New research into the secret life of snow leopards reveals that protected areas alone are insufficient to save this furtive feline from extinction.

Share or Spare?

There are many ongoing debates in conservation management today as warring proposals, policies, and philosophies collide, and one of the most classic divides is between practices classified as “land-sparing” or “land-sharing.” Should species of conservation concern live mainly in protected areas where human activity is excluded or severely limited (“land-sparing”), or should habitats be utilised and lived in by people as well as the species we hope to save (“land-sharing”)?

Such tough questions become especially urgent to answer as human populations continue to grow and populations of some large carnivores enjoy a recent rebound thanks to successful conservation measures. Although many conservationists and scientists agree that large, well-enforced protected areas are ideal to save these species, that unfortunately is not always a feasible solution.

Encouragingly, recent studies have indicated that people and large predators can in fact co-exist successfully when management policies are effective and local social values appreciate the human-wildlife relationship. Yet there are still many challenges inherent in having powerful and carnivorous neighbors, such as predator attacks on livestock or even attacks on humans themselves.

Tracking Snow Leopards

One Endangered species of large predator, the snow leopard (Panthera uncia), lives in the high mountain habitat of Central Asia where they have relatively little contact with humans beyond occasional livestock herders, with whom they can come into conflict. Yet one day a team of determined scientists from the Grimsӧ Wildlife Research Station in Sweden hiked into the Tost Mountains of Mongolia to trap, collar, and release several of these enigmatic large cats.

Over the next several months and even years, the researchers collected data from sixteen GPS-collared individuals in order to calculate the average range size of an adult snow leopard. To their surprise and alarm, the scientists discovered that an individual snow leopard’s range could be anywhere from 6-44 times larger than previous estimates. Those earlier estimates, made in the late 1990s, were based on VHF radio collar data. But collecting data from VHF collars required re-finding a collared animal within a limited radio range while navigating rough terrain that could block the signal, which is why today’s GPS data is known to be much more detailed and reliable. Modern GPS data also proved that snow leopard ranges don’t really overlap (especially for males) confirming that they are highly territorial animals.

Protected areas for snow leopards do exist, but they cover only 14-19% of the total snow leopard habitat and so this recent revolution about the true size of a snow leopard’s territory makes those protections seem even more scant.

A breeding snow leopard pair requires a very large territory, and protcted areas alone are not enough. © Tambako/Flickr

A breeding snow leopard pair requires a very large territory, and protected areas alone are not enough. © Tambako/Flickr

Not Enough Mountain to Go Around

In other words: current protected areas are utterly inadequate to hold a healthy, sustainable population of this Endangered predator.

“Almost half of the protected areas in the global distributional range of the snow leopard are smaller than our estimate of the average home range of a single adult male and hence too small to hold a reproducing pair,” lead author Örjan Johansson points out, emphasising the study’s urgent warning. “Our study illustrates that protected areas alone will not be able to conserve predators with large home ranges and conservationists and managers should not restrict their efforts to land sparing.”

Johansson and his team are ringing the alarm bell in the hope that their message will reach policymakers and conservationists: we cannot idly assume that snow leopard sanctuaries alone will be enough to save this species from fading into an icy obscurity. Well-managed protected areas are undeniably important, yet if we truly want to save large charismatic carnivores like snow leopards from extinction, we are going to have to learn how to live alongside them. A few large, protected areas in conjunction with effective co-existence strategies elsewhere would be ideal for snow leopard conservation.

The adventurous scientists who trekked across mountains to find these snow leopards were greatly troubled by the ominous implications of their research, and they strongly recommend supporting the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program. This multi-governmental initiative endeavours to “secure snow leopard populations in large landscapes covering 25% of the global range of snow leopards, through community-based conservation and green development.”

Like many of the big cats, snow leopards are often viewed as captivating and compelling, their beauty and elusiveness giving them a near-mystical status in Western minds—yet if more is not done to achieve local and long-term coexistence with these majestic predators, there may come a day when snow leopards cease to exist in the flesh and truly become mere myth and legend.

References

Johansson, Ö. et al. (2016) Land sharing is essential for snow leopard conservation. Biological Conservation 203: 1-7. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2016.08.034

Carter, N.H. and Linnell, J.D.C. (2016) Co-Adaptation Is Key to Coexisting with Large Carnivores. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2016.05.006

Please learn more about the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program at http://www.globalsnowleopard.org/.

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