Our team in China has enlisted monks at several Buddhist monasteries on the Tibetan Plateau to help protect snow leopards. They are convinced that these monasteries can be crucial partners in the fight to save these endangered cats.
A majority of people on the Tibetan Plateau in China – and across the snow leopard range – practice Tibetan Buddhism, a faith that highlights love, respect and compassion for all living beings.
Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are often found in the same high-mountain areas that snow leopards inhabit – and they have long had an important role in protecting nature and wildlife. Since Tibetan Buddhism considers the snow leopard and other wildlife as well as their habitat sacred, monks would patrol wild landscapes surrounding monasteries and implement edicts against killing wildlife.
When Dr. Li Juan, researcher with the Snow Leopard Trust and Peking University, was first interviewing a group of local herders in the Sanjiangyuan region in China’s Qinghai Province for a study on human-wildlife conflicts [i], she was struck by how often people would say it was a sin to kill wildlife in their Tibetan Buddhist faith.
Linking Science and Conservation with Local Culture
Aware of the importance of so-called sacred lands as repositories of biodiversity outside formal protected areas in many parts of the world, Li Juan immediately saw a possibility to link formal conservation efforts on the Tibetan Plateau to existing cultural and social traditions – and create strong partnerships for snow leopards.
In a pilot program, Li Juan and her colleagues, led by Professor Lu Zhi, started working with four monasteries in Sanjiangyuan, training monks to monitor and protect wildlife and supporting them in teaching tens of thousands of people about the conservation value of snow leopards through festivals and educational programs. After working with them for three years, Li Juan has grown convinced that Tibetan Buddhist monasteries can indeed be a crucial partner in protecting the cats, in Sanjiangyuan and beyond.
Supported by the Snow Leopard Trust, our China partner ShanShui Conservation Center, and Panthera, Li Juan then set out to understand the relationship between Tibetan Buddhism and Snow Leopard conservation, and investigate and map the spatial relationship between Tibetan Buddhism and snow leopard habitat – a study she has now published in the journal Conservation Biology [ii]
Li Juan found that almost half of the 336 Buddhist monasteries in the Sanjiangyuan region were located inside snow leopard habitat, and 90% were within 5 km of snow leopard habitat. Sanjiangyuan contains a large nature reserve protecting crucial snow leopard habitat. Interestingly, Li Juan found that together, these 336 monasteries were protecting more snow leopard habitat than the core zones of the nature reserve.
While nature reserves are limited to a few particularly crucial areas, the influence of Tibetan Buddhism expands across the entire snow leopard range. Li Juan and her team estimate that Tibetan Buddhism may be practiced throughout as much as 80% of the world’s snow leopard habitat – with monasteries often playing a central role in local culture.
Helping the Monks Help the Cats
According to Li Juan and her coauthors, these monasteries could be especially effective conservation allies in the protection of snow leopards because of their geographical location: The mountains where monasteries are located often serve as boundaries of counties, provinces, or even countries. It is usually difficult for governments to manage such areas effectively due to boundary issues, whereas the influence of monasteries often crosses administrative boundaries.
Compared with nature reserves, which have a few centralized conservation stations, monasteries are numerous and scattered. They can be especially efficient in protecting numerous discontinuous and dispersed smaller snow leopard habitats that cannot be effectively protected by nature reserves.
While many Buddhist monasteries have traditionally been protecting ecosystems and wildlife, they often lack official rights that would allow them to be even more effective. “We suggest local governments and nature reserves could confer some management rights to monasteries and communities. It would, for instance, help monasteries and local communities if they had a legal right to evict poachers and illegal miners from their holy sites”, Li Juan explains.
Several local agreements to do this are already being implemented on the Tibetan Plateau. At the same time, our China team is helping monks and community members learn wildlife-monitoring skills, effective patrolling techniques, and ecology to supplement their knowledge of traditional conservation practices.
Li Juan’s work suggests that combining modern scientific methods, traditional cultural approaches and cooperation from local and state authorities could be a key to effective conservation – and to the snow leopards’ future.
The Snow Leopard Trust and the authors are grateful to The BBC Wildlife Fund and the Whitley Fund for Nature for supporting this important work.
[ii] Role of Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries in Snow Leopard Conservation. Juan Li, Dajun Wang, Hang Yin, Duojie Zhaxi, Zhala Jiagong, George B. Schaller, Charudutt Mishra, Thomas M. McCarthy, Hao Wang, Lan Wu, Lingyun Xiao, Lamao Basang, Yuguang Zhang, Yunyun Zhou, and Zhi Lu. Conservation Biology, Volume 00, No. 0, 1–8. 2013.