SAVING THE SNOW LEOPARD

THE EVOLUTION OF ETHICAL CONSERVATION

Snow leopard. /Prasenjeet Yadav/Snow Leopard Trust

Snow leopard. /Prasenjeet Yadav/Snow Leopard Trust

"Snow leopards are beautiful, magnificent, awe-inspiring, powerful. I have not seen any other animal that is so supremely adapted to the high mountain landscape."

Snow leopards are secretive - existing in the high mountain landscapes on top of the world. They are also notoriously difficult to study but it is estimated there are between 3,500- 6000 left in the wild making them officialy 'vulnerable to extinction'. Scattered over 12 countries, they face a variety of threats to their survival. humans play their part in their demise from locals protecting their livestock to poachers who sell their pelts on the black market. However, the greatest looming threat is climate change which is rapidly causing glaciers to retreat -destroying permafrost, drying up surface water and causing the habitat on which they depend to degrade.

Snow leopard. /Beth Snow

Snow leopard. /Beth Snow

Charu Mishra 2022. /Mishra

Charu Mishra 2022. /Mishra

A lifelong mission

When Charudutt Mishra was growing up in urban India, conservation was not a pressing concern for most people. But his mother was always interested in plants and animals – and her love of nature inspired him to become a conservationist.

"She supported me a lot when I wanted to take this up as a career," he recalls – but his father was less convinced worried about how he would support himself

"If I went into nature and wildlife'" he chuckles as the field of conservation was still in its infancy.

Three decades later, Mishra is the Executive Director of the International Snow Leopard Trust and the co-founder of India's Nature Conservation Foundation. He won the Whitley Gold Award in 2022 for his work which has been crucial in bringing back the snow leopard from the brink of extinction and also transforming how conservationists work with local people around the world.

Indian Himalayas. /Prasenjeet Yadav /Snow Leopard Trust

Indian Himalayas. /Prasenjeet Yadav /Snow Leopard Trust

Higher Himalayas, India. /Mishra

Higher Himalayas, India. /Mishra

Indian fox in the Third Pole. / Yadav

Indian fox in the Third Pole. / Yadav

Himalayas, India. /Mishra

Himalayas, India. /Mishra

Snow leopards' habitat: The Third Pole

Closely related to tigers, snow leopards live in high mountain terrain at elevations of 3,000-4,500 meters and roam up to 40 kilometers in a night. 

Living in rocky outcrops, they have evolved fur up to 12 centimeters long in some places for insulation. Short forelimbs and long hindlegs allow them to traverse the mountainous terrain and leap up to nine meters. Their tails can reach over a meter in length to help them balance and their furry paws work as snowshoes. 

Perhaps understandably, Mishra is in awe of them.

"It's taken more than three billion years of evolution to create the snow leopard. And it's just so unique," he says. "And they're also, for me, one of the most important symbols of why we need to protect high Asian landscapes – the Third Pole."

That's the nickname for the great mountain ranges of Asia, including the Himalayas in the south and stretching up to the Altai in the north.

These mountains and glaciers contain more frozen water than anywhere else on our planet except the Arctic and Antarctic – and that makes it crucial to the planet's environmental balance

This collection of glaciers also feeds a vast network of rivers, including the Ganges, Indus, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers – which is why the region is known as Asia's 'water tower'. Collectively these rivers provide water to nearly 40 percent of the world’s population.… which only makes it more terrifying that those frozen water stores are critically threatened by global warming, climate change and globalization. 

Mishra, for one, is very worried. "The Third Pole is thought to be warming at twice the average rates of warming that you see in the northern hemisphere," he says. "So it's a real challenge. We are seeing an increasing frequency of extreme climatic events and many of our partner communities in the high mountains of Asia - in the Third Pole - are already suffering and facing consequences."

In an era of short attention spans and compassion fatigue, such areas tend to need an animal avatar - a creature that stands in for the whole region. Think of a polar bear on a melting iceberg floe at the North Pole – or now, for the Third Pole, our new friend the snow leopard.

"Snow leopards are a perfect symbol to be able to draw attention to the Third Pole and to motivate citizens and governments to actually protect both," says Mishra.

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Tagging a snow leopard in Mongolia. /Mishra

Tagging a snow leopard in Mongolia. /Mishra

Community relations in India. /Prasenjeet Yadev

Community relations in India. /Prasenjeet Yadev

Learning from communities

Mishra duly became a scientist, but it wasn't until he went to the high Himalayas to collect data for his PhD field work and lived with local people that he began to realise that conservation needed to change direction. 

"I lived in a village in a remote place close to 4,200 meters altitude," he recalls. "And I lived there with them for four years." 

The experience was transformational. 

"While I had been trained to think of local and indigenous people as the problem for conservation – who needed to be moved out to create space for protected areas – for the first time, I became a bit more empathetic and realized the kind of challenges they were facing."

