Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Saving the endangered snow leopard

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.

Herders' headache
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."

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Where have the gharials gone?

Once common throughout its range with an inferred population of 5,000 to 10,000 in the 1940s, the gharial numbers have gone gone down to less than 200 breeding adults.

When more than 100 gharials died in the Yamuna and Chambal rivers in India last year, it sent alarms among the conservationists and people started identifying gharial as one of the most threatened crocodilian species.

Croc with a pot on its snout
The gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) is characterized by its long and slender snout and mostly inhabits deep, fast-flowing rivers. Its name derives from the cartilaginous protruberance at the end of the adult male’s snout that resembles a Ghara, an earthen pot common to India and Nepal.

It is the only crocodile species in which the male is morphologically different from the female. The gharial, like other crocodiles, helps bring nutrients from the bottom of the riverbed to the surface, thus increasing primary production and fish populations and helping maintain the aquatic ecosystem.

"Critically Endangered"
Gharial is the first crocodilian species to be re-categorized as Critically Endangered on the 2007 IUCN Red List. It was common throughout its range with an inferred population of 5,000 to 10,000 in the 1940s.
Dr. Narendra Babu Pradhan, the Chief Warden of Chitwan National Park said, "During the period of 1981-2008, 691 gharials were released in Narayani, Rapti, Karnali, Babai, Koshi and Kali Gandaki rivers."

However, gharial numbers continue to plummet. A 2008 survey confirmed the presence of 81 individuals in the different rivers of Nepal, the number presumably higher due to the release of captive-bred gharials.

Radio tagging to track the movement
Fourteen radio tagged gharials were released in a make-shift enclosure at Dumariya ghat of the Rapti River. The duo of Dr. Antoine Cadi and Renan Aufray from the French NGO, Awely, helped the team from Chitwan National Park (CNP) to fit the gharials with radio transmitters.

The transmitters are attached to the scutes on the gharials' tails and each gharial has been provided a different number and radio frequency. They will be monitored based on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology by the team of CNP staff led by Bishnu Thapaliya and Madhav Khadka.

WWF's Country Representative to Nepal, Mr. Anil Manandhar said, "The study will help in diagnosing the causes of decline in the gharial population. It will also help us better understand the gharial’s habitat use — knowledge crucial for saving the most threatened crocodile in the world."

“Although conservation efforts such as the tagging and release of gharials are important steps in saving the species, a lot more is needed to ensure its long-term survival. Integrated efforts that include captive breeding, research and monitoring, and especially safeguarding gharial habitat and prey, are urgently needed, “ added Sarala Khaling, regional co-ordinator of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, which has largely funded this release and monitoring project.

Closer to extinction
Although hunting is no longer a threat to the species, the construction of dams, barrages, irrigation canals, sand-mining and riverside agriculture have all resulted in the irreversible loss of habitat for the gharial. The river pollution and overfishing have added to the woes of these crocodiles.

The gharial is now considered to be confined within the river systems of the Brahmaputra (India and Bhutan), the Indus (Pakistan), the Ganges (India and Nepal), and the Mahanadi (India), with small populations in the Kaladan and the Irrawady in Myanmar.

" The water quality of Nepalese rivers are better suited for gharial's survival," says Dr. Cadi. "If not saved in Nepal, they will be closer to extinction."

The monitoring of the released gharials will be helpful in formulating a long term conservation action plan to save these critically endangered species.