In order to survive, the endangered snow leopard needs sufficient wild prey. In the last decades, a lack of prey has become a threat to the cat in many parts of its range, populations of ibex, bharal and other prey species have declined. In some areas, this was mainly due to unsustainable hunting. In the Indian Himalayas, on the other hand, overgrazing of fragile pastures by domestic livestock has been a bigger problem.
In 1998, we piloted a new approach to address this problem: we partnered with the community of Kibber, a village in India’s Himalayas to set aside grazing reserves for wild ungulate species like the bharal (also known as the blue sheep). The people of Kibber had long been leasing some of their pasturelands to migratory herders, who would pass through the area seasonally. Because of the damage this would cause to the pastures, they had recently discontinued the practice of leasing out land. Under our agreement, instead of leasing the lands for livestock grazing, they would set it aside as a grazing-free area for wild snow leopard prey species to thrive in.
We agreed to compensate the community for the income they’d forfeit at the same rate they could have earned by leasing the land. The agreement, which had originally been for five years, has since been renewed three times, and the reserve size has increased from 500ha in 1998 to just over 5000ha today.
To measure the impact of the approach, we’ve continuously monitored the bharal population in and around the reserve ever since it was set up in 1998.
A fourfold increase
“It took four years for a change to register, but in 2002, we first noticed a statistically valid increase in the number of animals”, says Charu Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science & Conservation Director.
From there, the population continued to grow quite rapidly until 2008. “By then, we had four times as many bharal in the area as before the reserve was set up”, he adds.
In the last 8 years, the number of bharal has remained mostly stable. It seems as if the population has reached the area’s natural carrying capacity.
While there is no conclusive data to prove that this recovery is solely due to the grazing-free reserve, there are good reasons to assume it’s played a very important role: “There hasn’t been a significant increase in bharal populations in other parts of Spiti that don’t have grazing-free reserves”, Charu Mishra says.
But what about the snow leopards? Did the growing number of prey lead to a growing population of the endangered cat? There’s no direct evidence at this point – in part because it’s so hard to count snow leopards, and in part because there are always multiple factors that influence population numbers. “We don’t have long-term data on the region’s snow leopard population, so we can’t say for certain how the reserve has affected the area’s cats. However, we do know from various studies that the availability of prey is one of the most important factors that influence the density of snow leopards in a given area”, says Charu Mishra. “We’ve also seen a higher density of snow leopards in the Kibber reserve than anywhere else in Spiti on our camera traps pictures.”
The success of the Kibber reserve has inspired our team in India to negotiate with other partner communities, and to create five more grazing-free reserves in Spiti, and an additional three in Ladakh.
“A fourth Ladakhi reserve has just been created in partnership with the village of Hemiya this summer”, says Snow Leopard Trust India Program Director Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi.
Good for cats – but what about the communities?
We’ve seen the positive impact the grazing-free reserves are having on wild snow leopard prey – and, presumably, the cats themselves. But, as we found out soon after the bharal population in Kibber began to grow, this impact has also brought with it certain new challenges for the communities that have agreed to set the reserves up:
“The growing numbers of bharal have increasingly been causing damage to local farmer’s crops, particularly in summer”, Suryawanshi explains.
Spiti’s economy is currently undergoing a transformation process. Agriculture is becoming more and more important, while livestock rearing is on the decline. In the past few years, locals have seen an influx of funds from the sale of green peas—a cash crop that is now commonly cultivated across the valley in addition to barley, which is the traditional crop. As these crops are becoming increasingly important for local livelihoods, this damage from wild ungulates has had a strong negative impact on people’s attitudes toward wildlife.
“We were faced with a classic dilemma: as we had hoped, the bharal population was recovering. But as the same time, the success of the grazing-free reserve was threatening to undermine the community’s tolerance for wildlife” Suryawanshi remembers. “Thankfully, in a community meeting, a group of locals brought up a great idea. They suggested we temporarily deploy local guards that could chase bharal away from the community fields and keep crops safe during the most vulnerable times”, Suryawanshi says.
This approach has worked so well in reducing crop damage that the team has made it a default part of any grazing-free reserve.
“Conservation programs need to be adaptive to new challenges. These grazing-free reserves have been a good example. They’ve had the desired impact in terms of improving wild prey abundance, but we’ve also needed to learn and adapt them along the way and add additional elements to address new threats. There are no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions when it comes to conservation. No approach will address all the threats to wildlife, or all the problems a local community faces – but a suite of programs can make a real difference”, says Charu Mishra.