The intertwined fate of snow leopards and people’s livelihoods | WWF India

High-altitude cold-deserts are beautifully vast, but also have limited resource-rich areas. Since ancient human settlements and their nomadic routes have survived around the same resource-rich areas under harsh climatic conditions, as has all wildlife. This overlap of functional spaces of humans and wildlife lead to human-wildlife interactions. Over the years, anthropogenic pressure has led to increased habitat fragmentation in the cold mountainous rangelands of Western Himalayas.

The people of Ladakh rely heavily on agro-pastoral activities for their livelihood. As increased livestock grazing and climate induced changes result in degradation of rangelands , humans move further onto the alpine pastures creating undue pressure on the ecological balance of these sensitive-rangeland pastures. The livestock competes with the wild ungulates, herbivores, like wild blue sheep and ibex that form the major prey-base for predators like snow leopards and wolves. These predators and other carnivores like bears are drawn towards human settlements in search of easy prey or food to scavenge and devour. Livestock depredation results in serious financial losses for these agro-pastoral communities since it also affects the value chain of the famous Pashmina wool that significantly contributes to the economy of this region. This results in extensive retaliation and killing of those individual predators (most often snow leopards and wolves) that attack livestock.

Traditionally, the local communities keep their livestock in conventional corral pens, which are simple enclosures of stone-walls open from the top. These corrals are good enough to keep the livestock herd restrained, but are highly prone to wild carnivore intrusions. Such confinements require intense human efforts to guard the livestock. The intrusion of a carnivore in a corral pen creates panic among the livestock inside, and the carnivore may feed on just one, but in the melee kills more than one animal. In 2014, due to an attack by a snow leopard in Yangthang, 35 sheep, goats and yaks were killed. WWF-India identified the ineffectiveness of conventional corral pens, and the development of a predator-proof corral design was initiated as a part of the conflict mitigation strategy. The weak wooden doors, open roof-top, and weak walls were identified as major gaps that made these corrals vulnerable. It was clear that simple modifications in the conventional corral design could help to make it predator-proof.

A model of the predator proof corral was developed, and it looks like a large chamber with strong walls, metal door, and wire mesh covering the top, supported by wooden logs. The strong walls and metal doors prevent the intrusion of large species like the Himalayan brown bear, which easily break the wooden door or loose walls of traditional corrals in search of food. The open-top, now covered by wire mesh, prevents the intrusion of all the carnivores like snow leopards, the lynx, and wolves and allows sufficient sunlight and ventilation maintaining a comfortable environment for the livestock inside.

A large-scale conflict mitigation programme was then developed, and mapping of conflict-pockets in Ladakh was conducted to identify numerous conflict-hotspots in Leh and Kargil districts. A participatory model of conservation was developed after multiple community consultations. For the construction of predator-proof corrals, WWF-India supported the communities by providing metal doors, wire mesh, wooden logs, and cement, whereas stones, bricks, sand, and the construction work were managed by the community beneficiaries. A total of 100 corrals have been built in Ladakh so far, out of which 72 are in Leh and 28 are in Kargil. This was possible since the community-consultations created a sense of importance for environment and wildlife and the understanding of an ‘equitable-ownership’ for the natural resources that the people share with the wildlife that are equally dependent on them.

The positive effect of predator-proof corrals and its true success was seen in 2018, through a story from the village of Taru, where a villager found a snow leopard sitting in the feed store near the predator-proof corral. The animal was left alone, and it walked away, and although it did re-visit the location multiple times, it was not seen after a while. The animal survived and so did the livestock. It was a win-win situation for all. Admittedly, people’s quality of life has improved in these areas, since they find more time during the day for other activities, and family, and are also able to sleep peacefully during the night.

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The Mighty Himalayas, which are home to the Snow Leopard, are the source of most of our freshwater. 500 million people rely on rivers that originate in these ranges.

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