Grazing-free Reserves Save Snow Leopards in India

Pastures are set aside for wild snow leopard prey to graze as part of a conservation partnership with communities in the Indian Himalayas.

Usually, we think of establishing protected areas as being a top-down phenomenon. But in snow leopard areas of northern India, the Snow Leopard Trust and its in-country partner, the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), are pursuing a different model. There, we are working with four communities to build protected areas from the grass roots up—literally. The communities have established grazing-free reserves, which protect select areas of pastureland to enable the recovery and restoration of the habitat, wild prey, and snow leopard populations.

Grazing-free reserves
The Indian Himalayas offer stunning vistas

The process begins, of course, with conscientious efforts to build rapport through ongoing research and conservation work, community meetings, and discussions with village leaders. In this area of the Himalayas, each community has traditional pastures for grazing their livestock.

So, to establish a grazing-free reserve, the community signs a contract with us in which they agree to set aside some of their pasture area for a certain period of time, usually three to five years (after which time the contract may be renewed). The community appoints guards to monitor the reserve and makes sure no resource use takes place inside its boundaries. To compensate for the loss of the pasture area, the Trust and NCF provide financial assistance that can be used for development work by the village councils that govern each community.

Currently there are four villages participating—Kibber, Chichim, Hanle, and Losar—and roughly 50 square kilometers of pasture protected. The oldest grazing-free reserve, near the village of Kibber, was established in 1998, and has been an enormous ecological success. The reserve is now home to the region’s highest density of bharal, or blue sheep—a major snow leopard prey species. In the most recent census, in November 2009, we counted 405 bharal there! And at least four snow leopards have been spotted in the reserve by our infrared trap-cameras.

As the population of bharal in the Kibber reserve has increased, it has deflected some of the snow leopard predation pressure on a nearby population of ibex that uses the Chichim grazing-free reserve, which was established in 2005. For many years this ibex population remained around 20-25 individuals, but in the past few years, we have been counting close to 50 individuals. We also have evidence that the animals are now using the reserve year-round (instead of migrating to higher pastures during the summer)—another positive sign.

A third grazing-free reserve, near the village of Hanle, was established specifically to protect the endangered Tibetan gazelle. Last year, one of our staff observed seven gazelle fawns in and around the reserve, so we’re hopeful that the population will show further signs of recovery in the years ahead.

The newest reserve, near Losar, was just formed last year and is believed to harbor snow leopards, around 50 Himalayan ibex, red fox, Tibetan wolf, and possibly wild dog (dhole).

Our observations, while limited, also show that the plant diversity is higher inside the reserves, suggesting that the protection benefits all parts of the ecosystem. And because the pastures are normally not used particularly intensively—the communities usually follow a grazing rotation—taking some of the pastureland out of use has not resulted in degradation of the remaining grazing lands.

Of course, the grazing-free reserve program is only one aspect of what makes our conservation programs in India successful. We are also working with communities to, for example, improve herding practices to prevent losses to wild predators, implement a community-run (and partly community-funded) livestock insurance program to reimburse families for such losses when they do occur, and carry out a conservation education program. We are also hoping to diversify our programs even more in the future, exploring avenues to launch an ecotourism program in the Kibber area.


  1. Hey, great news and highly interesting, but need a map. Clearly this is in India’s trans-Himalaya region (Ladak?) but I can’t be sure. Any nearby offical reserves or national parks?

  2. I am so thrilled to fread the report regarding the grazing -free reserve program. This is an example of research, brilliant minds, and diligent follow up, dedicationa nd work to preserve what little we have left of our incredible and bdeautiful wildlife. Thank you for your efforts. I will go ack and donatye to this dedicated and wonderful project!

  3. I am so thrilled to read the report regarding the grazing -free reserve program. This is an example of research, brilliant minds, and diligent follow up, dedicationa nd work to preserve what little we have left of our incredible and bdeautiful wildlife. Thank you for your efforts. I will go ack and donatye to this dedicated and wonderful project!

    1. Hi Gia,

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  4. It is very heartening to see that so much progress has been made in conserving the wildlife of this fascinating part of India. I was in the Kibber area during the summers of 1993, ’94 and ’97.

    In 1994 I had been watching a herd of 63 bharal in Thinam ‘Forest’ for most of a day. As I panted back to the nearby camp, my guide, Panna La Thakur, pointed to another herd that had come into view some distance to the south. I set up the spotting scope and counted 32 bharal as the climbed up the slope of a hill, so I had in view at one time 95 bharal.

    Earlier in the week I had counted 31 bharal on the Thalta plateau which lies to the east of the Parilungbi Gorge. I thought the bharal population was probably about 200 so it looks as though it could have doubled since the 1990s.

    In 1997 again on Thinam I followed a herd of 7 mature males up a mountain until I finally lost them in the mist. Coming down from that mountain I came across a snow leopard scat, and then realised I was on a snow leopard trail below a small rock face. I followed it to a cave and photographed the pug marks at the mouth of the cave.

    Despite having many wildlife memories from many parts of the world that is still one that gives me a great buzz.

    Thanks for your efforts in putting together a project that no doubt will be a template for other areas where there is a need to find an accommodation between pastrolism and large wild mammals.

    Rodney Aldis

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