While her work is specific to the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, an important snow leopard habitat with vast tracts of land including Nature Reserves where many local herders live, her findings reinforce the importance of community-based conservation and working alongside herders and communities in high-altitude areas to protect snow leopards.
Official protected areas are an important tool in the conservation of many species and natural environments, including the snow leopard and its expansive habitat across 12 countries. But snow leopard conservation cannot rely on protected areas alone because snow leopards use large territories and the vast majority of protected areas are too small. A natural assumption might be to increase the size of current protected areas and create more, but this is not simple, because there are many factors involved: proper habitat, location, connectedness and more. Snow leopards share the majority of their range with humans, many of whom have stewarded this land for thousands of years. If our conservation efforts are to be successful, it’s essential that we partner with these communities and explore ways to promote coexistence between snow leopards and humans – and prey species and humans – across these unprotected areas.
LingYun sought to better understand how humans, snow leopards, and blue sheep coexist in the Sanjiangyuan region of China. The dominant land use here is pastoralism, as it has been for thousands of years. However, livestock density has risen dramatically in the last century and its effect on local blue sheep and snow leopard populations has not been well documented. Her research explores how an increase in nomadic livestock grazing activities has occurred without significant detriment to the blue sheep and snow leopard population.
The study utilized seven sites spaced over hundreds of kilometers, 373 nomadic household interviews, thousands of camera trap images and 800+ kilometers of transect surveys. With this methodology she found that surprisingly, nomadic livestock grazing did not have a strong negative impact on blue sheep distribution. The results suggest this is because of spatial niche segregation of both animals, especially during the leaner winter months when blue sheep keep to the higher elevations while livestock grazing dominates the flat meadows in valleys. The elevation separation enables blue sheep and livestock to coexist. She also found that snow leopards in this area kept to the more rugged high terrain as well, probably given their highly specialized diet (of blue sheep) in this habitat. This niche separation therefore could allow for livestock and humans to successfully coexist with snow leopards.
While the general findings may be found in other snow leopard habitats, there are other factors quite unique to the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. For example, Tibetan herders reported a high tolerance for livestock predation, possibly for cultural or religious reasons. Herding practices have also changed in the last few decades, with herders increasingly favoring lowland valley pastures over higher mountain pastures, which allows for this niche separation of blue sheep and livestock. Since the 1990s there has also been significant restrictions on gun access, which has heavily reduced poaching of both prey species and snow leopards.
This study highlights the importance of partnering with communities that are coexisting with snow leopards in both protected and unprotected landscapes. It also reinforces the importance of continually monitoring snow leopards and their prey species across different landscapes to better understand these niche behaviors and how they impact human-wildlife coexistence – adding to our ever-growing roadmap for protecting snow leopards.
The full paper entitled “Spatial separation of prey from livestock facilitates coexistence of a specialized large carnivore with human land use,” was published in the journal Animal Conservation in March 2022. Dr. LingYun Xiao is an associate professor with Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. To request a copy of the published paper please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Panthera, Snow Leopard Trust and Conservation Leadership Program provided funds for this research. Thanks to the local field assistants and volunteers who helped in conducting the research.