In this Field Notes blog, Dr. Byron Weckworth, Director of Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program, explains how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted snow leopard conservation- especially when it comes to ecotourism. Keep reading for more on how we protect these big cats and what the future of our Snow Leopard Program may look like.
The COVID-19 pandemic required staff around the globe to adapt conservation initiatives to a world where movement was severely restricted, tourists were cleared from popular destinations and it was often too risky to interact with isolated communities that are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of the virus. These consequences were felt keenly for those of us studying and protecting snow leopards in Central Asia, especially regarding how it impacted ecotourism. While some protected areas indeed have a strong reliance on official ecotourism, there are many places that attract a lot of tourism but lack formal protections (particularly in Ladakh, India, the example in this blog).
Over the years, eco-tourism has been essential to both raise local awareness to improve human-snow leopard relationsand fund several organizations working towards snow leopard conservation. Snow leopard-spotting also serves as a catalyst for other important alternative-income generating activities, such as the selling of handicrafts and homestay programs, all of which drive successful community-based conservation. Further, these alternatives to raising livestock can be important for enticing the youth of rural communities into staying in their home towns rather than emigrating to bigger urban centers. Eco-tourism for snow leopard conservation has implications on both snow leopard conservation as well as the long-term demographic and cultural integrity of the human communities with which they coexist.
So what do we do if we lose ecotourism? This situation would require local and international organizations to diversify their conservation interventions and shift from conservation models around alternative-livelihoods directly linked to tourism to programs that take advantage of these skill sets remotely (e.g., providing access to international markets for the sale of handicrafts). However, make no mistake about it, the loss of ecotourism would be significant as both an alternative income generator and as a means for educating local communities. A dedicated effort would be required to employ completely different approaches to ensure that the human-snow leopard conflict mitigated by ecotourism does not return and further threaten the species.
When it comes to snow leopard conservation overall, our biggest challenge is ironically identifying and defining what the main challenges actually are. There has never been a study reviewing snow leopard cause-specific mortality, so we do not know, empirically, what specifically drives snow leopard population declines.
Among the threats of poaching, retaliatory killings, loss of prey, habitat fragmentation and climate change (among others), we can only guess which threats are the most critical to snow leopard persistence and how those threats change over snow leopard distribution or will change into the future. The pressing need is to understand better and define what the critical threats to be addressed today are and what threats are pending, but we still have time to muster a more deliberate response.
Over the past couple of years, I have been invigorated by how much the snow leopard conservation community has improved its communication, collaboration and leadership. Efforts such as the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program have provided a formal forum for this in some cases. A revamping of the Snow Leopard Network has infused a grassroots approach to bringing interested conservation practitioners together in training and sharing knowledge.
Despite bad weather and pandemic restrictions, we still made progress for snow leopards in 2020. Panthera and Snow Leopard Conservancy-India Trust built ten predator-proof corrals that helped protect approximately 25 snow leopards from being killed in retaliation for attacking livestock over the last two years. These corrals also improved the quality of life of the area’s rural herders as they no longer have to sleep outside in the cold to protect their livelihoods.
Snow leopard ecotourism is an essential source of funding for conservation; it also serves as a vehicle for demonstrating snow leopards as an asset to local people who might otherwise be indifferent or see these big cats as a nuisance and threat to their livestock. The next step, and one that drives Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program, is to continue engaging partners in these and other forums and to amplify the conservation approach of building local (range country) capacity and working collaboratively across stakeholders to ensure that snow leopards thrive long into the future.