Insurance helps save Nepal's endangered snow leopards

30th Aug, 2017 | Tourism Mail Crew

KATHMANDU: High in Nepal's eastern Himalayan mountains, bordering India and China, the elusive snow leopard is fighting a battle for survival against habitat loss, poachers and a lack of prey. But an international conservation initiative and an innovative insurance program in Nepal offer some hope for the future.

[caption id="attachment_8249" align="alignnone" width="862"] Yalung, a two-year-old female snow leopard, is fitted with a GPS collar in Nepal. (Courtesy WWF Nepal/Sanjog Rai)[/caption]

Conservationists regard the survival of snow leopards as crucial to biodiversity. Standing at the top of the food chain in some of the most remote and highest places on earth, they are an indicator of the health of flora and fauna in vast mountain and alpine ranges. Yet experts say there are only between 3,500 and 7,000 wild snow leopards left, including 350-500 in Nepal.

The 12 countries where snow leopards live took a major step toward protecting the surviving populations at a Global Snow Leopard Forum on Aug. 24-25 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, organized by the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program, an international association of governments and nongovernmental organizations.

[caption id="attachment_8250" align="alignnone" width="910"] A 50-rupee note introduced in Nepal last year depicts the snow leopard to help raise awareness about the endangered animal. (Photo by Deepak Adhikari)[/caption]

The summit agreed on plans to secure 20 habitats for snow leopards by 2020. Countries were urged to submit their plans by December 2018, although some have already done so. Nepal, which is home to four snow leopard habitats in the eastern Himalayas, had earlier unveiled a 10-year plan covering more than 12,000 sq. km.

Until recently, many of Nepal's livestock herders saw the big cats solely as enemies of their sheep and yaks, which are reared and prized for their milk and meat. Himali Chungda Sherpa, a former herder who lives in the village of Ghunsa in the shadow of Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain, had killed three snow leopards by the time he was 18.

But Sherpa, who now works in Nepal's tourism industry, said that an insurance program launched in 2007 by WWF Nepal, a conservation organization, has helped by compensating herders for livestock losses -- each now receives 8,000 Nepalese rupees ($78.10) for each herd animal killed by a snow leopard.

[caption id="attachment_8251" align="alignnone" width="926"] A conservationist fits a snow leopard with a GPS collar at Kanchenjungha in northeastern Nepal. (Courtesy WWF Nepal/Sanjog Rai)[/caption]

The compensation program has also raised awareness of the importance of the endangered animals to the local ecosystem. "We didn't know what snow leopards meant to our ecosystem," Sherpa said. "For us, it was one of several wild animals which caused us troubles. But now everyone in our village, including herders, knows why it's important to protect it. The program has helped raise awareness and provided a mechanism to support herders who lose their yaks and sheep."

God's pet

Sometimes called "God's pet," or "the ghost of the mountains," snow leopards can also be found in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Nepalese insurance program, which has been replicated in India, Pakistan and Mongolia, is managed locally in areas where snow leopards congregate.

The area around Kanchenjunga, for example, is home to 24 snow leopards, which are managed by conservation committees in four villages. Each livestock owner contributes 100 Nepalese rupees a year as an insurance premium to a local fund. When a claim is submitted, committee members visit and assess the site and decide on the insurance payout, according to Khagendra Phembu, chairman of the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area Management Council, which supervises the village conservation committees.

"The insurance scheme helps them cope with losses of their stock, [and] this will also make them less inclined to kill snow leopards," he said. The compensated herders pledge not to kill the animals, Phembu said. Given that the villages are sparsely populated -- some with populations as low as 100 -- it is not difficult to hold them to their word, he added.

Koustubh Sharma, a senior ecologist at the Snow Leopard Trust, a U.S. nonprofit organization, said: "The main threat to the snow leopard continues to be retaliatory killing. Any schemes that aim at reducing conflict and offsetting losses to local communities can help conserve the species, and the livestock insurance scheme is one successful model."

[caption id="attachment_8252" align="alignnone" width="889"] Gokarna Jung Thapa of WWF Nepal shows how a snow leopard fitted with a GPS collar is tracked. (Photo by Deepak Adhikari)[/caption]

Studies have shown that the snow leopard population grew after Nepal introduced the program. A WWF Nepal study in 2009 counted 2.6 snow leopards per 100 sq. km, with a mean population of 18 in Kanchenjunga region. In 2014, a DNA analysis by Kamal Thapa, a Kathmandu-based snow leopard expert, found six of the animals per 100 sq. km, and estimated a mean population of 24 snow leopards in the Kanchenjunga region.

Apart from retaliatory killing, snow leopards are also poached for their fur, and for their bones and teeth, which are believed by some to have medicinal qualities. In areas such as the Annapurna region of Nepal snow leopards are also facing a loss of prey, including the wild blue sheep, whose numbers have dwindled due to habitat degradation, according to Nepal's Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation.

GPS collaring

Nepal is spending 50 million Nepalese rupees on the conservation of snow leopards, including roughly 40 million Nepalese rupees to set up an international research institute in the Kanchenjunga region, according to Hem Raj Acharya, a conservation officer.

Some of that money will spent on technology to help conservationists track and learn about the animals. Sitting in a WWF Nepal office in Kathmandu, Gokarna Jung Thapa, a geographic information system expert, is able to track a snow leopard in Rajmer, a remote valley in Kanchenjunga. This particular animal was trapped, tranquilized and fitted it with a GPS collar in May.

The location of the two-year-old female, named Yalung after a sacred mountain in Kanchenjunga region, is transmitted via satellite every six hours, allowing Gokarna Jung Thapa to map the leopard's travels via a website run by Vectronic Aerospace, a German company that specializes in wildlife tracking.

"We know where it goes, what the temperature is in its habitat and where it prefers to stay during various seasons," Gokarna Jung Thapa said. "We have found that it can stay in one place for up to 20 days, and its range is far greater than we had assumed."

Yalung is the fourth snow leopard to be fitted with a GPS collar in the region. Since Gokarna Jung Thapa began tracking the animal, it has roamed around 900 sq. km. Lapchhemba, another leopard fitted with a collar in April 2016, crossed into the Tibetan region of China and descended into an area 20 km south of Everest, according to Gokarna Jung Thapa.

"It covered an area of 4,000 km. This clearly shows that snow leopard range is transboundary. We have also found that it travels to China for mating as well," he said.

However, Kamal Thapa said more needs to be done to protect the snow leopard if its future is to be secured. "Nepal's vast Himalayan landscape offers suitable habitat for its survival, but expansion of tourism in some areas and lack of access of government to stop poaching are challenges for effective conservation," he said.