Controversies on Status of Snow Leopard Population in GB

Athar Ali Khan

Recently, the Science Magazine published a report on status of snow leopard in Pakistan indicating its status as critically endangered. This letter reflects on the ethical and scientific standing of the report published in Science magazine that compelled many conservationists in Pakistan expressed their reservation on social media and professional networks besides commenting directly on the very page of the science magazine. Since the Science Magazine has picked its evidences from a survey conducted in Gilgit Baltistan region of Northern Pakistan, one must understand the background of wildlife conservation that includes snow leopard in the region before explaining, where the report went wrong.

The Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) region of Northern Pakistan is stretched over 80,000 square km, out of which approximately 50% has been dedicated to Protected Areas (PAs) of various categories. This protected area is comprises of a network of National Parks, Game Reserves, Wildlife Game Sanctuaries and Community Controlled Hunting Areas in which wild species of goats and sheep, snow leopard, brown bear and bird species are supposed to thrive free of threat with other flora and fauna. Even till 1995, many of major wildlife species of GB were listed as endangered. This problem was addressed by launching communities based conservation projects, and establishing collaborative institutional and financial mechanisms that supported speedy recovery of wildlife and their habitat. These collaborative efforts provided a safe refuge to wildlife species through strict control over poaching, illegal hunting and by reducing damages to their habitat. The concept of sustainable harvesting of mature trophy size (over age) wildlife species, was also internalized and institutionalized by the communities and the relevant Government Department of GB. The trophy hunting was introduced to harvest the 20% of big horn males in a population who are at the peak of their biological age. The income generated though trophy hunting fee is divided among relevant community organizations (80%) and the Government (20%) which is now the major source to finance conservation activities. Now, the communities have a greater sense of ownership and responsibility to protect the wildlife. The results of community based conservation became visible early than expected. The frequent sighting of mountain ungulates and birds on ridges along the major roads has turned the whole of GB into an open wildlife safari. The habitat of brown bear and Snow leopard is accessible areas, and the luxury of their sighting is possible for the high altitude expedition missions.

According to the various sources, more than 75% of snow leopard habitat in Pakistan is located in the territory of GB. The high altitude tourists can see Ibex, Markhor, Marco Polo sheep, Snow leopard and brown bear roaming a mile away from their trekking routes. The recent boom in tourism in GB can also be attributed to the stories shared by tourists on social media about their experiences of sighting wildlife and the hospitability of the people and the local administration.

Apart from becoming a direct and indirect source of income, the wildlife is now a source of pride and image of the people and the region of GB. The revenue earned through sustainable harvest of natural resources is being invested by communities on their developmental works or other prosperity projects. The communities in the Community Control Hunting Areas (CCHAs), of GB have constructed roads, established hostels and paying scholarships to their talented students utilizing the revenue generated from trophy hunting. On the other hand, the regular annual surveys in each site indicate that the population of mountain ungulates and the major predators such as the snow leopard is increasing.

This ecological richness and social feasibility of GB is not only attracting tourists, but also international hunters and researchers. This same is true for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), who found GB very much feasible site to launch their projects on conservation of nature. The success of project is now guaranteed in GB, as the externalities which are detrimental to a project has been controlled over the past three decades by the local government departments  and  international organizations such as  AKSP, Himalayan Wildlife Project, IUCN and WWF.  In context of snow leopard conservation one area where some innovative intervention needed was to control its retaliatory killing by farmers in response to predation by snow leopard. This gap was filled by a snow leopard insurance scheme, which was a novel concept for the rest of world. This scheme was tested by Project Snow Leopard (PSL), initially in one site in GB in 1999, which was later extended to 17 communities in 2017. The model was later replicated by other NGOs and the Central Karakoram National Park (CKNP). The PSL later became Baltistan Wildlife Conservation and Development Organization (BWCDO), has won the UN Equator Prize in 2017 for its remarkable contribution in the conservation of snow leopard in GB.  Since the launching of snow leopard insurance scheme, the retaliatory killings of snow leopard has drastically decreased with increasing evidences of release of snow leopard trapped in cattle sheds across GB. Since, estimation of its population is fraud with technical and financial difficulties, only scattered sensor camera traps or analysis of fecal sample have been widely used by various organizations to collect evidences of its presence. However, none of these covered its entire habitat.

It is however unfortunate that some NGOs trying to show a wrong image of the area and conservation efforts of communities including their partnership with international organizations by employing misleading scientific methods of wildlife surveys. It serves their purpose, but it is neither ethical nor scientific to represent survey data from one corner of snow leopard habitat and present it as representative of the whole landscape.  A similar attempt was made recently by S. B. Ale, C. Mishra (2018) in their article published in Science Magazine in March 2018.  This was the time when International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) decided to change the status of snow leopard from Endangered to Vulnerable, based on the reduction in threats level and increase in its population in its habitat.  The interesting fact is that S. B. Ale, C. Mishra found 23 Snow Leopards in a fraction of its habitat (three valleys) whereas its population in Pakistan has been found to be over 300 individuals. Surprisingly, despite flawed with methodological errors their report made space in Science Magazine under the title, “The snow leopard’s questionable come back”. The opening paragraph of the report is a direct challenge to the IUCN’s well respected and credible Red-Listing process and the decision to change the status category of the snow leopard.  The scientists in IUCN can do their own math, but I would like to show the dark side of the report of S. B. Ale, C. Mishra when they mentioning the population of snow leopard in its habitat in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).

There are over 35 primary valleys in the GB which are further divided into secondary and tertiary valleys. The total count of these valleys can be over 300, which start from valley bottom connected to river and stream and ending on snow bound mountains.  The pastoralists in these valleys herd their livestock on high pastures during the day and keep them in sheds during night. The pastoralists in all these valleys fear predation mainly by snow leopard during night as a young snow leopard can kill tens of livestock once it enters a shed or encounter livestock on high pasture. Most the shepherds find paw prints on loose soil around their sheds on daily basis. It is quite evident that retaliatory killing in response to predation has drastically reduced to zero, particularly after the insurance schemes and increasing population of Ibex and Markhore after initiation of community based conservation.  With this zero threats level stretching over 2 decades, one can assume that the snow leopard population has multiplied. But this assumption sets only a hypothesis. The baseline for S. B. Ale, C. Mishra was the population of snow leopard of in its core habitat in Pakistan, but they have picked three sub valleys of Gojal, which is a friction of the habitat. In most of these surveys, data is collected in isolation, without involving the relevant departments and local experts. There has not been any effort to develop local expertise and facilities for collection and analysis of data. To add insult to the injury, the report is an attempt to undermine the decade long efforts invested by the communities and the Government to conserve the ecological diversity of the area. The major outcome of such efforts one could expect is shape of increase in population of snow leopard, due to its very position of being on the top of food chain among wild animals.

One can wonder; how the 23 snow leopard in three valleys represent the population of snow leopard in Pakistan? What would be an appropriate sampling method, if one intends to employ a methodological approach to save fund and time without comprising on best estimates of the population of highly mobile animal like snow leopard? . This will be a true contribution to the science instead of coming up with conflicting figures on data collected from difference sites and extrapolation it to the entire habitat. The controversies cannot be avoided, but one should not forget the ethical and technical aspects of the data, when it comes to presenting scientific evidences.

The contributor is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology, Washington State University USA. He is also a development sector professional, served as Chief Technical Advisor (Forestry) in Afghanistan and Director of Central Karakoram National Park in Pakistan. Email: atharalikhan72@yahoo.com

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