LAHORE - On the eve of International Snow Leopard Day, WWF-Pakistan called for mountain communities to change their behaviours to coexist with wildlife, especially snow leopards.

With the dwindling numbers of the big cat also dubbed as “The Phantom of the Himalayas” the organisation stressed the need to respect and conserve the natural habitat of the species which is already under threat from a variety of factors including climate change, prey depletion, and a greater conflict with human encroachments.

A study conducted by WWF-Pakistan, under the Asia High Mountain Project shows that warmer temperatures are shrinking the snow leopard habitat, pushing it towards extinction every day. Though the snow leopard is reported to likely be resilient to climate change and its impacts, the remaining small and fragmented population of the species, which is estimated to be between 200-400 in Pakistan, is making it vulnerable to changing climatic patterns in different areas.

The study revealed that the snowline during the past 25 years has shifted upward by about 1 km. This shift means warmer temperatures are melting glaciers and increasing droughts, posing serious threats to the snow leopard population. This upward trend invites herders to stay for an additional 20 to 25 days, as compared to the past 15 years, by moving their livestock to new grazing areas. There is now a greater chance of herders and livestock coming across a snow leopard.

Furthermore, human-wildlife conflict is already a serious threat to the snow leopard population in Pakistan. Retaliatory killings by livestock herders, though minimised through WWF-Pakistan’s interventions, remains as a bone contention between the coexistence of humans and the big cat. “Whereas retaliatory killings of the snow leopard by local communities are an uncommon sight, poaching of the species specifically for the illegal trade in their pelts and products remains the major area of concern for their depleting numbers,” says Dr Babar Khan, Senior Conservation Manager/Head (Gilgit-Baltistan) WWF-Pakistan.

Dr Babar Khan’s concerns are supported by a recent report from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, estimating that between 221-450 snow leopards have been poached annually across the twelve range countries of the species since 2008 - a minimum of 4 per week. But this number could be substantially higher since many killings in remote areas go undetected.

According to the report, over 90 per cent of the reported snow leopard poaching occurred in five out of the total twelve snow leopard range countries: China, Mongolia, Pakistan, India and Tajikistan. Nepal was also flagged for having relatively high poaching levels considering its relatively small population of snow leopards. China and Russia were most frequently identified as destinations for animals poached in other countries. Afghanistan has also been a major illegal market for snow leopard furs over the past decade.

However, the report found that over half the retaliatory and non-targeted poaching incidents result in opportunistic attempts to sell, contributing to the estimated 108-219 snow leopards that are illegally traded each year.

For years now, WWF-Pakistan has worked in the area to address the human-wildlife conflict. The organisation has introduced human wildlife management measures, engaging local communities especially in predation hotspots, such as Hoper Valley in Nagar.

Livestock insurance schemes are one such example initiated to compensate local herders for depredation losses incurred by the illusive cat. Furthermore, livestock vaccination campaigns are organized regularly to improve livestock health, as healthy animals escape predators, and to also control the transmission of diseases from domestic to wild animals. Predator-proof corrals are another serious effort to protect small ruminants from snow leopard and wolf attacks inside pens at night.

A strong element of snow leopard conservation in Pakistan is community education and awareness. Through these initiatives, the locals now realise the ecological importance of the snow leopard and through the help of community based organisations, much needed cooperation is being assured.