The snow leopard, like most of the world’s big cats, survives by keeping a low profile. Yet its secretive nature and penchant for living among some of the steepest, remotest mountain ranges on the planet have not saved the cat from human intrusions throughout most of its range.
First listed as globally endangered in 1972, snow leopards have declined by 20 percent over the past two decades throughout most of the 12 Central Asian countries they inhabit, from Afghanistan in the west to Mongolia in the east. Human activities – primarily habitat destruction, poaching and retaliatory killings to avenge livestock losses – present the biggest threats to the species’ survival.
Yet the prospects for the so-called grey ghost of the Himalayas appear much brighter in Bhutan, the homeland of Tshewang Wangchuk, a biologist dedicated to keeping the elusive cat a permanent fixture on the landscape he knows so well. “Bhutan,” says Wangchuk, “tells a different story.”
Tracking through Genetics
To gauge the health of snow leopard populations, biologists often survey the landscape for scat, tracks, scrapes and other potential signs of their distribution and abundance.
That approach works well enough in the drier regions of the western Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, Wangchuk says. But the monsoons that drench Bhutan also degrade scat and tracks, already hard enough to distinguish from those left by Bhutan’s diverse assemblage of native foxes, felines and wild dogs. (See “A Haven for Tigers” below.)
Wangchuk thought genetics approaches might provide more reliable identifications, but wasn’t sure he could even get enough scat to run DNA tests. Thanks in part to funding from the National Geographic Waitt Grants Program, Wangchuk, who now directs the Bhutan Foundation, and his collaborators managed to collect hundreds of samples. Their analysis brought good news. “Much to our surprise, we found that in Bhutan, snow leopards are not only surviving, but thriving in many places.”
The team found evidence of “snow leopard hotbeds,” Wangchuk says, with multiple groups of three or four cats at a time. Since the species prefers a solitary lifestyle, Wangchuk thinks the groups were likely mothers with grown cubs.
The team also discovered that it’s not practical to rely on tracks, scat and other signs to monitor the cats because the rich diversity of similar-bodied animals confounds identifications. Even Wangchuk’s most experienced trackers would swear that a scat came from a snow leopard out in the field only to be proved wrong more than half of the time by DNA tests back at the lab.
The research confirmed that the expense and logistical challenges of deploying camera traps and sign surveys in the rugged, inaccessible haunts of the snow leopard make these approaches impractical in Bhutan. Collecting scat along trails for DNA analysis makes much more sense, Wangchuk says.
Misperceptions about Conflict
Bhutan’s forbidding landscape may make tracking leopards tougher for biologists but it also protects the rare cat from mining, illegal logging and other habitat-destroying activities that threaten the species in northeast India, Mongolia and other regions. Likewise, poaching and retaliatory killing for livestock predation, serious threats in other countries, are largely absent here, Wangchuk says. Credit Buddhist ethics that respect the predator’s place in the ecosystem, a healthy respect for laws that prohibit the killing of leopards and the enduring stories of an early king who treated snow leopards as a national treasure.
“If you talk to the older people,” Wangchuk says, “they’ll tell you about our fourth king, who in his travels across the mountains advised the people that the snow leopard is our treasure, our jewel, and that we should not kill it but protect it.”
Oftentimes, when herders lose a yak to a snow leopard, Wangchuk says, they consider it a sign that they have disappointed their protective deities. “There’s an acceptance of it that’s been happening for centuries.”
His biggest fear is that these tolerant attitudes could shift – triggered, paradoxically, by groups trying to reduce conflict. Conservation organizations have tried to implement livestock compensation programs used in Africa and other countries in Bhutan. But they’re based on notions about human-wildlife conflict that are totally foreign to the communities, Wangchuk says. “If you come in with half-baked solutions that are not delivered properly, you raise expectations and then people get annoyed and impatient.”
He’s seen herders fed up with filling out forms then waiting endlessly to get $60 for animals valued at $200. Plus, herders aren’t cash poor in Bhutan. Many supplement their income with sales of cordyceps, a fungal folk remedy that fetches thousands of dollars a kilogram. Offering paltry fees as compensation is insulting, and worse, does nothing to reduce yak mortality, he says. “It is not a solution for Bhutan.”
A better strategy would be to build on people’s tolerant attitudes and find ways to offset their losses. By spending time with the herders, Wangchuk and his colleagues have found a promising strategy to do just that. Herders lose far more yaks to disease than to snow leopards, they discovered, mostly from the “gid” parasite. Conservationists from the Jigme Dorji National Park (JDNP) have been working with veterinarians in Bhutan’s Department of Livestock to treat infected yaks as well as dogs, both strays and the Tibetan mastiffs that guard the herds, which serve as reservoirs for the Coenurosis parasite.
“Dealing with the disease is one of the main ways of bringing down yak mortality,” Wangchuk says. “It offsets the losses and makes depredation tolerable.”
After Wangchuk’s DNA analyses and further field investigations by the parks revealed that snow leopards are thriving in Bhutan, he turned his attention to the people who live among the furtive felines. Working with several partners, including JDNP, the Department of Livestock Services, the Nature Recreation and Ecotourism Division, and the Snow Leopard Conservancy, Wangchuk focused on building community relationships.
“We realized that it’s really working with the communities that could save these animals,” he says. “If there were no communities living nearby, no livestock at all, the animals would be fine on their own. They don’t need any special management techniques. We don’t need to know fancy science about them. Conservation dollars are better spent trying to get people’s buy-in.”
An effective way of doing that involves enlisting local herders as citizen scientists. The herders not only take pictures and videos of the leopards but also keep tabs on their favorite prey, the blue sheep. Their intimate knowledge of the landscape has proven a valuable resource, Wangchuk says. “They know much more than a biologist who just comes here two times a year.”
One young yak herder asked Wangchuk to bring him a phone with a high-resolution camera so he could take better pictures of the leopards he sees when he’s grazing his herd. He promised to pay Wangchuk back, not just for the cost of the camera but with documentary evidence of the cat’s whereabouts.
Herders are very excited to contribute to snow leopard conservation, Wangchuk says. He’s even talked with herders who have come upon a group of snow leopards feeding on one of their yaks only to exclaim, ‘Oh, look! There are three of them!’ ”
For Wangchuk, turning what could be seen as a liability into an asset depends on building community infrastructure, from keeping yaks disease-free to improving public health and education. “You can’t just jump in and say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t kill the snow leopard, we have to protect them,’ and leave all these other things out.”
Wangchuk just returned from the second Jomolhari Mountain Festival, where community members celebrate their culture and traditions – all while paying tribute to the dappled grey ghosts of the high mountains. For Wangchuk and his collaborators, community building goes hand in hand with snow leopard conservation. “We’re here to save the snow leopard through the community,” he says.
A Haven for Tigers
Recent discoveries show that Bhutan is also a hotbed for tigers (Panthera tigris), the closest evolutionary relative of the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). Biologists are finding tigers at 2,500 to 4,000 meters in Bhutan’s mountains, Wangchuk says, offering new insights into the biology of one of Earth’s most endangered big cats. Bhutan offers contiguous habitat from the Indian foothills all the way up to the glaciers, which may explain why one national park with an area of only 1730 square kilometers harbors more than 25 tigers. Finding so many tigers in Bhutan puts a different face on the diversity of cats in Bhutan, Wangchuk says. “It’s mind-blowing actually. That’s why my colleagues at the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment want to posit that Bhutan presents the last refugia for wild Asia.”