animal protection

Snow leopards eat farm livestock because there’s not enough wild prey – well, not really

A new study shakes up an old perception.

Nearly a billion people in the world and a little over 20 million people in India rear livestock as a means of livelihood. Meat, eggs, milk, hides and animal labour contribute to a quarter of the entire Indian agricultural economy.

With wild habitats shrinking and a decrease in the number of wild prey, the predation of domestic livestock by carnivores like tigers and wolves has emerged as a major threat to the livelihood of millions of people in rural areas. For many individual families, this impact can be severe enough for them to lose half of their incomes and high enough to push them below the national poverty line.

This preying by carnivores impels farmers to retaliate and kill wild animals – either by brutally assaulting or poisoning them. Livestock predation therefore is of great concern for both economics and conservation efforts. The Falkland wolf of Falkland islands and Tasmanian tiger of Australia are two species that are already extinct due to persecution by farmers for killing their livestock.

One common recommendation to reduce the number of wild animals preying on livestock is to increase wild prey. The assumption is, with an increase in wild animals the carnivores will prey on them, instead of killing livestock.

A recent study by researchers from the Nature Conservation Foundation and Snow Leopard Trust suggests this recommendation is not as straightforward as it seems. Researchers studying snow leopards in the Trans-Himalaya found that their numbers increase with an increase in the numbers of their preferred wild prey – blue sheep, ibex and argali.

A snow leopard. Photo credit: NCF India/Snow Leopard Trust
A snow leopard. Photo credit: NCF India/Snow Leopard Trust

Proposed solution

“When snow leopard numbers increase in response to wild prey population, then livestock predation also increases,” said Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi, a conservation biologist and the lead author of the study.

Researchers studied snow leopards and their dietary preferences according to wild prey and livestock availability. The study was conducted across Kibber, Lingti, Lossar, Pin and Tabo in Spiti Valley, in Rumtse and Tost in Jammu and Kashmir and Mongolia respectively. Some of these sites had high numbers of wild prey and low numbers of livestock, while others had the inverse.

Suryawanshi and his team collected animal scat from these sites and extracted DNA from samples to identify the number of snow leopards. To study their diets, researchers examined the hair and remains of prey species from the scat.

A woman watches over her livestock.
A woman watches over her livestock.

It was by analysing this data that researchers came to the conclusion that snow leopard densities increased with an increase in wild prey. These animals determine the number of snow leopards that occur in an area, rendering them critical for the conservation of these endangered cats.

The researchers also investigated if an increase in the number of wild prey reduces the killing of livestock by wild animals. Logically, this makes sense. But while individual snow leopards may kill fewer livestock, but since their numbers also increase with an increase in wild prey, overall, livestock continues to deplete as farm animals still form a steady part of the snow leopards’ diet.

A fine balance

Researchers point out that this pattern is sustained by the fact that both wild prey and livestock are found in high numbers in areas where they can feed – wherever there is abundance of grass and plant life.

“This has direct implications for how we manage livestock in the snow leopard habitat and how we conserve snow leopards outside protected areas,” said Suryawanshi. Snow leopards occur in twelve Central and Trans-Himalayan countries from Russia in the North to Bhutan in the East.

Recent studies show that the bulk of the snow leopard population occurs outside areas set aside for their protection. Livestock populations continue to rise in these areas, making it inevitable for snow leopards to come in contact with livestock and herders.

A snow leopard devours a carcass. Photo credit: Karma Sonam, NCF India
A snow leopard devours a carcass. Photo credit: Karma Sonam, NCF India

Charudutt Mishra, co-author of the study and a scientist with vast experience working in the Himalayas, said: “Snow leopard conservation must take place alongside people. You can not have a situation where you say snow leopards will be conserved in protected areas while the rest of the landscape will be used by people.” Researchers who advocate efforts aimed at conserving snow leopards by increasing wild prey must also consider ways to improve the protection of livestock, or more tangibly, compensating the economic losses incurred by herders when wild animals kill their livestock. With proper management, snow leopards can co-exist with livestock grazing and pastoralism.

The future of snow leopards is imperilled – on one hand, large infrastructure projects like mining and hydel-power threaten areas set aside for the protection of animals. On the other, throughout the range, the species and their prey are challenged by pressures on grazing and agriculture. The study accounts for such a scenario, and suggests an improved approach in management.

This study was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science on June 7, 2017.

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