The end of the endangered wild cat means the end of mountain meadows, which in turn would adversely affect the human population. A former goat herder is trying to reverse the potential disappearance of the stealthy animal.

As a child, 57-year-old Dr. Ghana S. Gurung grew up herding goats and practicing Tibetian Buddhism. Living in the upper Mustang region at the corner of the Himalayas in Nepal surrounded by trans-Himalayan species, such as the brown bear, lynx and kiang, time moved slowly for him. 

The region is home to the iconic predator, the snow leopard, an endangered animal. It is estimated that only 6,400 survive in the world today.  

Gurung’s encounters with the feline, known for its shy, elusive demeanour and mastery over stealth and camouflage, came with its own turbulence in his life as a herder. Like any in the same profession, he grew up despising the species. 

“Although in Buddhism I was taught to appreciate nature, I couldn’t love the snow leopard because they always killed my sheep and I did not see any connection to nature when that happened,” he tells TRT World.

For herders, their livestock means cash in the bank. Snow leopards are apex predators and hunt on blue sheep and ibex populations in the mountains for survival. 

“When the snow leopard killed and attacked my sheep, whom I was really attached to, I felt so much emotional pain”.

In frustration and anger, Gurung would throw rocks and try to chase them away. Other herders facing losses were more brutal, killing the beautiful camouflaged animal to get revenge.

But as Gurung grew older, he realised the animal had started to disappear while the culture of retaliatory killings and poaching had pushed the species to the brink of extinction. He could no longer remain indifferent to the instances of retaliatory killings of the wild cat.

“Once I saw some villagers putting three snow leopard cubs in a sack, throwing them into the river. Later at night, when I heard the mother crying, my heart was overtaken with sadness.”

Gurung's perspective changed. By 1998, he joined a conservancy to save the endangered species and over the years, rose through the ranks and became the country representative of Nepal for the WWF. His work has also earned him the title of Snow Leopard Champion in the WWF. 

At the time of joining the conservancy, there were hardly any signs of the alluring cat in Kanchenjunga. After relentless efforts by Gurung for 14 years, a survey identified 23 snow leopards in Kanchenjunga.

But retaliatory killings continue to pose a major threat to the survival of the wild cat. In a report published in 2016 by TRAFFIC--the wildlife trade monitoring network-- at least 221 or 450 snow leopards have been poached every year since 2008. The authors say that while that number could be substantially higher, the main cause is human-wildlife conflict. Roughly half of snow leopard slayings are a result of retaliatory killings. As per experts, there is a 48 percent chance of the animal being traded illegally following the revenge killing. 

Gurung's efforts to save the snow leopard led him to pursue a degree in Parks and Recreation Management at Lincoln University in New Zealand. The coursework taught him the importance of maintaining the existing ecosystem, saving wildlife and tackling climate change. 

“I figured that the presence of snow leopards is an indicator of mountain ecology and how rare the animal really is, this came to me as a shock considering how common snow leopards were in my surroundings.”

Understanding the elusivity of the animal, Ghana felt lucky and proud belonging to a place where the occurrence of the animal is constantly prevailing. After studying, Ghana set out on a journey to pursue wildlife conservation. He felt confident merging his experiences as a herder and a Buddhist who understands nature to save the snow leopard.

 “The snow leopard is a mountain deity for us, and I felt a crucial need to save the animal with all the knowledge I acquired,”  he said.

The snow leopard functions as one of the top predators in the food chain. Their erasure means too many hoofed animals chomping down the lush green high-altitude meadows and reducing them to barren, rocky peaks. This could alter the ecological balance of different species, affecting the health of forests and other resources, such as water, which is essential for humans, too.  

After weeks of preparations, Dr Ghana S. Gurung treks up the hilly terrains of the upper Mustang region in Nepal to trace snow leopard footprints.
After weeks of preparations, Dr Ghana S. Gurung treks up the hilly terrains of the upper Mustang region in Nepal to trace snow leopard footprints. (Courtesy of: Dr. Ghana S. Gurung / )

Regional importance and water resources

The snow leopard habitat expands across 12 countries in the mountain ranges of Central and South Asia: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. These mountains of High Asia, also known as the third-pole, form the headwaters of 20 major river basins, serving as an important water source for 22 countries, sustaining the needs of  2 billion people. The existence of snow leopards in these ranges reflects the mountain health and ecology of a functioning ecosystem.

The habitat of snow leopards overlaps with the human community in these environments. According to Sana Ahmed, snow leopard communication and fundraising coordinator at WWF, “establishing right forms of communication is vital in diminishing conflicts between human and wildlife” she said. 

As the mountains are the main source of water, Sana says “we need to make people understand how saving the species will help in attaining resources for the population overall in the present and the future.”

Sana also underscores challenges that remain embedded within the experts and researchers who study snow leopards and practice conservation. “In reality, we do not actually know about 77 percent of the snow leopard habitat.”

In a recent report published by the WWF last month, one which spans over a 100 years of snow leopard research, experts found that only four hotspots of snow leopard research (sites with continued multi-year research) have emerged, with less than 23 percent of the snow leopard range being looked into. Countries that have conducted the most investigative work are India, China and Nepal, followed by Mongolia and Pakistan. 

Conservation for the future

Imtiaz Ahmad is one of the few wildlife filmmakers in the Gilgit-Baltistan area in Pakistan. He grew up listening to stories regarding the solitary snow leopards in his area and currently documents the animal through the aesthetics of filmmaking in order to raise awareness. 

“It is so difficult to spot a snow leopard, I remember, it was my wish to see one since 2006 and finally in April 2010, I was able to spot one at night, in my own backyard. Ever since I have been documenting them.” 

Aware of the collision path between humans and the predatory cat even in his country, Ahmad states “I want to communicate and raise awareness as much as possible. It is important for future generations to see these beautiful animals.”

A study published in 2016 by the Journal of Biological Conservation states that warming temperatures and climate change are furthering habitat loss of the snow leopard species. It is predicted that only one-third of the snow leopard habitat will be in existence by 2070. However, experts in the study also identified The Altai, Qilian and Tian Shan-Pamir-Hindu Kush-Karakoram mountain ranges to be more habitable for snow leopards in the future. Making future conservation in these ranges vital for the incoming snow leopard population.

“Snow leopards travel a lot, they can cover up to distances of thousands of kilometres, the recent one we documented covered 2000 km travelling between Nepal and China.” Gurung told TRT World.

As migratory patterns are emerging, Ghana states that having regional understanding, transboundary conversations between two governments and also among all the countries of the Himalayas is important. They need to come together for an effective conservation drive in the future.

On a local level, Ahmad stresses upon the importance of government interventions in curbing human-wildlife conflict and boosting tourism to save the declining species. “We need to have proper compensation schemes for the herders so they don’t kill the animals. Similarly, the government needs to implement strategies in boosting tourism, constructing community-based national parks is also a viable option.”

South Asia is one of the key places where climate change will have the greatest impact. For Gurung, “it is necessary to have effective pockets and corridors established for these animals. It is only because of their presence, the mountain ranges and water sources will survive for future generations.”