The locals aren't against the idea of conservation or taking conservation-friendly business practices seriously; they were simply unable to, because of the hardships within which they lived – and the competing consumption needs of the animals.

Snow leopard's main prey include the wild mountain goats and sheep, including the bharal, ibex, and argali. They also kill marmots, hares, rodents and birds. Not good news for the locals who need those animals for their own food and business.

"Snow leopards and wolves kill their livestock," says Mishra. "And livestock is one of the most important economic resources for them. So essentially what I realized was that I needed to change my view about communities, stop seeing them as a problem for conservation, but instead try to see them as the opportunity".

Mishra began to look for ways that communities could be empowered to participate and maybe even lead nature conservation. 

"They have to be actually integrated and brought into those conservation efforts, and only that will actually lead to sustainable conservation," he says. 

"Law is important, enforcement is important, but strong laws and guns by themselves do not ensure a future for nature and biodiversity. It's really getting local and indigenous communities to become conservation leaders."

Locals of the Indian Landscape Community/ Prasenjeet Yadav/ Snow Leopard Trust

Locals of the Indian Landscape Community/ Prasenjeet Yadav/ Snow Leopard Trust

Himalayan shepherd, India. Gayle Podrabsky/ Snow Leopard Trust

Himalayan shepherd, India. Gayle Podrabsky/ Snow Leopard Trust

Himalayas Community. /Mishra

Himalayas Community. /Mishra

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Snow Leopard in an ice cave. /Prasenjeet Yadav

Snow Leopard in an ice cave. /Prasenjeet Yadav

Mongolian snow leopard. /Beth/ Snow Leopard Trust

Mongolian snow leopard. /Beth/ Snow Leopard Trust

Snow Leopards in the high mountains. /Mishra

Mishra_SnowLeopard_Himalayas_India (5)

Mongolian Snow Leopard. /Beth /Snow Leopard Trust

Mongolian Snow Leopard. /Beth /Snow Leopard Trust

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Indian Himalayan community. /Gayle Podrabsky/ Snow Leopard Trust

Indian Himalayan community. /Gayle Podrabsky/ Snow Leopard Trust

High Himalayas. /Gayle Podrabsky/ The Snow Leopard Trust

High Himalayas. /Gayle Podrabsky/ The Snow Leopard Trust

China's crucial role

Although working with communities is extremely important, to support that work conservationists need to work with governments.

"You could be working for 25 years with communities in one region," says Mishra. "But if a bad decision was made, where a road was going to lead or an important snow leopard habitat would be opened up for mining… these are actually lived experiences for us."

Realizing he needed to work closely with governments, Mishra teamed up with fellow international partners to create an intergovernmental alliance. 

Fieldwork in the Himalayas. /Snow Leopard Trust

Fieldwork in the Himalayas. /Snow Leopard Trust

"It took us about a year and a half of work, but through sheer perseverance, determination and, you know, using all the contacts we could muster, we were able to help create the intergovernmental alliance. 

"We invited all the environment ministers from all the snow leopard range countries of Asia, and we were able to bring them together and and draft the Bishkek declaration for Snow Leopard Conservation."

An incredible feat for conservation, the Bishkek Declaration – signed on October 23 2013 – commits countries to conservation milestones and the resources to achieve those milestones.

Fieldwork Map. /Mishra

Fieldwork Map. /Mishra

"Since that day, the 23rd October every year is celebrated as the International Day for Snow Leopard Conservation," smiles Mishra.

The 12 governments have collectively committed to increasing snow leopard conservation and strengthening snow leopard protection across huge landscapes, which actually form 25 percent of the entire Asia's snow leopard habitat. Mishra says the most crucial country for snow leopard survival is China.

"China has more snow leopard habitat and therefore more snow leopards than any other country," he says. "In fact, China hosts more than 60 percent of the global snow leopard habitat. And so China's involvement is very critical in snow leopard conservation. 

"And we have been very fortunate that the Chinese government became a part of the intergovernmental alliance. They ratified the Bishkek declaration. They created their own National Snow Leopard Conservation program as part of this larger alliance. And they have been delivering."

Of the total estimated snow leopard habitat in China, 23 percent is now under protection, offering significant hope to snow leopards - and the Third Pole. 

Laundry in the high Himalayas. /Gayle Podrabsky

Laundry in the high Himalayas. /Gayle Podrabsky

Children in the High Himalayas. /Mishra

Children in the High Himalayas. /Mishra

Indian community. /Mishra

Indian community. /Mishra

Snow Leopard, India. /Mishra

Snow Leopard, India. /Mishra

Partners principles training in Kyrgyzstan. /Mishra

Partners principles training in Kyrgyzstan. /Mishra

Local children get involved in partners principles. /Mishra

Local children get involved in partners principles. /Mishra

Fieldwork, Kyrgyzstan. /Mishra

Fieldwork, Kyrgyzstan. /Mishra

Education partners in Kyrgyzstan. /Mishra

Education partners in Kyrgyzstan. /Mishra