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.
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.