Meet Shoaib Hameed, who recently completed his Ph.D. in Zoology and Wildlife Ecology at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Title of PhD thesis: Ecology and Conflict Dynamics of Apex Predators in Northern Pakistan.
Supervisor: Dr. Muhammad Ali Nawaz
University: Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad
What inspired you to pursue wildlife conservation as a career?
It’s an interesting story. I did my masters of science in zoology and wanted to get admission to the philosophy program in the same department, but unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – I could not. There was a new department in wildlife management, and I received admission there. I did that initially with a heavy heart, not realizing that the decision was about to change my life.
The turning point was when Dr. Muhammad Ali Nawaz – who had taken over as Snow Leopard Trust’s Country Director of Pakistan – approached the University to engage researchers in snow leopard research. I was one of the students recommended by the department. Ali encouraged me and provided a lot of opportunities. I completed my masters degree under his co-supervision and during the process visited northern Pakistan many times, which inspired me. Then I got an opportunity to join Snow Leopard Foundation and spent a lot of time in the field for the next few years, which completely changed my life. I discovered that I could not do anything else. As Ali started teaching and supervising students at Quaid-i-Azam University, I received admission in a Ph.D. program under his supervision.
What inspired you to pursue a Ph.D.?
I had been involved in snow leopard and carnivore research during and after my masters degree. I had been collecting data from different parts of snow leopard range, which grew my interest in this field. I always wanted to pursue a Ph.D. and was encouraged and motivated by both Ali and my family. When I finally got the opportunity, I went for it.
Tell us a little about your Ph.D. project
My Ph.D. dissertation was titled “Ecology and Conflict Dynamics of Apex Predators in Northern Pakistan”. I selected the snow leopard and brown bear as model predator species for this study. Both are iconic species in Pakistan and represent distinct habitats and foraging strategies, while still having overlapping ranges in the high mountains in the country’s north.
The overall goal of my study was to fill critical knowledge gaps related to the species’ distribution, population and their interactions with human populations. My study used data collected through modern techniques like camera trapping and molecular genetics, in combination with advanced analytical methods. I constructed distributional ranges for snow leopards and brown bears through predictive modeling. These outputs were strikingly different from what was previously thought to be their distribution.
Although the current protected area network in northern Pakistan appears to cover most of the suitable habitats identified during this study, I was able to identify a few gaps. These gaps need to be filled through the expansion of existing protected area networks. I was also able to identify conservation hotspots for snow leopards and brown bears through habitat modeling and also estimate their population numbers in those areas.
I found research cameras to be more effective for species like the snow leopard that are individually recognizable and move along predictable routes, as compared to brown bear species where individuals are harder to recognize and don’t follow set trails.
I found that visual counts in alpine meadows were the simplest and most effective way of enumerating Himalayan brown bears. My study also revealed that negative human-predator interactions are a serious threat to the survival of large carnivores in Pakistan. Livestock killing, predator sightings and the well-being of communities were the key determinants shaping human attitudes to predators. The introduction of safety nets such as alternate livelihood sources, better livestock care and insurance to combat the economic losses due to predation and conservation education can promote acceptance of carnivores and longer-term coexistence between humans and predators in northern Pakistan and beyond.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your Ph.D. journey?
The biggest challenge was me! Despite having all the data, analytical training and writing experience, I got stuck and could not complete it for years. Call it writer’s block or whatever! It was the toughest time of my life. But my supervisor Dr. Ali was there all the time. He not only believed in me but helped me out of that phase so I could complete my work.
What would you like the impact of your project to be in your conservation work?
I’m already seeing the impact. Three landscapes in the Himalayas, Hindu Kush, and Karakoram-Pamirs identified in the study are now considered as national priority areas to to protect apex predators in Pakistan. These areas are considered model landscapes by the GSLEP, the 12-nation intergovernmental alliance for snow leopards.
What is a typical day like for you in the field?
Waking early in the morning (hardest part for me!), having a heavy breakfast, preparing my lunch (mostly consisting of crackers and dry fruits), packing a day pack that includes: maps, GPS, batteries and cameras. Working with teams of surveyors and local guides. Discussing and dividing areas to survey with other team members. Then I start walking.
Walk, run, glide up and down mountains up to 20-30 km, crossing streams (sometimes with shoes on and sometimes barefooted to save my shoes from getting soaked and heavy). I fall down and get bruised a lot. Looking for signs of snow leopards, its prey and other carnivores. Enquiring about routes and finding my way to proper locations. Collecting scats for genetic analysis. Taking care of my companions.
I enjoy it, it’s always an adventure. Each day you can face strong winds and sweat despite the chilly environment. It’s nice to rest at the top of some rock – calculating the time it will take to get back to camp. I try to explore as much as possible, and always finish the job at some point. Once I’m back at camp, I greet people there and tell them how the day was and inquire about their day while enjoying a cup of tea or coffee or soup. We have dinner and then play cards while joking and gossiping. Then we discuss the next day’s plans and go to sleep.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Hardest part is the full-time commitment that is required. I sacrifice aspects of my social life and sometimes make compromises in my personal life because snow leopard range is in such remote areas. But if one is dedicated to the work, one must make some compromises. There are often many days or weeks without contact with family and friends. If you are in the field, you will not hear any major news until you are back. Still, sometimes this aspect is also relieving as you are in nature, away from most tensions.
Tell us about the first time you saw a wild snow leopard.
I was in Chitral at SLF’s office when I heard that a snow leopard had been sighted in a nearby area. It was late afternoon with about an hour of daylight left. We immediately rushed to the spot, praying that the snow leopard didn’t leave before our arrival. We reached the area and saw her sitting near the carcass of a domestic goat. She was resting deep in a canyon and we were standing on top of a rock above. She was a very cool and calm animal. The light was not good, and we weren’t carrying a good quality camera with us to photograph her properly. Still, we took some poor-quality photos.
What is most surprising to you about snow leopard conservation work? Or about people’s perceptions of your work?
What’s most surprising for me is that people are not so negative about snow leopards as compared to other predators like wolves, even if the former has contributed more lost livestock to them. Perhaps it’s the beauty of snow leopards – they are so adorable that anyone who sees one starts loving it. It is also a positive thing for snow leopard conservation and convincing people to take action for them.
Why are local communities so crucial to the conservation of snow leopards?
Because local communities share ecosystems with snow leopards. They have direct interactions, and sometimes conflicts, too. Without involving local communities, it is not possible to conserve snow leopards. If we work with local communities, they can become custodians of snow leopard conservation and it will become a much easier task. But it cannot be achieved without safety nets such as compensation, livestock protection, etc., as most of the families living there are so poor that they cannot bear the loss of livestock.
Snow Leopard Trust is immensely grateful to our supporters for enabling this crucial scientific research and community-led conservation efforts.