Making snow leopards more the asset than liability to communities

three cats
Photo courtesy: Bhutan Foundation

If recent images and videos of three snow leopards acquired last week by Wangchuk, a 24 years old yak herder, on his camera trap in the Jigme Dorji National Park (JDNP) is any indication of felids breeding well in the area, a buy-in conservation program and ownership of the local residents, is most crucial, the conservationists say.

In an effort to actively engage adjoining communities in all stages of snow leopard conservation program, for the first time, the JDNP and Nature Recreation and Eco-tourism Division (NRED) under Department of Forests and Park Services provided Wangchuk a set of camera traps in addition to the training on how to handle the equipment.

This was done with financial support rendered by Bhutan Foundation and Snow Leopard Conservancy based in United States.

For now, officials say many yak herders who experience a high level of loss of livestock particularly yaks due to predation by snow leopard in Bhutan still have an unbelievable level of tolerance and lack of ill-will toward the predator.

“You hear of angry herders stoning snow leopards to death in other countries. This is hardly the case in Bhutan,” said Tshewang Wangchuk.

However, the conservationists are asking how long such a tolerance will last. They fear that this could change if they do not see benefits from conservation coming directly to them. Hence, they say that the correct thing to do is to appreciate and reward such exemplary levels of tolerance, with dignity, and in a timely manner through innovative self-sustaining means, not small handouts.

Unless something is done sooner or later, conservationists fear that the tolerance level of the herders will soon wear thin and start retaliating which can have detrimental impact on the conservation of this iconic cat.

“It is not too early if not late to do something,” said a Park official.

“When community members begin to see real, tangible benefits from snow leopard conservation, they are more likely to support it,” Communications and Development Officer with Bhutan Foundation Kuenga Yarphel said.

He said, if a conservation program has buy-in and ownership of the local residents, it is more likely to be sustainable in the long run.

In the past, officials have placed numerous camera traps which resulted in collection of much footage and signs of snow leopard in the park. Further, DNA sampling was also done which confirmed that the region is one of the best snow leopard habitats in Bhutan.

Hence, conservationists are working on collaborating with the two community residents of Soe Yutoed and Soe Yaksa.

They are primarily the yak herders, mostly located in high altitudes areas that are above tree-line and therefore yak predation by Snow Leopards was prevalent.

Officials involved in the program said that while the residents in the area still tolerated some level of predation although they lose quite a number of their livestock. The perception is however fast changing and calls for some actions to be taken.

The Jumolhari Snow Leopard Conservation program has been initiated, which according to the official is to guide tangible benefits of snow leopard conservation to the local residents. This, they said, will enable the local communities to be responsible for conservation activities through enhancing economic opportunities.

The Jumolhari Snow Leopard Conservation is a community initiative supported by the JDNP, the NRED, the Snow Leopard Conservancy and the Bhutan Foundation.

A few years ago the Bhutan Foundation has undertaken snow leopard surveys for the JDNP and in early 2012 in partnership with the NRED.

This was done to establish an incentive-based conservation program within the park. The Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWCIE) in Bumthang is expected to be a key partner who will help with research and science.

The two communities of Soe Yutoed and Soe Yaksa fall along the Jumolhari trek, the most popular trekking route in Bhutan receiving large number of tourists every year. Hence, it proves to be the key areas of collaboration for this program whereby community members will benefits from tourism in the areas.

It also seeks to use the snow leopard as the focus for holistic development of the communities through the reduction of disease in yak which is one of the highest causes of yak mortality offsetting livestock predation through livestock insurance, income generation and instituting snow leopard festival as main tourism event of the year.

Asked how such an initiative taken up in these two communities of Soe Yutoed and Soe Yaksa help to conserve the snow leopard, Tshewang Wangchuk said that if local communities can be engaged, it can induce an immense attitude change within the members of the community. The snow leopard then can become more of an asset to them than a liability.

In addition, the advantage can also extend in terms of monitoring activities which with involvement of the local communities can also become much easier. This is because most parks are already challenged with limited staff and resources where monitoring over extensive areas become very difficult. “With greater awareness and positive engagement, local communities can confidently contribute and their indigenous knowledge of their territory is an added bonus, said Tshewang Wangchuk.

Last year a field trip was also undertaken from 20 to 28 October to discuss the proposal of establishing the Community Based Snow Leopard conservation program with the two communities of Soe Yutoed and Soe Yaksa in Soe Range under JDNP.

The result of which, the two communities will have looked to implement a participatory action plan for three years with effect from January this year and will extend till December 2015. More importantly the Community Based Snow Leopard Conservation Program has been formed with different names for the two communities.

The Jumolhari Snow leopard Conservation Program (JSLCP) for Soe Yutoed, Soe geog, Thimphu Dzongkhag, and Yaksa Snow Leopard Conservation Program (YSLCP) for Soe Yaksa, under Tsento gewog, Paro Dzongkhag would be the main local body to carry out the activities

The DNA sampling and pug mark readings were done by experts from JDNP, the implementing local partners have recruited community members such as Wangchuk to place and use camera traps, specifically Bushnell Trophy camera, at prominent Snow Leopard areas to capture footages.

Under the program, numerous supports were rendered to the communities by the JDNP and NRED and this includes basic investments like campsites to promote the area as a tourist destination.

“NRED after its establishment have begun to take stock of the ecotourism activities in Bhutan and further seeks to work with protected areas and other stakeholder to develop ecotourism packages,” said NRED’s Chief Forest Officer, Dr. Karma Tshering.

He also added that one such area of collaboration to package ecotourism is seen in JDNP’s Soe Range (the two communities) which attracts majority of international trekkers.

However, in the major twist of the story, studies showed that the major factor of livestock mortality as per yak herders is not from wildlife predation but from diseases. This is in contrary to the conventional belief that highlanders’ livestock are lost mostly to snow leopard than any other cause.

Therefore, the initiative also includes a livestock mortality reduction program with local partners. In trying to prevent loss of yaks, treating of dogs in the Jumolhari region for tapeworms, and controlling their population through sterilization will be done under the program.

This is in addition to providing training to selected residents in livestock disease prevention and cure. Such an intervention, program implementers believe will help reduce yak mortality.

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