Sajjad Hussain, a farmer and social worker, lives in the remote Kanju Kohsal village in Gilgit-Baltistan, nestled within the Karakoram mountain range in Central Asia.
Like many other locals, Sajjad kept his household livestock in a communal stone-walled corral overnight.
In the middle of the night, he heard murmurings and yelps reminiscent of stray dogs, but upon waking and peering out his window, a snow leopard was spotted on the prowl.
In balance with nature
It might be hard for a city-dweller to imagine a life that is directly reliant on the elements of nature - where sudden and erratic weather changes can spell the difference between prosperity or poverty; where quotidian tasks are reliant on the changing sun, rain, and seasons; where an attack on one’s livestock can mean disaster and diminished futures for an entire family.
Such is indeed the case for the communities that live in the snow leopard range.
Community relationships with nature are as complex as nature itself; both provide livelihood and life, but these relationships can also be unpredictable and bring destruction if the balance with nature is compromised. One of the major human-nature conflicts that the Snow Leopard Foundation (SLF) focuses on is the conflict between communities and carnivores.
On the prowl
For Sajjad on the night he spied the snow leopard prowling, by the time he had hailed other villagers and made his way back to the corral, dozens of livestock had been scattered, many of whom had been fatally mauled.
The carnage was so widespread that villagers initially wondered if multiple snow leopards had been involved, but in fact a single snow leopard can kill upwards of 20 sheep or goats in a single attack, if the livestock are trapped in a pen.
This loss is not just borne by the livestock themselves, or individual villagers like Sajjad – the entire village suffered long-lasting economic and psychological damage.
As his fellow villagers mourned their losses and discussed retaliation, Sajjad contemplated a different approach. He decided to begin constructing two predator-proof corrals, using specifications and support from the SLF.
Reducing risks, an alternative to revenge
In a society where a significant share of both food production and disposable income is generated from livestock, a single carnivore attack can spell economic - and emotional - disaster. The loss of livestock, and any future offspring they would have produced, can engender a profound antipathy for carnivores. This hatred can fester and even lead to a desire for ‘revenge’. Shepherds and farmers are then more likely to kill carnivores - such as snow leopards - in a misguided effort to protect their livestock.
From conflict to cooperation
In direct response, the Pakistan Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (PSLEP) is a project that promotes a landscape approach for the survival of snow leopards and their prey by reducing threats to co-existence and applying sustainable land and forest management in critical habitats in Northern Pakistan.
Moving from conflict to cooperation, PSLEP is a Global Environment Facility financed project supported by UNDP and coordinated by the Pakistan Ministry of Climate Change, in conjunction with three provincial governments (Gilgit Baltistan, Khybey Pakhtunkhwa, and Azad Jammu & Kashmir) PSLEP is implemented by NGO partner the Snow Leopard Foundation (SLF).
The locals now appreciate and value activities being conducted under community support initiatives, as they see the benefits to them and their environment.
Through interventions like community-based livestock insurance and vaccination programs, the project is supporting local herders to become more resilient to livestock losses, and people’s attitudes towards snow leopards have improved as a consequence.
Other initiatives include the establishment of nature clubs in local schools, development of skill centers for women artisans, and development of conservation tourism sites.
One of the PSLEP’s key components is capacity building for provincial wildlife staff. This ensures the engagement of wildlife staff in field activities, surveys, and research. Periodic training sessions include upskilling in survey and research tools and equipment.
Healthy livestock, happy life
Whilst snow leopard attacks can account for about 5% of livestock mortality in PSLEP project areas, diseases claim a full 20%. Though snow leopard depredation may feel more tangible and urgent, insofar as it results from an identifiable flesh and blood enemy rather than an elusive disease, statistically it is only about one-fourth as serious a threat to livestock as disease. That is why securing livestock health is imperative for securing the financial future of these families, and in turn to conserve snow leopards and their habitat.
The current pandemic highlights the importance of livestock health for humans; diseases that are eradicated in animals can’t become zoonoses and play havoc with human society.
This is why SLF has been conducting bi-annual vaccination drives in all three project landscapes. Each year almost 200,000 livestock are vaccinated and protected in these areas, which results in higher survival rates and more offspring. As livestock populations increase, so too does community resilience and confidence. This has also raised awareness on the importance of livestock health, as beneficiaries can see the ancillary benefits of healthy livestock, in the form of higher income and greater resilience to depredation.
Prevention over predation
Predator-proofing of corrals has emerged as an important conflict-mitigation tool. In Pakistan, many communities have traditionally shared large corrals, which can hold the livestock of several families. These are usually solid constructions of stone and wood, but their doors and roofs are often unsecured and allow predators easy access. The decline in wild ungulate populations due to forage competition from livestock is another threat to snow leopards.
Sajjad recalls that previously, ‘the villagers used to guard the old, partial[ly] damaged conventional corral with stone walls only 1.2 meters high. But following the construction of new corrals with the support of the project, [villagers] now sleep peacefully, no longer in fear of carnivore attacks - including snow leopards.'
Prevention is better for farmers when it comes to predation, so investment in more secure corrals to decrease snow leopard attacks is key to improving perceptions and attitudes around snow leopards and secure herder livelihood. Preventing predation directly helps reduce a major threat to snow leopards, and is an immediate response to a pressing issue for many communities residing in snow leopard habitat. Furthermore, by building robust physical infrastructure, communities are directly benefitted. These direct benefits to communities help SLF to build strong bonds of trust and respect in project communities.
Under PSLEP, the construction of 50 corrals in project areas has been planned. In addition to protecting local livestock – and by extension carnivores - through mitigating human-predator conflicts, these corrals are providing valuable employment opportunities for the communities, via hiring local masons and laborers to build and maintain the structures.
Even when the herders build the corrals themselves, they are gaining a marketable skill that not only builds their own capacity, but which can be taught to others as well. These corrals also protect animals from harsh weather conditions and help reduce the spread of contiguous diseases by providing more secure and hygienic spaces for livestock.
These improvements facilitate a healthier relationship between locals and snow leopards, and ensure buy-in from farmers like Sajjad, and communities like Kanju Kohsal.
Conservation tourism to protect biodiversity
Providing opportunities to local communities via livelihood enhancement is another form of insurance against snow leopard predations and loss of livestock. Under this model, a pilot conservation tourism site was developed in Hopar Valley in the Nagar District of northern Pakistan.
The pilot tourism site includes a tourist information center, glacier lookout point, and glamping site. Trekking to Pakistan’s highest lake (Rush Lake) and the opportunity to watch wildlife and local peaks are part of tour packages developed for tourists. This site now provides employment opportunities, promotion of local handicrafts and local food, and other products from the Hopar community for the betterment of their livelihoods.
Empowering rural women as change-agents
Another initiative for building livelihoods is the development of skill centers for women artisans. The Snow Leopard Enterprises Programme (SLEP) is a multifaceted and holistic initiative that addresses behavior change, compensatory mechanisms, and structural needs of communities to establish a better relationship with nature and carnivore populations.
The SLEP empowers community members to become change-agents and conservationists in their communities. The SLEP focuses specifically on uplifting women, as they have the power to transform families financially while also cementing behaviour change by educating their children and other community members.
For rural female artisans there is a positive ripple effect of conservation in their community and linking them with a national and global market, SLEP garners various socioeconomic and conservation benefits that further strengthen SLF’s core work.
This piece was originally posted on Exposure by the UN Development Programme.
For more information about the work GEF is funding on snow leopard conservation, please read the publication Silent Roar.