Post submitted by Matthias Fiechter of Snow Leopard Trust.
A conservation catch 22: Increasing the number wild prey animals is key for healthy snow leopard populations. But it doesn’t solve the problem of livestock predation – on the contrary.
Carnivores like the snow leopard mostly eat wild prey species, but they also occasionally prey on domestic animals such as goats, sheep, or cattle. This can lead to retaliation by herders.
It is often assumed that this problem will go away if there is enough wild prey to feed the carnivores – but a new study finds that this might not be entirely true, at least not in the case of the snow leopard. In fact, results show that larger populations of wild prey are actually likely to lead to more livestock predation by these cats.
Livestock Predation: An Existential Problem
“Across the globe, two thirds of all large carnivores are threatened with extinction. Almost all of them have two things in common: They’re losing parts of their habitat to human activities, and they’re being persecuted because they attack and kill livestock”, says Snow Leopard Trust scientist Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi.
It’s easy to forget if you live in an urban area, but livestock rearing is one of the most common ways people make a living in the world – in particular people living in poverty. Almost a third of the world’s 2.6 billion poor people rear livestock. That’s 750 million people, or 200 million households, who depend to a very large degree on goats, sheep, yak, cattle, or other domestic stock for food and income.
In Europe and North America, around 3% of livestock holdings are lost to carnivores each year. That’s a problem for many herders, but it’s rarely an existential one. In parts of Africa and Asia that have large carnivores, on the other hand, that number is nearly 18%. In certain areas in snow leopard habitat, livestock losses to carnivore attacks can add up to a loss of up to 50% of a family’s average per capita income. Sometimes, livestock predation is the number one reason why people stay below national poverty lines.
In short, when we say that livestock predation leads to conflicts, we are really talking about a struggle for survival.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, persecution by farmers who want to protect their animals is one of the biggest threats to big cats and other carnivore species. For the endangered snow leopard, retribution for livestock killings is reported to be the cause for more than half of all cases of poaching.
“There is an obvious conclusion to these numbers: if we want to protect these carnivores, including the snow leopard, we must find ways to keep them away from livestock as much as possible”, Suryawanshi says. “But how do we best do that?”
More Prey, Less Problems?
One long-held assumption has been that carnivores attack livestock mainly if they don’t find enough wild prey. Based on this assumption, conservationists have long recommended that wild prey populations be increased, so that carnivores wouldn’t need to kill livestock any longer.
On the surface, this idea makes a lot of sense.
Unfortunately, it only captures part of the problem – at least when it comes to snow leopards.
A recent study led by Suryawanshi has shown that growing wild prey populations could in fact lead to even more livestock predation by these cats, rather than less.
Does that strike you as paradoxical? If so, it’s because the initial assumption has a fundamental flaw: when we say ‘more wild prey leads to less livestock predation’, we’re implicitly assuming that the predator population will remain the same no matter what. But that’s not always true.
In his study, which was published this week in the scientific journal Open Science. Suryanwanshi has found that a greater abundance of wild prey led to a greater number of snow leopards using the area.
“In seven different study sites, we looked at the relationship between the density of prey, the density of snow leopards, and the contribution of livestock to the snow leopard’s diet. There was one very clear result that stood out: the more wild prey there was in a certain area, the more snow leopards we found there”, Suryawanshi says.
“The data also shows that snow leopards prefer wild prey over livestock, so the more abundant species like ibex and blue sheep are, the fewer livestock kills you might see per individual snow leopard. But overall, because there will be more cats, local people will suffer more livestock losses”, says Suryawanshi.
It’s something of a Catch 22: on the one hand, more wild prey is clearly a good thing – it leads to more snow leopards. On the other hand, it creates a situation where these cats might face even bigger threats.
Community Conservation: Sustainable Solutions for Humans and Wildlife
To solve the Catch 22, Suryawanshi suggests coming at the problem from both sides. “First, we need to ensure that the snow leopard has enough wild prey. That’s one of the keys to the cat’s survival, but in many parts of its habitat, it’s a big challenge, as livestock becomes ever more dominant. At the same time, we need to do a better job of protecting livestock and offsetting losses when they occur. These things need to go hand in hand. Whenever a snow leopard population is sharing a landscape with livestock, there will be some predation; and the more cats there are, the bigger this problem becomes. If we want to avoid deadly conflicts, we have to help herders live with this reality.”
India’s Spiti Valley is one of the sites where the Snow Leopard Trust has been working on solving this challenge – increasing the availability of wild snow leopard prey, and helping communities deal with livestock predation. “We started partnering with communities in Spiti two decades ago. We first helped them start a livestock insurance fund to offset predation losses, and in return, they agreed to set aside parts of their pastures as grazing reserves for wild prey species”, Suryawanshi says. “Over time, the blue sheep population around these reserves almost quadrupled. It’s likely that the snow leopard population has grown as well because of it, but we can’t say for certain because there is no ‘before’ data to compare today’s numbers to. We do know that there are significantly fewer cats in nearby areas with fewer blue sheep though.”
In a later phase, Suryawanshi and his team began working with local communities to make livestock holding pens predator-proof, e.g. by installing metal grates and solid doors. This summer, the team is hoping to fortify 150 corrals across Spiti valley. “Some predation will always happen if you have a predator sharing the landscape with livestock”, he says, “but the predator-proof corrals can minimize it, which is critical when it comes to avoiding conflicts.”
The snow leopard lives in a landscape that’s increasingly shaped by humans. For the cat to have a future, local communities need to be willing and able to coexist with the predator. “The better we understand the cat, but also the dynamics between predator, prey and livestock, the more effective our conservation programs will be”, says Suryawanshi. “These findings add another little piece to the puzzle.”