Wildlife experts have expressed concern over an alarming decline in the population of snow leopards in Pakistan, citing climate change and lack of eco-friendly tourism as the leading factors behind threats to the species.
Wildlife ecology scholar Shoaib Hameed says that climate change was the biggest threat to survival of snow leopards and other rare species in the northern areas. He said that due to climate change snow-covered areas that served as habitat to the species were rapidly decreasing.
Muhammad Kabir, who is a lecturer in the forestry and wildlife management department of University of Haripur, said that snow leopard was considered as the most beautiful species among wildcats.
There are only 11 countries in the world other than Pakistan where snow leopards are found.
At present, between 4,500 and 7,500 snow leopards exist across the world and in Pakistan, according to previous estimates, between 320 and 400 snow leopards were found in the Karakoram, Himalayas and Hindukush.
Mr Kabir said the rare wildlife species was at the risk of facing extinction, adding that the factors contributing to the threat included habitat degradation caused by increasing human activities and decline of natural prey for snow leopards — ibex, markhor, Ladakh urial, Marco Polo and Blue sheep.
He said that snow leopards were healthy for the eco-system as it was the top predator; however, the ecosystem was being disturbed due to high demand for domestic livestock.
The lecturer added that since the cat preyed on livestock, shepherds killed snow leopards to ensure that their population was not affected.
Experts were of the view that there was a need for sustained awareness campaign across the range regarding protection of snow leopards.
Lack of eco-friendly tourism activities in its habitat, including allowing camping sites in wildlife protected areas, created disturbance for snow leopards, they said.
Mr Hamid said that trophy hunting also encouraged locals to illegally hunt snow leopard’s prey.
However, he added that government and NGOs were working for conservation of snow leopards in Pakistan and monitoring its population.
Currently, he said, the Snow Leopard Foundation was covering 40,000 square kilometres of its habitat with an aim to assess the cat’s population and conservation.
Safdar Mirza, an environmental activist, said that due to a lack of proper policies, and lack of implementation of existing laws as well as awareness campaigns, the wildlife species population was decreasing in its habitat in Gilgit-Baltistan.
He lamented that the government was working for promotion of tourism, including opening new tourist spots, but the protection of wildlife from these activities was being ignored.
Mr Mirza urged authorities to take this issue seriously as the rare wildlife species were at the risk of going extinct.
Melting glaciers are giving way to farmlands further reducing snow leopard habitats due to human incursion, said Ministry of Climate Change Inspector General of Forests; he emphasised on the conservation of snow leopards as the snow leopard is a symbol of a healthy ecosystem. He was speaking at the recently held inception workshop of US-based Global Environmental Facility (GEF) funded snow leopard project, ‘Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme’ (PSLEP) in Islamabad in Sept 2018.
Inspector general forests also shared his views about nomads and their movement in winters. Nomads’ movement by foot causes damage to pastures and to stop this practice, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa wildlife department does not allow them to move by foot and force them to move in trucks. He appreciated initiatives by Snow Leopard Foundation and other organisations of livestock vaccination and livestock insurance schemes to support the community.
Speaking at the event UNDP Country Director emphasised on the wildlife conservation for snow leopard and brown bear which is crucial for ecosystem. Pakistan is home to many unique wildlife species he stated. UNDP and GEF support a snow leopard habitat and ecosystem protection plan. “We need to develop monitoring mechanism for snow leopard habitats. Best practices in wildlife conservation promote innovations and positive impact. We are glad to be part of this project to save this unique and beautiful wildlife species, the PSLEP is a five years project and certainly will enhance the capacity and sustainability in project areas,” said the UNDP country director.
Snow Leopard Foundation Director Dr Muhammad Ali Nawaz shared the project background, objectives, result framework and implementation plan with the participants.
The prime objectives of the project are to promote landscape approach for survival of snow leopard and its prey species by reducing threats and applying sustainable land and forest management in critical habitats in northern Pakistan. Dr Ali also briefed the participants about the key challenges and barriers this project intends to address, these include inadequate capacity, knowledge and proven models for conserving snow leopard and wildlife species at a landscape level; inadequate representation and protection of important habitats, including forests, in existing protected area network; in sufficient economic incentives and alternatives to current practices of unsustainable land and forest use by local communities; and lack of awareness and skills necessary for wildlife monitoring, wildlife crime prevention and detection and effective conservation decision-making.
The annual work plan for 2018 was presented by Snow Leopard Foundation Assistant Director Jaffaruddin UNDP – Pakistan Environment and Climate Change Unit Programme Officer Usman Manzoor shared the project monitoring and evaluation concepts and mechanism. He also highlighted the project risk management and the guidelines to tackles those risks.
Ashiq Ahmad Khan predicted success of PSLEP project based on the fact that this is the first project on landscape level whereas the projects in past were restricted to small areas, and key stakeholders appear to be highly motivated.