A snow leopard crouches, stalking a lamb. It rips into its throat, and leaves a farmer with only the bloody remains. To protect the rest of his livestock, the farmer finds the leopard and kills it.
This is the scenario that keeps playing itself out over and over again. Farmers in snow leopard territory lose between Rs 3,300 and Rs 20,000 to the wild cats a year, according to the Snow Leopard Conservatory. Many earn at most Rs 26,800, so the loss is felt rather heavily. The only way they know how to deal with the conflict is to get rid of the leopards.
It is man-animal conflict like this that is pushing snow leopards to the brink of extinction. And human development is making worse. As roads and cities expand across the country, the land these cats are used to roaming around are fragmented. Snow leopards coming face-to-face with humans is becoming more and more common.
Snow leopards are an integral part of mountain ecosystems. As predators at the top of a food chain, they maintain balance in the ecosystem they inhabit. Every animal plays a role in preserving these habitats, from the predators that control herbivore populations, to the grazers who keep plant growth in check. Interactions between animals and plant life, when stable, keeps other aspects of the ecosystem, like water bodies, in good health.
This ecological equilibrium also has implications for humans. Snow leopard habitat in the mountains of Central Asia holds freshwater sources that 400 million people rely on. Protecting these cats would also safeguard these sources.
But in many places, humans are unable to co-exist with snow leopards. They are often killed by villagers, or poached for their fur and bones. Factors like climate change are further shrinking their habitats, forcing them into closer contact with humans and threatening their survival.
Now, there are only about 4,000 snow leopards left in the wild, around 500 of which are in India, according to the World Wildlife Fund. In just the last 20 years, their populations have fallen by 20 percent.
Banning the killing of snow leopards clearly hasn’t been enough of a deterrent for communities whose livelihoods depend on livestock. Conservation efforts will also need to factor in the needs of these communities, experts say.
In some cases, conservation will mean helping farmers erect impenetrable fences that will protect their animals. Studying the movements of snow leopards can also allow researchers to develop better preventive measures.
Without the collaboration of communities in mountain areas, we may be one of the last generations to see snow leopards alive.