A snow leopard is hunt for its beautiful fur
God’s pets in peril
One of the world's most beautiful and elusive cats, the snow leopards (Uncia uncia), considered as God's pets by the local communities in the Himalayas, are in grave danger. They inhabit the high, rugged, harsh and barren environs and are distributed in the Himalayas, Hindu Kush and Pamir mountains. With an estimated world population of just 3,500 – 7,000 in the wild, they are listed on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species as "Endangered".
The snow leopards weigh between 27-54 kgs, their body length ranges between 0.74 – 1.30 metres with a tail nearly the same length. They possess thick fur which is pale with dark-gray to black spots. This aids in hunting by helping to camouflage the cat against the rocky slopes. Its large, broad paws act like snow shoes. The snow leopard even has a built-in scarf, its long, bushy tail that it often wraps around its body and face for added warmth when resting. This same tail helps the cat keep its balance as it leaps among rocky outcrops and narrow ledges after its agile prey. Its powerfully built, barrel-shaped chest gives it the strength to climb the steep slopes. Its long, muscular hind legs enable it to leap up to 10 metres—nearly six times its body length—in pursuit of prey.
Poaching for pelt and bones
The snow leopards are poached for their valuable fur and bones used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). As the demand for Asian big cat bones increases, TCM producers turn to other large cats such as the clouded leopard and snow leopard as substitutes for the tiger bones. The bone trade is rapidly replacing fur trade. Herders living along Nepal’s northern border have been known to exchange snow leopard bones for domestic sheep breeding stock from Tibet. The sale of bones offers poor mountain communities an opportunity to generate substantial income, especially where enforcement is weak and the penalties insignificance.
As the natural prey base depletes, the snow leopards attack livestock and fall victim to retaliatory killing. "Loss of prey mainly occurs due to poaching of prey species like musk deer and Himalayan tahr or due to the competition for grazing grounds between livestock and prey species," says Kamal Thapa, Research Officer with WWF. "Snow leopards get killed in retaliation by the herders when they attack livestock during times when their natural prey is scarce."
Human-snow leopard conflicts often increase in the winter, as the cats follow the herds of Himalayan blue sheep down to lower altitudes. Food is scarce, and hungry snow leopards occasionally kill and eat domestic livestock. In an incident, a snow leopard killed 100 sheep and goats in its single attack in the Langtang Valley in Nepal. The herders are poor and the loss of even a single yak, sheep or goat is an unbearable pain for them. One herder said, "Snow leopards are robbers, they kill our yak and sheep." "If I find a snow leopard, I will kill it and eat its heart first."
Communities to the rescue of snow leopards
Despite the human-snow leopard conflict, people are now conscious that snow leopards are endangered and they should be saved. The herd owners have set up a common fund which is administered and managed by the Snow Leopard Conservation Committee – made up of members of the local community. This Committee is responsible for monitoring livestock depredation trends, fundraising, verifying claims, and deciding on the appropriate compensation, raising awareness on snow leopards conservation and monitoring prey population. This is very much a scheme for the herders by the herders.
The Livestock Insurance Scheme has proved to be one of the important tools to reduce conflicts between snow leopards and humans. When herders are compensated financially for occasional losses of their cattle they are less likely to kill snow leopards in retaliation as they no longer have to fear financial ruin. This scheme has been used in India, Pakistan and Nepal – where WWF created the first scheme in the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area of Eastern Nepal. Experience has shown that the livestock insurance scheme has proved effective in preventing retaliatory killing of snow leopards.
A good future ahead
There are 350 – 500 snow leopards in the wild in Nepal. They inhabit the Nepal's mountain protected areas from Kangchenjunga Conservation Area in the east to Shey Phoksundo National Park in the west. Replication of the successful Livestock Insurance Scheme in all the snow leopard habitats will help save these endangered animals. One local from Kangchenjunga said, "The awareness level has increased in our area." "Now even the herders have realized that they should save the snow leopards."