Climate change, coupled with human disturbance, is pushing snow leopards further up the mountains and away from human contact, reveals a new study underscoring the importance of climate adaptive conservation practices for long-term management in the Greater Himalayas.

The study investigated the effects of key habitat characteristics as well as human disturbance and climatic factors on the spatio-temporal (across space and time) change in the distribution of three carnivores in the region – snow leopards (Panthera uncia), common leopard (Panthera pardus) and Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus). While the snow leopard was found to have shifted upwards and further away from human settlements, the common leopard and the Asiatic black bear have moved to lower areas with more vegetation, bringing them closer to human settlements and leading to negative interactions with humans.

A camera trap image of a snow leopard in the Kishtwar National Park in Jammu & Kashmir. Climate change and human disturbances are causing snow leopards to move further up the mountains, a study finds out. Credit: J&K Wildlife Protection Department via Mongabay.

The study says that the common leopard and the Asiatic black bear stand to lose much more in terms of local extinctions (a decline in the distribution and population of the species in specific regions) at higher altitudes. The research compared the distribution patterns of all three carnivores between two different time periods – the early 1990s and around 2016-’17 – to understand the changes in their spatial distribution over time. The study also found that snow leopards were less likely to have faced “range contraction” or the disappearance from the range it occupied before, in areas with permanent glaciers, highlighting the importance of maintaining the glacial cover in their conservation.

Critical landscape for three carnivores

The landscape of the study area, the high altitude Kishtwar National Park in the Greater Himalayas is a critical region for the conservation of iconic species like snow leopards and the biodiversity in the Himalayan region.

While the region is largely remote and sparsely populated, there are human settlements, including villages and transhumant settlements locally known as Dhoks, informed lead author of the study Muzaffar A Kichloo. The climate variations of harsh winters with heavy snowfall and mild summers the region witnesses are crucial in shaping the ecosystems and the distribution of wildlife.

The study assessed the species distributions across time, basing it largely on people’s sightings of wildlife. Koustubh Sharma, Director, Science and Conservation at Snow Leopards Trust who was a part of the study said that the primary reason behind using local people’s sightings and anecdotes as a study method was to collect information from the past by going back in time which wouldn’t be possible any other way.

The Central and South Asian mountains are found to be warming faster than the Northern Hemisphere. Climate change is affecting the whole Himalayan ecosystem and impacting snow leopard species in multiple ways as they are trying to adapt to the changes, said Rishi K Sharma, Lead, Science and Policy, Snow Leopard and Range-lands Conservation Programme at WWF-India. Sharma was not a part of the research.

Another study on the effect of climate change on snow leopards found that a host of reasons such as rising temperatures, retreating glaciers, loss of shallow surface water features such as seeps and springs, conversion of alpine meadows to arid alpine steppe grasslands, upward shift of treeline and increasing frequency of severe weather phenomena are some of the changes adversely affecting the snow leopard population.

Sharma said that snow leopards have a physical limitation that prevents them from occupying very high altitudes. At the same time, the shifting treelines due to global warming is forcing the animal to share food, space, and other resources with other large carnivores like leopards which move up with vegetation, creating more competition.

Increasing conflict, global warming

Large carnivores like snow leopards are keystone species that play a crucial role in ecosystem dynamics. The other challenge for their conservation is the complex human-carnivore relationships. Snow leopards are increasingly coming into conflict with humans due to change in herding practices in the Himalayan region. The herding practices are changing due to glacial melting impacting the availability of water resources.

Koustubh Sharma said that though snow leopards tend to avoid areas with high human presence, they have been found to interface with people and predate on livestock in multiple parts of their range, a prominent threat to their survival. According to Kichloo, the common leopard too has been found to be responsible for high livestock losses resulting in a more negative attitude in people towards the predator. Since communities are major stakeholders in conservation, positive attitudes towards these animals are crucial for coexistence. Climate change is exacerbating these threats by interacting with existing challenges and amplifying their effects.

The researchers said that the findings of the study have many policy implications for the conservation and management of large carnivores in the Himalayan region and potentially in other mountainous areas facing similar challenges. “Given the rapid warming of the Central and South Asian mountains, it is imperative to develop climate-adaptive conservation strategies. This may include adjusting protected area boundaries, creating climate-resilient corridors, and implementing measures to protect glacial resources,” Kichloo said.

Other potential interventions include continuous monitoring of habitat changes, human-wildlife interactions, species distributions, and allocation of resources to support more research. They suggested policies to promote coexistence between humans and carnivores such as compensation programmes for livestock losses due to predation, education and awareness campaigns, and the development of community-based conservation initiatives that engage local communities in carnivore conservation efforts.

“Policies should also address the sustainable management of livestock in carnivore habitats. Encouraging best practices for herding, such as improved livestock guarding methods and the promotion of livestock insurance programmes, can help reduce conflicts with carnivores,” Kichloo said.

This article was first published on Mongabay.