New snow leopard research in Russia

February 22, 2010

Tuvan family in traditional clothing. Photo Wikipedia.

During February-March of 2010 the staff of the biosphere nature reserves “Sayano-Shushenskiy” and “Ubsunurskaya kotlovina” will be carrying out a census of the snow leopard  in the south of the Republic of Tuva, a tiny area in far south Siberia, with just over 300,000 people and remote mountains. They will be supported by the WWF Russia. Snow leopards are called irbis in Russia.

“In the process of the field observations, information will be collected about poaching activities regarding this species, and also about cases of irbis attacks on livestock. Recommendations about protection of irbis in these centers of their range will be worked out on the basis of the results of field research,” – explained the co-ordinator of the project WWF, Mikhail Paltsin. More on this project here.

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Herders leaving way of life as climate change affects them

January 8, 2010

A former nomad is now trying to earn a living as a weaver in Ladakh, Indian Himalaya, as climate change impacts her traditional way of life. Photo by Nisa Khatoon, WWF.

With the Copenhagen conference late last year I posted a few stories on how climate change is affecting the Himalayas and in consequence the local people and the wildlife. Researchers recently found dramatic changes in Ladakh, northern India where nomads made their living for centuries herding goats, yak and sheep. They found that many herders have abandoned this way of life as huge fluctutaions in winter snowfall threatens livestock. If there is too much snow the animals can’t reach the fodder and die of starvation.

But in this desert mountain land where 80% of farmers and herders depend on snow melt for water it is the increasing years of too little snow which leads to drought and changes in pastures. It also means frequent locust swarms destroying crops and traditional grasses which are replaced by unplatable new grass that animals won’t eat.

“The grasses have started to die out due to less level of snowfall in the region. It has been a continuing phenomenon for a decade or so, and now it has become alarming,” said Nisa Khatoon, a researcher with the World Wildlife Fund based at Leh.

Ladakh is a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in northern India. The whole region is in the high Himalayas. The capital Leh is at 4000m. Ladakh's culture is based on Tibetan Buddhism and it is sometimes called "Little Tibet." Map from Wikipedia.

Today there are over 50 former nomad families in Leh, capital of Ladakh, trying to earn a living by newer means. “Some of them have set up small shops selling various items while most the women are working as daily wage labourers,” Khatoon said.

“Some of us have started tea shops and shops selling various items,” said Csawang Rigzin, who gave up his nomadic life three years ago. Now “we are not able to earn up to our expectation. We had high hopes when we came here but now we are shattered economically,” he said.

Thiksey monastery is one of the main Buddhist monasteries near Leh. Photo from Wikipedia.

“Many of the nomads sold off their livestock and went to the town to seek a better place but now they feel they are nowhere economically,” said Rigzin Chondol of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, which is active in the area. “Earlier a nomad family used to earn a good amount of money, which often used to be 50,000 to 60,000 rupees ($1,100 to $1,300) a year but now they are not able to make savings.” Full story here.


Snow leopards and “gross national happiness”

June 10, 2009
Bhutanese King wearing his traditional yellow robe. Photo by Sibylle

Bhutanese King wearing his traditional yellow robe. Photo by Sibylle

Bhutan is the tiny Himalayan kingdom east of Nepal and south of China, that invented the idea of “gross national happiness” being as important as “gross national product. With a population of  only 600,000 (mainly Buddhists), the country’s mountains are excellent habitat for the endangered snow leopard.

I visited Bhutan recently and spoke to many local people who knew about snow leopards but who’d never seen one and didn’t know anyone who had. The current young King is very pro-environment. Projects were visible everywhere during my visit, like school kids doing community work cleaning up litter every Saturday morning in the main towns and a town in the hills being converted to solar energy because the endangered Black cranes were killing themselves on the electricity lines each season as they came to feed.

Map of Bhutan. Source Wikipedia

Map of Bhutan. Source Wikipedia

There are probably only about 100-200 snow leopards left in the wild in Bhutan and WWF is working with Bhutan government agencies on snow leopard conservation. So far they’ve set up a payment scheme for livestock killed by snow leopard in order to stop retribution killing, taught local staff conservation practices and set up an antipoaching squad. Let’s hope this work leads to more “gross national happiness” for Bhutanese people and the snow leopards sharing their magnificent mountains.