Updated: Sep 4, 2019
Snow leopards live in the most remote parts of Central and South Asia.
The best way to protect snow leopards is to protect livestock and provide local people with extra income from snow leopard tourism.
In Ladakh, northern India, we looked at where snow leopards were found and the type of environment in these areas to work out which other areas would be suitable.
The habitat map showed that 12% of Ladakh was highly suitable for snow leopards.
These highly suitable areas had elevations of 2,800 m – 4,600 m.
The frequency of livestock killings was higher in areas of high habitat suitability. This shows that the best use of resources is to prioritise corral construction in these areas.
Snow leopards live in the most remote parts of Central and South Asia and are threatened by human activity. In some places, snow leopards are hunted for their fur and bones. In other places where there is more livestock, there is less prey for snow leopards, and they are also at risk of being killed if they are caught eating livestock.
In the Indian Himalayas there are approximately 500 - 700 snow leopards. Over half of these snow leopards are in Ladakh where conservation organisations are working with local people to help protect them. The best ways to protect snow leopards are to protect livestock (by building corrals and providing insurance schemes) and provide local people with extra income from snow leopard tourism (homestays and craft sales).
In order to get the most benefit from these things it is important to know which areas the snow leopards prefer.
What we did
This study took place in Ladakh, which is a mountainous area in the most northern state of India (Jammu & Kashmir). To work out which areas of Ladakh snow leopards preferred, we looked at where snow leopards were found and the type of environment in these areas.
We used camera trap images (2011 – 2016) and direct sightings (2010 – 2017) of snow leopards to map where they were. We then looked at environmental characteristics of the places where snow leopards were found:
Elevation – How high in the mountains?
Aspect – Which direction does that part of mountain face?
Ruggedness – How much does the ground change height?
Distance to water – How far from the nearest river or lake?
Land cover – What type of land is there (e.g. snow & ice, bare ground, herbaceous vegetation)?
Prey – How much do prey like that area?
We combined this information to make a map showing areas of low, medium and high suitability to snow leopards.
We then looked at whether the areas where protection of livestock and extra income from snow leopard tourism were already happening to see if they matched with areas that were most suitable for snow leopards.
What we found
The habitat map showed that 12% of Ladakh was highly suitable for snow leopards, 18% was medium ad 70% was low suitability for snow leopards.
The areas that were highly suitable for snow leopards had elevations of 2,800 m – 4,600 m, ruggedness of 450 m – 1,250 m (difference in height compared to the surrounding area), were less that 1,250 m from water and were also well suited for prey. We found that elevation was the most important environmental characteristic for snow leopards.
Over half of the predator-proof livestock corrals (54.6%) and records of livestock killings (62.5%) between 2009 – 2012 are in areas that snow leopards prefer. Homestays were also located mainly in the highly suitable snow leopard habitat.
What this means
Snow leopards prefer areas with higher elevation that are generally colder. They also spend more time in rugged areas where they can’t be seen by prey, shelter from bad weather and have their cubs. By understanding which environmental characteristics snow leopards prefer, scientists can target research to areas that are more likely to have snow leopards.
The frequency of livestock killings was higher in areas of high habitat suitability. This shows that the best use of resources is to prioritise corral construction in these areas. Conservationists should focus on building corrals in villages in areas that snow leopards prefer, because they are more likely to have livestock killed than the villages in areas less suitable for snow leopards.
The same idea could be used to expand winter snow leopard tourism to villages that are in good snow leopard habitat. This would reduce the pressure on current locations and spread the benefit to more villages within Ladakh.
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