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What snow leopards eat: predation on livestock and wild ungulates

Livestock predation by large carnivores and their retaliatory persecution by pastoralists are worldwide conservation concerns. Poor understanding of the ecological and social underpinnings of this human–wildlife conflict hampers effective conflict management programs. 

Livestock predation by snow leopards

Livestock predation by large carnivores and their retaliatory persecution by pastoralists are worldwide conservation concerns. Poor understanding of the ecological and social underpinnings of this human–wildlife conflict hampers effective conflict management programs. The endangered snow leopard Uncia uncia is involved in conflict with people across its mountainous range in South and Central Asia, where pastoralism is the predominant land use, and is widely persecuted in retaliation. 

Our previous has quantified an acute conflict between conservation of the snow leopard Uncia uncia and local pastoralists over the issue of livestock depredation. We estimated that herder families lose up to Rs. 6400 (120-130 US$) annually from snow leopard induced damages. However, there remained the issue of quantifying the nature and extent to which snow leopards depend on livestock for food. We set out to address the critical question of how great a role livestock currently play in the ecology of this large carnivore. Through this project we aimed to assess the dependence of snow leopards on livestock in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, by studying their diets, with the aim of incorporating this understanding into our ongoing conflict resolution programmes. We also examined people’s attitudes towards the losses and obtained their views on possible ameliorative measures. 

Snow leopard diet

By laboratory analysis of snow leopard scats, we reconstructed their diets. By interviewing local pastoralists around Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary and Pin Valley National Park, we tried to assess their perspective towards the conflict. This was expected to guide us in formulating a better strategy for offsetting the losses people suffer. 

Results showed that 40-60% of the snow leopard’s diet is made up of livestock, amounting to a loss of 0.6-1.1 animals for each household every year. People perceived this loss as crippling their livelihoods. We found that the community experiencing greater levels of livestock losses was comparatively more tolerant towards the snow leopard. This discrepancy is explained by the presence of a conservation-incentive program at the site, and by differences in economic roles of livestock between these two communities. The former is more dependent on cash crops as a source of income while the latter is more dependent on livestock, and thereby less tolerant of the snow leopard. 

Implications

These data have implications for conflict management strategies. They indicate that the relative densities of livestock and wild prey may be reasonable predictors of the extent of predation by the snow leopard. However, this by itself is not an adequate measure of the intensity of conflict even in apparently similar cultural settings 

This study gives us the hope that large carnivores can live alongside people and vice versa, if greater financial security is provided to the pastoralists. Until recently, these people had none, and are not satisfied with current compensation schemes. This highlights a potential role our ongoing initiative can play and this study feeds into our initiative to work with people in addressing critical conservation issues of the Trans-Himalaya.

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