Snow leopards have long co-existed with livestock herding people across Asia’s high mountains. Such coexistence, however, implies potential competition between livestock and prey species for natural resources such as food plants, loss of livestock to predation, and the risk of retaliatory killing of predators. Community-based conservation is a central pillar for supporting people’s livelihoods and safeguarding predators and their habitat. In this work, we explored how different factors shaped herders’ views of snow leopards. We compared tolerance levels of people across communities with varying livelihoods, experiences with losing livestock to snow leopards and the levels of exposure to conservation interventions in the Sanjiangyuan Region in the Qinghai Province, China.
We interviewed 84 household members from communities with exposure to conservation interventions. They generally showed positive views and high levels of tolerance to snow leopards despite reports of livestock depredation by carnivores. We found religious and community leaders to be of great importance in shaping social norms around conservation in the area. Reinforcing and supporting these systems can aid conservation. The presence of alternative livelihood options, such as the sale of caterpillar fungus (a staple of traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine), may also reduce the perceived level of threat posed by snow leopards to household livelihoods. This suggests that human-snow leopard coexistence may be enhanced with diversified sources of income.
Importantly, we found that women tended to have more negative views of snow leopards, which may be associated with the division of labour between men and women at the household level. Conservation interventions often end up engaging more with household heads or community leaders, who are usually men. Conservation programs must take stronger steps to engage women as key actors in snow leopard and wider conservation work.
“After conducting the interviews, I spent two weeks living with two local families and recorded the daily routine of family members. I witnessed the gendered division of labour in which women are responsible for livestock care and housework while men are mainly active outside the household in trade and community activities. The typical day of women and older girls started at 5 am by milking yaks for 2-4 hours before releasing them to pasture. The women and girls then returned home to make ghee, cheese and yogurt using the fresh milk. They also undertook household chores, including making fire with yak dung, preparing meals, tidying the house and cooking. Towards late afternoon, they gathered the yaks. Depending on the distance and altitude, it took 1 to 4 hours to collect the dispersed yaks and herd them to the enclosures. The women also periodically collected, stacked and dried yak dung for fuel. Men, on the other hand, were generally away during the daytime, involved in trade and community activities. They frequently traveled by car or motorcycle to urban areas for pursuits such as selling caterpillar fungus.
The male heads were often conservation or environmental program participants who took part in activities such as camera trap maintenance and regular conservation meetings. This division of roles and responsibilities is typical in households in these remote pastoral areas. It perhaps explains the greater affinity towards livestock and negative attitude of women towards snow leopards. It also underscores the crucial need for conservationists to engage women in conservation programs. Recently, our collaborators at the ShanShui Conservation Center launched a handicraft project in a local village, which is the beginning of supporting women while respecting their already busy schedules. It helps bring in cash income and engage them in local conservation action.”
Co-existence with large carnivores still poses many challenges, and building herder resilience to livestock depredation remains a priority in these communities. The findings of this paper reinforce Snow Leopard Trust’s long-term strategic objective of strengthening the role of women in conservation and our Snow Leopard Enterprises livelihood initiative.
The full paper entitled “Factors shaping the tolerance of local Tibetan herders toward snow leopards” is published in the Journal for Nature Conservation.
This work was conducted as part of the Darwin Initiative Project entitled “Collaborative Conflict Management for Community Livelihoods and Conservation” (Project Reference: 22-044). We thank Steve Redpath, Juliette Young, and the rest of the Snow Leopard Project Darwin Initiative team for supporting this work. We thank Sanjiangyuan National Park Administration and the people’s government of Yushu Prefecture for their support.