Snow leopard - prey dynamics

Understanding impact of wild prey availability on snow leopard killing livestock

Studies show that wild prey is the key determinant of snow leopard population, even in livestock dominant systems. Nonetheless, snow leopards depredate livestock opportunistically,  often leading to retaliatory killing. Therefore, understanding this three-way dynamics holds huge ecological and conservation insights.

  • A male blue sheep killed and eaten by a snow leopard

  • A group of male Ibex

  • Blue sheep(pictured here) along with Ibex contribute to majority of the diet of the snow leopard

  • Even in the remotest and most arid parts of the Indian Trans-Himalayas, wildlife shares spaces with livestock herders.

  • Villages cling onto the stark mountain sides in the Indian Trans-Himalayas. Life is hard, with people mostly raring livestock and cultivating peas and barley for income.

Background

Persecution by farmers over livestock predation is one of the most important threats to the survival of large carnivores.  At the same time, predation on livestock is a threat locally to agricultural security. Individual families may lose an equivalent of up to 50% of the average per capita income to livestock predation by carnivores, which can sometimes be high enough to keep affected people below poverty lines. 

Increasing the abundance of wild prey populations is recommended as a policy to reduce carnivore predation on livestock. But, the impact of wild-prey availability on predation patterns of large carnivores is debatable. Theory predicts that, ultimately, the outcome of such a policy to increase wild prey abundance will depend on the shape and the strength of the responses of predator density (numerical response) and predator diet (functional response) to changes in prey density.

Snow leopard's survival is threatened, amongst other causes, due to persecution over its livestock killing behaviour. The reported contribution of livestock to snow leopard diet is variable and ranges from negligible to as high as 70%. Facilitating the recovery of wild ungulate prey of the snow leopard is considered an important measure to reduce the extent of livestock depredation.

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A dead Yak, apparently killed by a snow leopard.

Questions to be tested

Suryawanshi et al (2017) suggest that snow leopard population increases with wild herbivore population. This corroborates the pattern reported by Suryawanshi et al (2013) that farmers in areas with higher wild herbivore prey reported more instances of livestock predation by snow leopards. Here, we seek to understand whether the extent of livestock predation by snow leopards would increase or decline when there are changes in the abundance of wild herbivore prey or that of livestock. Into this model, we would like to also build in the understanding of direct competition between livestock and wild prey.

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Surveying for wild prey requires us to cover vast landscapes while employing scientifically robust methodologies that are comparable across sites

Methods

We will test our question by estimating snow leopard, wild herbivore and livestock density and the total number of livestock killed by snow leopards across 10 sites (each ~500 sq km) along a gradient of wild-prey to livestock ratios across the Indian Trans-Himalaya.

The specific methods for each of these data are:

1.Snow leopard density will be estimated using camera trap and SECR(spatially explicit capture-recapture) analysis across all sites 

2.Wild herbivore prey density will be estimated using the double observer sampling method 

3.Livestock population will be censused using interview surveys across all the villages in the study areas 

4.We will identify key herders across all the sites to record all the livestock mortalities. We will measure the number of livestock killed by snow leopard through these data.

5.Impact of competition between livestock and wild herbivore prey will be modelled using our past data (Mishra et al. 2004; Suryawanshi et al. 2010)        

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Camera traps are one of the best ways to obtain snow leopard population densities.

Expected Outcomes

The study is expected to result in some novel insights into the livestock predation behaviour of the snow leopard and the population ecology of predator, prey and livestock system. The results will be published in reputed international peer-reviewed journals. Since we are closely collaborating with the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department, we hope that the findings of this project will also find their way into the management plans of some of these regions. We work closely with the Central Government of India and other countries through our involvement in the Global Snow Leopard Ecosystem Protection (GSLEP).The expectation is that these findings will also help influence national and International policy for wildlife conservation in the snow leopard habitat of Central Asia.

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Studying snow leopards and their prey takes us to some of the most breathtaking and tough landscapes in the world!

People

Partners

  • Himachal Pradesh Forest Department

Funding

  • British Ecological Society
  • National Geographic Collaboration Grant 2017

Publications

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