and politicians to take decisive action on climate change. Furthermore, WWF is also working on effective planning that can help mitigate the threats posed by climate change to the snow leopard population. It is also supporting and implementing projects in almost all of the snow leopard range states. Working with local communities has also produced good results for the conservation of the endangered species.
A robust conservation strategy is needed to increase the population of the snow leopard. Most important is trans-boundary cooperation between countries that are host to the snow leopard. A secure prey base for snow leopards should be ensured by increasing prey animals within its habitat.
Conservation organisations and relevant government departments should initiate awareness-raising campaigns focusing on rescue and release of injured or sick snow leopards and their cubs into their natural habitat. Illegal hunting of snow leopards should be strictly banned in the region and strict action should be taken against the poachers so that such incidents do not happen in the future. The human-snow leopard conflict, which is the biggest threat the snow leopard faces in Pakistan, can be reduced by introducing livestock compensation schemes and advising communities not to encroach on the snow leopard habitat.
There is a dire need to increase snow leopard protected areas in Pakistan and improve restoration and management of the existing snow leopard habitat to promote conservation. The government should encourage university students and researchers to conduct research on the various aspects of this majestic species. They should also document the impacts of changing weather patterns on the snow leopard’s behaviour and monitor its population if we are to succeed in conserving the ghost of the mountains.
The writer is a freelance contributor on environmental issues.
Twitter: @AsifSandeelo